China’s first Rhodes Scholars: the journalist, LGBT activist and lawyer fighting for social justice

Students are determined to use their newfound success for the benefit of all

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2016, 4:23pm

Zhang Chunying has a dream: one day she hopes to set up a news platform in China that will focus on the lives of ordinary people, some of which reveal the shortcomings of government policies.

“I love telling stories,” says Zhang, currently completing a masters degree in journalism at Columbia University in the US. “The lives of celebrities are too distant but the experiences of ordinary people are more relatable to others.”

The Nanjing native is among four mainland recipients of the Rhodes scholarship in 2015 – the first year that the prestigious international programme has included students from China. Together with two awards for applicants from the United Arab Emirates, this brings the total number of Rhodes awards each year to 89.

The scholarship’s expansion into China seems to fly in the face of Chinese authorities’ drive to prevent the spread of “Western values” in its centres of higher learning. Last year, officials across the country were instructed to vet the use of foreign materials in a selection of colleges in their provinces, in the wake of education minister Yuan Guiren’s pledge to increase ideological control in Chinese universities.

China’s first Rhodes scholars seem to share a liberal streak: besides Zhang, there is an activist on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) issues and a law student who wants to tackle social injustice.

But Hong Kong observers believe the Chinese authorities will be on guard against what they view as subversive influences.

Britain’s top universities have long been keen to establish relationships with China; but it’s difficult for foreign institutions to operate classes or conduct research on the mainland, says Chung Kim-wah, an assistant professor of applied social sciences at Polytechnic University.

Scholarships, which are more innocuous, may be a stepping stone for the universities to engage in collaborations on the mainland.

The Chinese government will step up their vigilance as more Western scholarships are opened to mainland students, Chung adds,

“It’ll be just like in Sichuan after the[2008] earthquake: China initially welcomed Hong Kong’s help in providing rescue training and psychological counselling. But later they tightened entry requirements and even shut down some [NGO] projects,” he says.

The Rhodes scholarship was set up in 1902 under the will of British diamond magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes to nurture public-spirited leaders for the future, and the grant covers two years of postgraduate study at Oxford University, Rhodes’ alma mater.

Many recipients have gone on to become leading figures in different fields: Politicians feature prominently (former US president Bill Clinton and several Australian prime ministers, including Malcolm Turnbull), with filmmaker Terrence Malick, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, feminist critic Naomi Wolf and surgeon/medical writer Atul Gawande among other luminaries.

The recipients are chosen from 32 countries grouped into 14 constituencies (Jamaica and Commonwealth members in the Caribbean form one group, for instance), with requirements such as age limits varying slightly.

More than 12,000 people apply annually so competition for a Rhodes award is stiff. For the inaugural mainland intake 16 shortlisted candidates attended a last round of interviews in Shanghai in December before the final selection was made. The adjudicating panel included former NBA star Yao Ming and Li Yinuo, chief representative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in China.

Of the four recipients, Zhang Chunying plans to read philosophy (social intervention and public policy evaluation) when she starts at Oxford in October. The idea is to bolster her journalistic work on topics such as the impact of immigration , she says.

During an internship in Shanghai with the New York Times, she helped gather background material for journalist David Barboza, and hoped to be accepted into Columbia’s Centre for Investigative Journalism.

Zhang didn’t make the cut but discovered an aptitude and fondness for human interest stories. She says she now prefers to work on profiles and feature stories: “I am not a numbers person. I like telling stories in a more human way.”

And even though mainland media professionals are often hobbled by censors Zhang says she has faith in the future of journalism in China.

Fellow Rhodes grantee Zhang Wanyu shares this upbeat view of the future. A final-year law student at Peking University, she volunteers at its legal aid association, where she helps to organise awareness events on topics such as consumer rights and rights in criminal defence.

Rule of law , she believes, “can empower myself and change the situation of our society”.

Having grown up in a small town in Sichuan province, Zhang Wanyu relates to the plight of poor communities. Last summer, she volunteered at a camp for children of Sichuan migrant workers laid low by silicosis (many had gone to work for gem factories in Guangdong, polishing precious stones and developed the lung disease from long-term exposure to fine particles of silica).

It was a rewarding experience, which has prompted her to opt for a second bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics during her stint at Oxford.

“I want to study the roots of social injustice and find ways to solve it,” she says.

Through her volunteer work, Zhang adds, she has got to know many social workers as well as dedicated lawyers such as Liu Yiqiang of the non-profit Chinese Initiative on International Criminal Justice, who has led programmes on issues ranging from international jurisprudence to civil rights.

These are not such sensitive topics that they cannot be talked about, says Zhang, who hopes to use her legal knowledge to help the underprivileged and make a career in public service.

Helping the disadvantaged is also a lifelong goal for Gong Chenzhuo, who earned a degree in international politics from Fudan University.

Currently in Tanzania working as a trainee on a Unesco project to build a radio network for rural villages, Gong is an old hand at volunteer work. He taught English to primary children in Tanzania in 2013, and also undertook teaching stints in Hainan and earthquake-hit zones in Sichuan.

The well-travelled Gong (he has been to 29 countries on exchange programmes) says the extensive international exposure helps keep him balanced.

“[From my travels], I know that there are so many amazing people in the world. I am nothing and that makes me humble.”

His parents were rural folk who managed to change their lives after moving to Beijing and enrolling in college. He hopes to set up an NGO to give other marginalised Chinese communities a similar boost and plans to take an MBA programme at Oxford as a step towards that goal.

Many local governments are now facing financial difficulties and will need the help of NGOs to realise their projects, he says.

This will nudge the authorities to adopt more open attitudes towards citizen groups, he says. “I am quite optimistic about that.”

Ren Naying is also betting that the authorities will take a more relaxed approach towards NGOs.

The feminist Ren co-founded the China LGBT + Youth Network last year to promote the rights of sexual minorities in universities, and the alliance has since extended to 48 colleges across the country.

A final-year English literature student at Tsinghua University, Ren says she has been influenced by feminist writing since high school and is particular inspired by French writer Simone de Beauvoir.

It made her more conscious of LGBT issues in China.

“They are discriminated against in the workplace. They don’t have the right to marry and raise children. On the other hand, the government doesn’t really [suppress] them so they have some freedom. But it remains a sensitive issue and LGBT people don’t come out to their friends because of that,” she says.

Having volunteered at LGBT centres in Beijing and Manchester (while on an exchange), Ren says there should be greater awareness of gender issues in China. She will focus on women’s studies at Oxford and hopes to develop the theoretical foundations of gender issues.

In the longer term, Zhang Wanyu believes the establishment of Rhodes scholarships for China can help reduce mainland students’ obsession with academic achievement.

“There is a widespread view that Chinese students only focus on grades. The Rhodes scholarship entry to China is a sign that this is changing. The scholarship has different selection criteria – they don’t just look for grades but also public spirit.

“If you look at the resumes of the 16 finalists, you can see that they are well-rounded. In future I believe more universities will shift towards wider selection criteria, looking for all-around development in candidates.”

Citing the recipients’ independence, critical thinking and concern for the disadvantaged, Li of the Gates Foundation sees similar promise: “I hope that Chinese youths can retain such attributes in future no matter what careers they pursue.”