Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Blog Post 3: For the Rights of Chinese Students (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Yiran Li

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

Focusing on the involvement issues of Chinese students, an inevitable topic for me is the student politics. Although there are not many Chinese students running as candidates during the election, taking a position in the student governance as a Chinese, especially UTSU and Governing Council, still sounds like a good way to improve the students’ experience and to build up personal protfolios. Encouraging students to vote and to care about student politics, at the same time, is also a crucial way to challenge the existing “Chinese social bubble”.

I witnessed Chinese students’ involvements in the student governance for the first time in 2016 when I was a first year student. Like many of my peers, I had the impression that student election was the field that most Chinese students would be absent of. However in that year, several Chinese students were running as candidates in UTSU election, to support them, many Chinese student clubs posted their campaign materials on their WeChat accounts. The campagin itself, to some extent, was also promoted as a part of the procedure improving Chinese students’ rights because once the Chinese candidates were elected, the Chinese student community would have a representative in the student governance.

It was not the last time when Chinese students appeared in elections and the spirit of “for the rights of Chinese students” last in many terms, including the initiatives of the candidates and their campaign materials. While some Chinese students are passionate about having more representatives in the student governance, some hold a rather cautious and even critical view. One of their major concern is whether the campaign of the Chinese candidates take too much value of the “nationality card” and turn the election to an irrational, over-patriotic activity. While students clubs take the major role in promoting the campaigns, one of my interviewees, who also took leadership in some Chinese student organizations, told me that he felt very fortunate (and maybe even proud) that their organization never got involved with any campaigns. This does not mean some Chinese students are anti-Chinese. They just feel disagree to stimulate the patriotical emotions and use the passion to support a candidate, without thouroughly investigating their competences. Voting someone just because they are Chinese sounds very unfair and irrational to them.

But this leads the situation to a paradoxical state. Chinese student community, despite its great population on campus, lack of presence in many levels. Most Chinese candidates lack social connections and supports outside of the Chinese group, if voices of Chinese students could be heard, then the candidates need more supports. In addition, pressure from the community may discourage Chinese students from getting involve with a field where they might make contributions. But the concerns of irrationalities are reasonable. In fact, once a Chinese candidate won the election, he/she may need to put extra energies to understand the rules outside the Chinese world and build up their non-Chinese social connections. If they do not have the ability to do the work, the position may only turn as a line of their portfolios, going against the wills of their voters. There seems no perfect answer to the problem, some students hold a rather relax view: “Even if the candidates cannot do their job very well, having a Chinese face in student governance is already a good breakthrough.”

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