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From Apathy to Zealousness: Student Political Involvement in China and the USA

Young people in both the U.S. and China remain in the spotlight of politics, whether they are being discussed as a group, praised, or criticizedBut are students in the US and China actually involved with politics in their respective countriesHas student involvement changed historically?

While it is difficult to compare American and Chinese student involvement in politics because of how incredibly different their governments are in terms of structure (communist state vs. constitutional federal republic), how political parties operate (one major party vs. two major parties)and political outlooks (the system as a means to an end and betterment of the country vs. the system as morally just). This article serves as a brief examination of what political participation can look like in each country. It does not attempt to take a specific political stance or comment on how “effective” participation is, but rather seeks to observe party involvement and examples of student engagement with political issues. Involvement in politics can look like many different things, whether that is joining a political organization, contacting a member of the government, and engaging in political dialogue. For a full breakdown of US-China government similarities and differences, please go here and here

2017 data from the National Bureau of Statistics estimates that there are about 27 million college students in China. And, according to the National Center for Education Studies, there are about 20 million college students in America. The charts below show a historic graph of Communist Party membership of Chinese college students, and a graph comparing the percentages of American voters who are registered with a party by their age. While there are obvious differences in government and party structures, this initial glance shows that students in both countries are at the very least aligning themselves with a set of ideologies adopted by a specific political party

American Students and Political Involvement

Studies from Peer Review conducted in 2008 would say yes. US student involvement and engagement in politics has on the rise, with around 64% of students concerned about the future of the country. This continues the historic legacy of US college students raising their voices for political purposes. The 60’s saw a wave of student activism in the wake of events such as the Vietnam War, which furthered student distrust in the government. A new type of Left thinking emerged, driven by issues of civil rights and condemning Cold War mentality that can still be seen in some forms today.

This engagement in political matters has only continued to grow since the research in 2008. In recent statistics from the Pew Research Center, “four-in-ten Millennials say the government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups, while 58% said such speech is OK. Older generations, on the other hand, are more likely to agree with the aforementioned 58%  and are less likely to favor the government being able to prevent speech of any kind“. This shows a greater concern on the younger generation’s part in how the government regulates speech. Millennials are also slated to be the most educated American generation thus far, and the largestThe Panetta Institute for Public Policy has found that the 2016 election in particular has sparked a greater interest in politics among the younger generation, which could mean a larger voter base.

Being involved with politics does not always mean that students will blindly support the actions of the government, however. In 2015, Americans in general were more distrustful of their government—only 19% say it can be trusted all or most of the time. Students are also more likely to protest on campus now than in previous years, and almost half of these surveyed believe that being a community leader and being civically engaged are important. While there are racial disparities in these statistics (those who are white and Asian are less likely to protest, etc.), there is definitely a notable and important upward trend in political involvement on college campuses around the countryValuing civic engagement demonstrates that many American college students are engaged with politics at a number of different levels, and that being involved is seen as important and a core value for many. 

Chinese Students and Political Involvement

Chinese students have been involved in student activism (both pro-Party and pro-democracy) for many years. Pro-Party recruitment has a large historical precedence, and much of the intense recruitment efforts are directed at college students, who will continue to be involved after they graduate. Some people claim that Chinese students are not really involved in politics because it is boring, dangerous, and not a priorityThese aspects have actually not been found to hinder student involvement in politics, since these same characterizations led students to be involved in the past, and are not necessarily currently politically satisfiedDifferences in government structure can also account for this perceived lack of political participation in comparison to American politics, as major elections are done by those in high tiers of government and so local people aren’t always involved in consistent political process. But pretty much everyone is focused on personal issues at some level—and the personal is often political. 

Chinese students and their personal relationship to their country (whether on economic, social, or political grounds) is an important factor that pushes students to get involved. Students involved in politics in China have historically mobilized forces not confined to a single campus or social group. “Chinese students, in particular, are well-known for acting as the conscience of their nation, and as a force for political change since the early twentieth century“. For example, the Communist Youth League currently has around 88 million members— many of whom are in college.  The Youth League has their own official Weibo micro-blogging account, which they use to make political statements. Recently, new restrictions on censored content were handed down by the government, which included depictions of homosexuality in media. Many organizations voiced their dissent, but the Communist Youth League actually spoke out directly against this measure on Weibo, as shown in the picture of their post below:  

Social Media and Politics 

More and more American millennials are getting their political news from social media, a trend that is occurring in China as wellThese various sites and apps such as Facebook and Weibo provide avenues for communication and political involvement, and US students as a whole are more engaged with politics as a result. Research conducted by Xinzhi Zhang and Wan-ying Lin finds that “information exchange uses of SNS and SNS-based political activities were positively associated with the canonical mode of political participation—that is, contacting media and joining petitions and demonstrations. SNS-based political activities also positively predicted political engagement via private contacts, such as lobbying acquaintances of governmental officials, and facilitated political actions initiated by the Chinese Communist Party.” While there are obvious differences in app use, accessibility, and censorship, there are definite similarities that emerge. Many argue that Chinese youth are disinterested in politics, but the research below will confirm otherwise. Additionally, these same arguments are also being made about youth from the US as well. A simple google search leads to hundreds of articles claiming that young American people don’t participate in politics, and statistics claiming that millennial Americans talk about politics less than their older counterparts 

While there has been historic hesitation in discussing political matters for fear of safety, Chinese citizens still hold nuanced views of politics and engage with it on many levels like social media—particularly  young Chinese netizensSome Chinese Students have even shown up to recent protests, provoking a response from the government, urging young students not to head to the front lines in social conflicts. But young school students historically played a major role in the cultural revolution defending Mao and his views.  Particularly with the rise of social media, students are playing a big role in shaping digital culture. Access to communication and resources allow creative minds to flourish and students lack many historical barriers to knowledge, such a lack of internet and high rates of illiteracy (although people can still care and be involved in politics and not be literate). Monitoring use of social media sites like Facebook have also shown that there are indeed correlations between political engagement and social media activity. 

Despite differences in government structure, style, and engagement of citizens in the political process, both Chinese and American youth participate in politics a variety of forms, with social media often being a venue for action and dialogue. While students from both countries engage in different ways and different levels, there is still involvement with main political parties and online political contributions. Older people in both countries claim a lack of student political involvement, but studies have shown this to be false. Young people represent the political future of both countries, and regardless of outcome students are shaping up to be major influencers.   

(FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Insight to Diversity)


Gretchen Trupp is a Summer 2017 intern at The Carter Center China Program.