Illustrious string of alumni have shaped nation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 April, 2011, 12:00am


Tsinghua University is nowhere near the same league as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the American Ivy League schools or Britain's Oxford and Cambridge universities in academic prestige, as several world rankings have indicated.

But it has produced many graduates who have shaken up China's political landscape.

Just as former US presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton graduated from Yale and President Barack Obama studied at Columbia and Harvard, a significant number of senior Chinese leaders are Tsinghua graduates. Two of the most prominent are President Hu Jintao and National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo .

However, unlike the American luminaries who studied business, law and the liberal arts, a disproportionate number of top Chinese leaders who went to Tsinghua were trained in the fields of science and engineering and are therefore commonly called technocrats.

Hu studied water conservancy engineering at Tsinghua from 1959 to 1965, and Wu graduated from its electronics department in 1967.

Fiery former premier Zhu Rongji, who retired in March 2003, studied electrical engineering there from 1947 to 1951.

The number of Tsinghua technocrats is so large that detractors, particularly those from equally prestigious colleges such as Peking University, routinely dismiss them as the 'Tsinghua clique'.

Tsinghua alumni began to make inroads into politics in the late 1980s by taking up prominent posts in the hierarchies of the Communist Party and the government. Two of the six members of the Standing Committee of the 13th Politburo of the party's Central Committee in the late 1980s were Tsinghua graduates - Song Ping (1935, chemistry major) and Yao Yilin (1934, history).

Besides Zhu, 30 graduates became ministers, 23 provincial governor-level officials and, when Hu became the party general secretary in November 2002, it took the Tsinghua clique to the top, as Hu, Wu, Huang Ju and Wu Guanzheng were all members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body.

Huang, who died in June 2007, studied electrical engineering from 1956 to 1963, and Wu Guanzheng, who retired in November 2007, was a thermal measurement and automatic control student from 1959 to 1965.

Liu Junning, a political analyst in Beijing, said the phenomenon of technocrats was common in socialist countries where the teaching of science and engineering was given a much more prominent role over the humanities. It was true in the former Soviet Union, on which China modelled its education system.

'The whole school system was designed to mould students into a tool, so science and engineering teaching were given excessive preference,' Liu said.

The preference for science and engineering still dominated the country's tertiary education, he said, but to a lesser degree after the Cultural Revolution, as resources were more equally distributed to benefit liberal arts education.

'So the decline in influence of the Tsinghua clique [in Chinese politics] will just come naturally,' Liu said.

Hu Jintao will step down late next year as party secretary and as president in the spring of 2013, and Wu Bangguo will also retire in two years. None of the potential candidates in the party's future leadership such as Bo Xilai, Li Yuanchao, Hu Chunhua and Zhou Qiang studied at Tsinghua.