The following essay by Peking University senior Yue Xin shares her observations of social injustice and inequality of educational access in China. It was posted on her WeChat public account in February. As The Wall Street Journal’s Li Yuan comments, the essay “says a lot about China, inequality and how a young privileged person should think about all of it. Simply wonderful.” Earlier this month, along with seven other students, Yue demanded that the school release information regarding the sexual harassment allegations and investigations into former PKU teacher Shen Yang. On April 23, she posted an open letter on her social media accusing the school of pressuring her and her family—CDT yesterday posted a full translation of the open letter. Like her open letter, the following article has been heavily censored on WeChat. All emphasis was added by the author in her original essay.
I was born to a standard Beijing middle-class family. I have a Beijing hukou, my family has an apartment in Beijing. I feel very guilty as I type this, because for most Chinese people, these are things that they may not be able to get even if they work hard their whole lives. But I was born with them.
My mom is a staff member at a public institution, but she gets most of her income by doing logistics. My dad was a public servant before he retired. Mostly, my mom is the breadwinner of my family. I say I’m from a middle-class family because on the one hand, I never had to worry about material well-being before entering adulthood; while on the other hand, I had childhood friends who belonged to those real wealthy families, and I probably wouldn’t be spending that much money on the things they do in my whole life. Interestingly, I learned the word “middle-class” when I was a 6-year-old, first-year elementary school student. Now I am 20 years old, and I still think this phrase could describe my family’s economic situation.
I’ve experienced what you read about in the popular articles on WeChat: the middle school entrance exam in Beijing, the Mathematical Olympiad cram schools, and the back-to-back extracurricular courses on weekends. But when I think back, I still enjoyed a pretty laid-back educational environment as a child. My parents signed me up for those extracurricular classes, but they didn’t particularly push me for good grades. In fact, when I was in my third-year in elementary school, they heard rumors that the middle school entrance exam would no longer test Olympiad math, and their first reaction was to let me quit those math classes. I was the one who cared about my grades, while my parents cared more about my psychological well-being. I had a low emotional IQ at that time. I would feel very guilty and even hurt myself when I got bad grades because of carelessness. And of course, this relatively laid-back educational environment was also related to where exactly I was in Beijing. I went to elementary school in Dongcheng District, and middle school in Xicheng District. I only came to Haidian District after I enrolled in high school.
Perhaps because of what their generation experienced, my parents don’t care about politics that much. They don’t encourage me to care about politics, and they don’t encourage discussion of politics in our family. Their biggest hope for me is to be a “down-to-earth” and happy person, and their biggest worry is that I would get into trouble for caring about politics too much without being able to navigate the situation. Let me put it this way: my mom is the type of mom who would encourage her daughter to watch TV more. Her reasoning: by watching more TV shows, a person may become more “down-to-earth,” learn more worldly wisdom, and spend less energy on social issues. There have been many people who are curious about my parents’ profession. They thought my parents cultivated my passion for political and social issues. Actually, those came from my school and my extracurricular readings.
I am very thankful that my parents are able to give me a trouble-free material life, and a relatively laid-back educational environment. And of course, I am quite clearly aware that their thoughts sometimes differ from mine. For example, they are completely unable to understand LGBT issues, nor are they able to understand vegetarianism stemming from ethical rather than religious concerns. I used to argue with them when I was in high school, and once the argument ended quite unpleasantly. Then I went to our school counselor. (Here I would like to stress this point one more time, if you are under emotional pressure or are facing difficult problems, please seek professional help. Don’t take it all by yourself.) And later, I seldom argued with my family on these topics anymore. But if I see them reposting obvious rumors about technology on WeChat, I’ll still point it out to them, whether it would make a difference or not.
Regarding religion, my parents are the same as most Chinese people: they are not religious, but they are not strictly atheist either. After all, real atheists wouldn’t go to a temple before their kid’s college entrance exam, pay money to pray, and go back again to show gratitude after their kid gets into Peking University. But nevertheless, like most Chinese kids, I grew up in a secular environment. It wasn’t until I visited Indonesia, and learned through interviews of the struggles and oppressions that children from devoted religious families felt, that I truly felt how lucky I was to have grown up in a secular country and a secular family.
