On October 1, The People’s Republic of China’s sixty-fourth birthday, when China went on holiday for a week and the U.S. government shut down for an unknown period of time, I began a week-long review class for the Chinese civil service exam. For six days we reviewed math, statistics, logic games, Chinese language and essay writing to prepare for a test that is cross between the SAT, GRE,GMAT and the LSAT, all, of course, with Chinese characteristics. If China takes over the world, my classmates are the people who will do so. Although these students are from some of the top universities in Beijing, they did not look like world conquerers. Instead, like young people everywhere, they are feeling their way forward, looking for the next step after graduation. In fact, most are not even that enthusiastic about becoming a government official. The test was only a means to a stable job and thus an enticing avenue for students in majors with unclear or unattractive career prospects like, say, British literature.
My appearance naturally caused something of a stir. I am possibly the only foreigner ever to take part in such a prep course. Whenever I attend a lecture or event aimed at Chinese audiences, other people in the crowd don’t know quite what to make of me, especially when I am sporting a several days of scruff. The experience at the prep course was no different. On the first fay, one of my classmates thought I was from Xinjiang, a province in the northwest of China home to many central Asians. Assuring him that I was not from Xinjiang, he next guessed Pakistan and then Kuwait.
Beyond all the particulars of reviewing the exam content itself, the course provided an unparalleled opportunity chance to interact with a group of interesting young people. Beginning the class on the first day of the American government shutdown gave the class an odd symmetry: as they prepared to enter the Chinese government, the American one closed. I was naturally curious about their opinions on the matter. Much of the coverage from the United States—or at least the coverage that I’ve read—emphasis the banana republic aspect of the story and the harm it does to America’s reputation abroad. Of course, from one angle this interpretation is undoubtedly true, especially with the cancellation of President Obama’s trip to Asia. My classmates did not really think in these terms. Instead, they expressed a remarkable ability to suspend judgement in recognition of their own ignorance on the subject, especially for a bunch of people in their early 20s.
The conversations usually went something like this. At a break or during lunch, they asked me to explain what exactly was happening in America and why the government shut down. Assuring them this was a complicated subject that many Americans don’t necessarily know that much about, I explained the basics in Chinese. This task, as one might imagined, tested my language abilities. Foundations established, I asked them their own thoughts and sometimes very pointedly inquired if they believed this recent episode made the American government “lose face” (丢人diuren or 丢面子). To a person, they said no. Most instead used the more neutral “strange” (奇怪 qiguai).
More interesting and, I think, most revealing, was how my classmates shifted the conversation to China. After getting the basics down, some of my classmates asked me if everything in America was now very chaotic. Admitting that I was not in the U.S. and thus not really in a position to judge, I said that many federal government services either shut-down or slowed down but that in many ways, daily activities went on as normal. This usually provoked an interesting reaction along the following lines “Can you imagine if the Chinese government every shut down? Overnight things in China would be a total mess.” This judgement received knowing nods of agreement from their other classmates.
I think there are two ways to evaluate this turn in the conversation. The first, and pessimistic judgment, is that the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda basically works. All of my classmates were were either party members or on the way to becoming one—it is requirement for the civil service exam. Though none of them believes in Marxism, in voicing this line about China descending into anarchy without government control they implicitly agree with a key CCP precept: the party established order out of chaos and continues to do so. The second and less pessimistic reading is that my classmates arrived at the judgement not solely through party propaganda but from larger fears that stem from looking at Chinese history over the past 150 years. Here I can only direct you to an old but important post from Jeremiah Jenne at The Granite Studio who reminds his students that in thinking about Chinese politics and support for the party, it is absolutely fundamental to consider the question of what an average Chinese person fears the most.
As I will write more about later, fears about instability in many ways permeate the Civil Service exam, particularly the essay portion.