Last month, I read a book called We Have Been Harmonised, by Kit Strittmatter, all about the current reality of the regime in China. Part of the book is dedicated to exploring how the Chinese government is trying to incentivise students from other powerful nations to come to China to study or work and, ultimately, contribute toward China’s global dominance project.
As I read this section, I realised that I didn’t need a book to tell me about the ways in which the Chinese government are trying to entice foreign students to their universities – because it happened to me. In 2016, I went on an all-expenses-paid, government-sponsored rowing trip to China with my university. While we spent some of the time competing in regattas, we also went on tours of the local universities and were taken around a Mao museum. When we were off the clock from these activities, we, uh, spent quite a lot of time checking out the local nightlife and gorging ourselves on the endless all-you-can-eat-buffets.
For me, university was a bubble of science and rowing. My studies revolved around cardiac physiology, gene expression and differential equations – unsurprisingly, Chinese politics did not come up in those lectures, nor were they standard chat around the squat rack at training. A few Cambridge crews had been on the China rowing trip before and it was definitely known as a fun summer party trip, with the odd implications of why exactly the Chinese government wanted to host all-expenses-paid, elaborate trips for foreign students multiple times each year kept solidly out of mind. Other than the visa, which we each had to shell out £150 for, our flights, accommodation, food, activities, equipment and transport were all paid for by the Chinese administration (sadly, additional drinks were not included) and we were a group of thirteen or so, including athletes and coaches. We were also by no means the only university attending. For the two weeks we were in China, first in Wuhan and then Changsha, we also raced and partied with rowers from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Otago, Sydney, Durham and the University of London, among others. I know these trips run multiple times per year, so there must be hundreds of athletes from elite universities taking tours and listening to lectures on Mao in China every single year, all paid for by the Chinese government. I cannot believe that, in hindsight, we didn’t question the whole setup further.
But then again, of course we didn’t. It was a free trip to China! We got to do a bit of rowing and have a lot of fun, all without spending a pound. Partly I think it was that none of us were that clued in as to just how ruthlessly China’s Communist Party (the CCP) were (and still are) pursuing world dominance, but partly it was that we were not really at risk for indoctrination by the Chinese regime. I stand by this. I don’t think any of us were remotely enticed by what was on offer when it came to educational opportunities, especially when most of us likely had good offers at home. The culture clash was quite real at points and as we sat there on a sweltering tour bus with our guide trying passionately to impress upon us just how amazing Mao was, I’m sure he was met by a sea of unconvinced faces. Or worse, a bus full of people looking out the window and laughing together, not even listening.
I cannot pretend that we were good guests to China, however bizarre the circumstances. The China trips are well known back home within the rowing squads and we turned up at the end of our season ready to let loose. We certainly did not approach our visits to some of China’s best universities (according to the government, ahem) with any sincerity, nor were we particularly deterred when the head of our program banned us from leaving the hotel by barring all taxis from picking us up. The hotel was on the side of an enormous highway, so with no cars stopping, we were trapped. Somehow though, we found a way, this group of fifty unruly student athletes on their summer holiday.
I remember that after we landed in Wuhan we were picked up on a coach and taken to our hotel around 10pm. We had been flying for twenty-four hours, on three flights, straight from the European University Championships in Croatia. I remember sitting with one of our helpers on the coach, who told us to call her Flora, while she showed me WeChat and taught me a few phrases in Mandarin at my request. We then arrived at the hotel, headed straight out to a club, slunk in around 5am after an evening of shots, dancing and fresh watermelon (which was abundant in this club, I don’t why), got up at 6.30am before spending almost twelve hours racing in our first regatta in 36oC degree heat and extreme humidity. We won the gold medal.
The boats were provided for us, and it was clear that much expense had been spared. These boats creaked, would bend in the middle and had no speakers, meaning that our cox had no way of getting the whole crew to act in unison, which is sort of the point of rowing. I was in the bow seat, as far away from the cox as you can be, and I couldn’t hear a thing. We experimented with shouting down the boat before settling on her just banging on the side to indicate “row harder!” As we raced down the course, a fish jumped out of the water and bounced off the stern of the boat. It was clear that a few of my crewmates were trying not to throw up from the combination of aggressive hangover, extreme heat and intense exercise, topped off by the fact that the only water was from the drinks company sponsoring the event and was full of sugar and flavoured like melon. I ended being interviewed after our race on the local radio. It was a very weird day.
I wish I could pepper this blog post with more memories from our tours through China’s universities, but I’m afraid I am drawing a blank, for the most part. I wish I’d taken more pictures. I don’t think any of us were ever considering attending any of these schools, nor were the tours particularly convincing. At this point, the government must know that, right? I would honestly be surprised if a single student from these rowing tours has, off the back of these trips, decided to attend a university in a lesser known Chinese city. But the government still tries. The trip also involved banquets, where each rowing team had to put on a performance of some kind between the courses. This means that I have rapped on stage in front of over a hundred people in a hotel ballroom in Changsha. How did this happen?
Anyway, I don’t have anything profound to share about how my meagre involvement with the Chinese government relates to the bigger picture of the aims of the CCP, because I was barely aware that all of this was going on at the time. But it was stark to read something that made clear that trips just like the one I’d been on were calculated efforts to bring in foreign students and try to entice them to China. Obviously that was the point – what else is in it for the CCP? – but given how much more I know now about what exactly the CCP’s aims are and the lengths to which they will go to achieve them, I feel increasingly more uneasy about being a tiny but real cog in that machine at one point in time. I only wish I had known more in 2016 – past me was, like most of my fellow athletes, mainly concerned with having a good time. Present me has a lot more questions.