When The Students Go Home: Why Freedom May Not Travel

I just heard Michael Ignatieff hope that when some of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students studying in the United States choose to go home, and confront the authoritarian society at home, a democratic change will come. His source of hope was the Russian experience, and the belief that the Russians educated abroad challenged the Soviet regime and brought about the change: The same may happen to China.

But will it? 

All the answers to this would be speculative. But this assertion has an implicit claim about Western Higher Education that I would like to contest. Indeed, the big idea here is the idea of Liberty - the magic wand that transforms people and makes them the agents of change - but the usage of word has so changed over time that it needs to be interrogated again. Liberty in the current Western sense is the liberty to consume, to live a life of unrestrained economic possibility. This makes a difference: The Chinese government doesn't restrict economic possibility in any significant way, but rather encourages it through a protectionist measures and facilitating copy-and-catch-up innovation. Therefore, the Chinese students going home after a stint in America are expected to very much support and be supported by the governing elite in China, and may even join them.

The Russian precedence doesn't count for much. One could argue that Soviet society failed the material aspirations rather than any moral desire for Liberty, and indeed, no Liberal should justifiably proud of the 'free society' they helped build in Russia. And, in fact, Russia is perhaps a good example of both the possibility of Liberal Hope and limitations of Liberal Hope, a Corporatised Society run by a Chief Executive defined by a material pursuit of a Disneyland Capitalism variety. 

Professor Ignatieff rightly mentioned that the Western Societies are very much in a collusive relationship with these Corporatist regimes. For all the sound and fury about Salisbury, David Cameron and Boris Johnson playing Tennis with the wife of a Russian Minister and taking money for it, is the right representation of the relationship that exists. And, so is the case for Western Higher Education - the wonderful buildings, well-endowed schools and professorial chairs carrying names of Oligarchs and Shaikhs should be evidence enough - and the institutions of Higher Education have always been, and are, in a perfectly comfortable arrangement with their governments - and by extension, to the other regimes in the world.

If anything, Western Higher Education, as is rightly claimed, is an instrument of Western soft power. It is the Liberal soft power, one about individual freedom to material well-being. The alternative versions, that of communitarian values and the religiously informed ideas of Liberty as a virtue expressed in self-renunciation and self-restraint, are all abandoned to the domains of Conservatism and Fanaticism, something to be kept out of the academia. In summary, the political repression that we see around the world is not the binary opposite, but complementary and constituting factor of Western 'liberty' as practiced in the colleges.

So, when the students go home, they wouldn't march on the streets or question corporate wrongdoings; they would be expected to write the policies, justify the system and join the ranks. And, indeed, it is not just in China: The Closed Societies are spreading across the world, and they can be seen in India, Philippines, all over Middle East, Eastern and Central Europe, Southern Africa and elsewhere. This is not about democracy or not, but rather democracy as an excuse for majoritarianism and populism: It is travelling the other way, rather, and now infecting the White House and Whitehall in good measure.


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