Why China’s Student Leaders Are Turning Into Tiny Tyrants
One of a university’s primary responsibilities is to train the world’s next generation of leaders: our future literary, scientific, and political luminaries. But in China, there is a growing concern that our schools may be manufacturing a bunch of imperious, bullying bureaucrats instead.
Earlier this month, China’s student unions became the focus of a raft of unflattering headlines after screenshots of a group chat between members of a student organization at Chengdu Aeronautic Polytechnic, a college in southwestern China, leaked online. The screenshots, which quickly went viral, revealed the group’s student leaders in all their self-important and condescending glory: reprimanding new members for not showing enough respect and reminding them to “know their place.” The post inspired many netizens to share their own horror stories of power-crazed student leaders at universities.
Pretty soon, both the state-run Xinhua News Agency and the Communist Youth League weighed in with opinion pieces criticizing the senior students’ behavior and lamenting what they called the “bureaucratization” of university student groups — a term that in China conjures images not just of red tape, but of high-handed, bumptious officials who abuse their power over others whenever possible.
Yet it’s unclear why everyone was so surprised at the haughty attitudes of the student leaders in question. They were merely acting how society has taught them to since they were children. I’ve been an elementary school teacher for more than 10 years, and none of the bullying behaviors I’ve seen in the news recently would be out of place in classrooms like mine. If anything, they’re often encouraged.
Every teacher I know has their own set of horror stories: ten-year-olds taking it upon themselves to beat their classmates with sticks or rip up their peers’ papers for offenses as minor as talking during quiet time. But the worst of them all may be the classroom “cadres” — a formal title bestowed upon select elementary, middle, and high school students, typically those with the highest grades. These cadres have the officially sanctioned authority to punish their classmates for breaking rules. While in theory their primary responsibility is to help teachers manage classes, in practice cadres at many elementary and middle schools have essentially unfettered power to assign time outs, deduct gold stars, and publicly shame other students by writing their names on the blackboard.
It’s been this way since at least the 1980s, when I was a child. The system is so entrenched that few teachers and parents these days even question cadres’ right to boss their classmates around. The recent controversy about student leaders’ behavior gives us a chance to rethink this laissez-faire approach.
As is so often the case, the classroom cadre system began with the best of intentions. The goal was to strengthen students’ management and organizational skills, but too many teachers have limited their own involvement to simply assigning the class heads, leaving the students themselves to decide how to use — or abuse — their newfound authority. In so doing, we as teachers fail to ask what the purpose of the classroom cadre system really is, or how we can best support class leaders. And once assigned, student cadres’ broad rights — including the disciplinary power to make peers copy sentences, or even to deduct points from other students’ overall scores — can be exercised without consulting anyone.
As teachers, we have somehow created an arrangement in which our student cadres actually wield more power — with fewer checks — than we ourselves do. If I want to punish students, I need to collect evidence and be ready to explain my decisions to disgruntled parents. Meanwhile, one of my fifth-graders can single out any student in my class for a public shaming.
It’s all too much, too soon. Elementary school students simply aren’t equipped to brandish this kind of authority. And instead of teaching them how to do so responsibly — as the cadre system was meant to do — we may be turning them into tiny tyrants.
As teachers, it’s up to us to set things right. It’s not enough to assign cadres and then wash our hands of them. Training good leaders involves a continual process of evaluation, and teachers should constantly be observing student cadres’ behavior — and, when necessary, stepping in to correct it.
The whole class needs to be brought into this process to ensure everyone’s voices are heard. Teachers should schedule regular class debriefings where student leaders can update everyone on their recent work. Afterward, their classmates could be given the chance to make suggestions and — if necessary — criticize leaders’ conduct. Those who repeatedly abuse their power should be replaced before the situation escalates. In my class, I have instituted a three-strike system. Leaders can be issued a strike based on student feedback or my observations of their behavior. Once a leader has three strikes, they’re out.
It is also our responsibility as educators to teach the class leaders — and students more generally — that leadership is about service, not control. A good first step might be to stop using a politically loaded term like “cadre” and replace it with something more neutral. In addition, when choosing class leaders, teachers should look for pupils who are passionate about helping others. Currently, far too much importance is attached to grades. Just because a student struggles with certain subjects doesn’t mean they can’t be an effective leader.
I’ve made a number of changes to the cadre system in my class. The first thing I did was teach my students about the parliamentary procedure handbook Robert’s Rules of Order — at least, the parts of it suited to elementary schoolers. My goal was to manage classroom problems and reduce conflict by giving students a means of settling disputes without resorting to fights.
I have also implemented a classroom-based justice system, which begins in students’ sixth year. The boys in class had been getting into fights repeatedly, and despite the best efforts of the child I had assigned to help mediate such conflicts, the underlying disputes would go unresolved or one of the parties would try to sidestep the mediator by complaining to me directly. To try to improve the situation, I made the mediator a sort of junior judge and established juries to help them; now, any time there is a dispute, the two parties must find the judge, who then convenes a jury of their peers and reaches a considered decision with them. If they run into any problems, they know I am always willing to help.
As time has gone on, I have noticed my students getting better at resolving interpersonal conflicts on their own. But the system is far from perfect, and some cases now drag on, seemingly forever — a different kind of bureaucracy. Still, it’s a start, and I intend to keep refining it. The important thing is for my students to learn that leaders should use their authority to help people solve problems, not as a tool for controlling others. I believe that the healthiest classroom — and workplace — environments are those in which leadership is a collaborative project and everyone can have their voices heard.
Unhealthy power dynamics are endemic in many organizations across China, from the biggest corporation to the smallest university club. In a culture where senior leaders possess absolute sovereignty over their underlings, it’s no wonder that young Chinese pick up on these cues and seek to imitate them. But while I can’t do anything about the state of the Chinese workplace, I can do my best to keep this corrosive attitude out of our schools.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell
(Header image: Young Pioneers take part in an event in Beijing, Oct. 12, 2018. Dong Tianyong/CNS/VCG)