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    School Bashed for Pairing Foreigners With Opposite-Sex ‘Buddies’

    Shandong University apologized for the controversial buddy program a day after one of its teachers dismissed recent criticism as ‘malicious misinterpretation.’

    A university in eastern China has apologized for its buddy program that allegedly pairs each international student participant with up to three Chinese counterparts of the opposite sex, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper reported Friday.

    In 2017, Shandong University established a program under which the school’s Chinese students would shadow foreign students — a move that was roundly criticized at the time. The following year, the university “upgraded” the program so that each international student would be grouped with three Chinese companions.

    The Paper found that the registration form for the buddy program placed a particular emphasis on gender, with “making foreign friends of the opposite sex” listed as one reason for student interest in the program. At the top of the form, a line in red directs students to “please fill in as carefully as possible in order to match with your favorite buddy.” According to photos circulated online of purportedly official documents, most of the male participants in the program are foreign, while the overwhelming majority of female participants are Chinese.

    On Friday, Shandong University apologized for the “negative impact” of the registration form’s wording and said that it had never intended to pair foreign male students with multiple Chinese female students. The university further vowed to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the buddy program.

    The day before, a teacher from Shandong University’s graduate school told The Paper that the program has been well-received by students since its inception in 2016 and dismissed the recent criticism on social media as “malicious misinterpretation.”

    Undergraduates and graduate students proficient in foreign languages may participate in the buddy program for a period of one year. Afterward, they’re allowed to apply for special permission to continue the program. Last year, 141 Chinese students from the university’s medical school were buddied-up with 47 of their international classmates, according to The Paper.

    In 2016, Shandong University’s Department of International Affairs published a memo suggesting that the program’s purpose was to “increase mutual understanding and communication between Chinese and foreign students” and to promote the “internationalization” of the overall student body. But not everyone is convinced that the school has gone about achieving this in the right way.

    “International students in China should be treated the same as Chinese students abroad,” one user on microblogging site Weibo commented under a related post by The Paper. “Promoting exchange between countries doesn’t mean we should put international students in a privileged position, because self-deprecation won’t win us respect.”

    Shandong University enrolls over 60,000 students, including nearly 3,800 foreign nationals. The school is one of 39 universities targeted by the Chinese government for development into world-class higher education institutions in the 21st century.

    A commentary published Thursday by The Beijing News said many people have interpreted the buddy program as Shandong University’s attempt to curry favor with overseas students. The author reiterated how the “ambiguous coloring” of emphasizing opposite-sex pairings had triggered controversy, and claimed that other universities in China have also tried to attract foreign students by giving them preferential treatment.

    “Chinese universities should implement the spirit of equal treatment for all students,” the commentary said. “This includes not giving international students special dorms, and letting them naturally integrate into campus life without having to rely on these ‘buddy’ companions.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Foreign students attend a language class at Shandong University in Jinan, Shandong province, July 2, 2019. VCG)