A business school in China is looking for a new dean. The school held a meeting on its campus recently – a meeting with a promising purpose and arrangement, considering that it happened in the People’s Republic.
– The speakers at the meeting were the candidates for the deanship. They included some of the school’s current leaders, a few high-profile academic leaders from other business schools and even one Westerner. Each speaker took 20 minutes to outline his vision for the school’s development, as well as his own qualifications. Each then faced 15 to 20 minutes of questions, mostly from the judging panel but occasionally from one of the faculty.
Upon entering the room, the attendees received evaluation forms, with spaces for numerical rankings of each speaker on several categories, such as appropriateness of vision and qualifications, as well as a space for comments. Each paper was chopped by the school, to prevent copying and the phenomenon they used to describe in Chicago as, "vote early, vote often." No place for the voter’s name – the forms were to be returned anonymously.
So a public-sector institution in China, carefully controlled by the Party – as are all public education institutions here – is selecting its new leader in a process that includes something that looks a lot like what they call a "town hall meeting" in the US, with dialogue between candidates and voters, including plenty of humorous comments and laughter, as well as secret ballots.
Yes, some of the presentations were repetitive, and no one was eager to address the most serious systemic problems facing all b-schools here (the foreigner was asked what he saw as the biggest differences between Chinese b-schools and Western ones – he answered, diplomatically, "the relatively lower level of interaction between faculty here and the private sector," as if that were more than a symptom of the more fundamental problem of a crippled faculty development system). And while the judging panel may form its decision in the old-school way after all, and may itself be largely for show, the mere existence of this meeting and process is a laudable stride toward democratic participation in governance, in this case the governance of the business school.
The beauty pageant for the prospective deans occurred in the week that the National People’s Congress kicked off – perhaps apposite, since the NPC is still largely a rubber-stamp body, but one that’s developing some interesting Chinese characteristics. It also occurred in the week when eleven commercial newspapers in China ran a joint editorial calling on the NPC to abolish the hukou system (fine article on the issue in the FT), and during an online uproar about free laptops given to the NPC delegates at government expense (beneficiary: Lenovo).
Temper your judgment. In an interesting piece on China’s media environment, the Economist reports that, "within hours, the [hukou system] editorials had vanished from most of the papers’ websites." And again in the same week, Chinese poet Liao Yiwu, author of the banned poem Massacre (about Tiananmen), who was attempting to fly from Chengdu to Germany to attend a literary festival, was hauled off the plane by police and detained. Nothing new for him: He’s been barred from foreign travel a dozen times, and he spent several years in prison, during which time he was regularly on the receiving end of the baton.
A nuclear error (hat tip to The Clash) made by under-informed observers of China is the facile comparison of this place to some foreign one, in which comparison China is found wanting. Often, the better comparison for understanding is to the country’s own past. By that standard, last week, for all its sorrows and foibles, was an especially promising one for China.
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.