It’s safe to say that every big step I took in the first 20 years of my life has been accompanied by extreme luck. Before the middle school entrance exam, I was able to get straight into a good middle school from a good elementary school through pre-selection interviews; at the high school entrance exam, I scored just enough points to get into the High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China; and again, at college entrance exam, I scored just enough points to get into Peking University. In between my sophomore and junior years, I was able to get state sponsorship and admission from a foreign university at the last minute, and became the only junior student in my department to study abroad under state sponsorship. In the face of this good fortune, I have no intention to thank God. For one, I don’t believe in God; for two, my academic training in sociology tells me that all these are results of structural injustice in society. If I thank God and feel good about myself, I am both stupid and evil.
Others may ask: you got into these schools with your own grades, what’s unjust about it? Let me talk about some small experiences in my 12th grade. I did study hard in 12th grade, but my “hard work” isn’t quite at the same level as students from Hengshui and other well-known high schools: less than one month away from taking the college entrance exam, I still had the leisure time to read Southern Weekly. (And I used a case I read about in the newspaper in my college entrance exam essay section. It was about burial reform in Anqing.) And less than three days away from the exam, I still had the luxury of watching TV. What kind of a senior year was that? Against all odds, I got into Peking University. And thousands of my peers in this same country who endured brutal pressure would very likely not even be able to get into any university.
The injustice isn’t just about hukou or regions, it’s also about the test itself, and the admission standards. I actually didn’t score that well in math. And my final grades on the liberal arts section were much lower than in my practice tests. It can be said that the perfect score I got on the essay section was the only reason why I got enough points to get into PKU. And those who know me or who have read my other articles would know that my style of writing isn’t that beautiful, and I am not particularly any better at writing than my peers. If I scored better in the essay section, it was mostly because of the so-called “sense of social responsibility” that was reflected in my writing. Of course, the sense of social responsibility was real. I actually could not stop myself from showing it in my essays. However, if I did harbor a little bit of rational thinking about social issues and critical thinking about social injustices, it’s solely because of the education I got in school and my extracurricular readings; I could enjoy these superb educational resources and extracurricular opportunities but most people could not. This is, in the end, social injustice.
Since I was young, I never experienced any setbacks or blows in life. The only one that might count was that my family underwent some problems when I was 17, the summer before my senior year in high school. I do not wish to go in details about that because I don’t want people to pity me for it. After all, this one mishap cannot offset the much greater luck I enjoyed. Only when I noticed that some friends also underwent similar family mishaps would I tell them about the details, because I hoped that my experience of how to gradually recover from my own and my family’s misfortune could truly help other people.
If I had to make a summary of my family and origin and my upbringing, then I would have to say that this is a very cruel causal chain: I was born with a Beijing hukou and a very good family environment. Then I had a superb elementary and secondary education. What I had let me get into PKU without undergoing inhuman torture. And getting into PKU means enjoying the reputation and even material benefits that come along with its brand name: if I hadn’t got into PKU, I would not have gained that small reputation after giving a common sexual education training to the village kids; if I hadn’t got into PKU, the articles I sent to the Southern Weekly every week probably wouldn’t have taken prominent spots in the newspaper for long, even if the editors liked them, so I wouldn’t be able to have a relatively stable source of income as a student. (One op-ed has about 1200 to 1400 characters, and I am paid 800 yuan. If I publish every week, I get an income of 3200 yuan every month.) And in the foreseeable future, my school’s reputation will bring me more benefits, even though that reputation was mostly created by my predecessors at PKU, not by my own efforts.
If we say, “When poor, attend to your own virtue; when wealthy, share with the whole world,” then I am that “wealthy” person; if you say, “Those on the train have a responsibility to move forward,” then I am a person “on the train.” I don’t even dare to think, all along the way, how many people have I “eaten”—to use a reference from Lu Xun. Although, as an atheist I might make mistakes when referring to Christianity, I would still like use a metaphor that you may understand: I have to admit that, often times, I feel that I bear original sin. This “original sin” isn’t from the kingdom of God, rather, it is from the kingdom of human beings. What I bear is the original sin of the structural injustices of this whole society.
My capacity is limited, and I have many, many shortcomings. But I am fully aware [of my duty to] work hard every day, try my best to improve myself, and try to do something to make this society a better place—a lot of it comes from this deep sense of uneasiness and guilt.
I have no reason at all to not go forward; I have no reason at all to go forward only for my own sake.
[Sign off]: I have no reason not to fight hard | To lessen the uneasiness and guilt of our children. [Chinese]
Translation by Ya Ke Xi.