Peking University students win bittersweet victory against ‘elitist’ academy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 4:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 5:14pm

Student campaigners have reacted with mixed feelings after the success of a rare public protest against a proposed “elite” training school at China’s most prestigious university. 

Students and faculty at Peking University, often dubbed China’s equivalent of Harvard, have campaigned for weeks online and in meetings to stop the establishment of the academy on their campus, which they felt would relegate them to "second-class" status.  

The university planned to dedicate the Jingyuan Park on the university campus and six historic buildings surrounding it to an elite training institute, the Yenching Academy, in an attempt to replicate the Rhodes scholarship programme. 

Last week, Peking University gave in to one of the students’ key demands, declaring it would not use the six buildings as a dormitory for future Yenching Academy fellows, most of whom would be foreigners. 

The plan, which would have offered housing in historic surroundings to a chosen few, was much reviled by many students at the university, as most of them stay in crowded dormitories. Jingyuan Park is also the only open green space on campus.

Students have welcomed the decision, but say that they remain sceptical about the project. The Yenching Academy is expected to offer one-year Chinese studies degrees from next year.

"I think this is a victory, at least it is a partial victory," said one graduate student at the faculty of law. Students declined to speak on the record for fear of incurring academic sanctions.

The student was among many who lamented that the university did not address other concerns over the programme’s quality. The university, which has been the cradle of modern Chinese political thought, would "sell" one-year fast-tracks to a degree at the academy, he said. 

In a scathing blog post, renowned international relations professor and director of the university’s Centre for Chinese and Global Affairs, Pan Wei, also accused the university of diluting its academic quality to gain funding from affluent Yenching Academy fellows. 

He highlighted accusations that university staff allegedly tried to manipulate debate on the university’s internal discussion forums by pretending to be graduates supporting the new institution.

"The moral bottom line of our nation’s top liberal arts school has been crossed," wrote Pan, known as an exponent of the "New Left", which supports socially responsible authoritarianism. 

"The ‘Yenching Academy Incident’ has just begun," he concluded.

In its latest statement on July 25, the university called on teachers and students to "protect the university’s image" and steer clear of "irrational criticism". It vowed it would uphold its high academic standards. The university will announce the detailed curriculum in the future, it said. The university said that it might still use the six buildings to teach future Yenching fellows and has not yet said where the planned dormitories will be moved to.

"I don’t think this is a victory," said one student at the English department. "The school has been forced to make this compromise, but there is no guarantee that the university will listen to students and teachers in other major decisions," the student said. 

Another student said the decision gives students and faculty hope that the university’s leadership would become more transparent for fear of facing future public criticism:.

 "The teachers and students have seen that there is a kind of democratic decision-making," the student said.