Was Shandong University arranging girlfriends for male foreign students?

Society & Culture

On Chinese college campuses, one tradition that has been taken for granted is schools’ brazen and unapologetic favoritism for overseas students. For a long time, the unfair norm existed without much critical scrutiny, but a recent case at Shandong University has drawn intense fire and has forced the school to apologize and recalibrate its long-held favorable policies.

Per ThePaper.cn (in Chinese), the project that landed the school in trouble was a study buddy program established in 2016. The original intention, according to school officials, was to promote “academic cooperation” between overseas and local students. In 2017, the university rolled out an update to the program, which paired each foreign participant with a Chinese student. This year, according to some registration forms (in Chinese) leaked on the internet, the previous one-to-one relationship has transformed into groups, where one foreign student is equipped with three Chinese volunteers who are supposed to not only assist them with school homework assignments but also keep them company at social events such as dance parties and hiking excursions.

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The 2019 version of the program also placed a specific focus on gender as the forms required applicants to reveal whether they prefer male or female as their “study partners” and if their motivations include “making foreign friends of the opposite sex.” In one part, the form asked program applicants to elaborate on what kind of personalities they wish their ideal buddies to have.

As some internet users pointed out, the forms were highly reminiscent of information sheets given out by matchmaking agencies. And judging from other leaked documents on Weibo, foreign students who signed up for the program were predominantly male while the vast majority of Chinese volunteers were female.

The unsettling gender disparity quickly attracted intense criticism from internet users, who questioned if the program, whether or  not intentionally, had elevated the status of foreign students, especially male students, to an unacceptable level where their needs are satisfied unconditionally. “It’s beyond my comprehension why the school would introduce these young girls who probably have no dating experience to foreign male students as study partners,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese).

Today, Shandong University issued a statement (in Chinese) apologizing for the “negative impact” caused by some “inappropriate questions” in the forms. The school also denied that it had ever paired one male overseas student with multiple Chinese female volunteers. “The program was built to help local and foreign students learn from each other and facilitate academic and cultural exchanges between them,” the university said in the statement, adding that it would conduct a “comprehensive assessment” of the program and make some changes if necessary.

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It turns out the program was not the most egregious example of Shandong University’s unabashed favoritism for overseas students. A since-deleted notice on the school’s website shows (in Chinese) that in 2018, when a foreign student’s legs were fractured in a car accident, the school’s office of global affairs recruited 25 local students to help the injured person in various aspects of his life. “With limited mobility and language barriers, the student’s life has become very tough,” the article reads. “That’s why we are calling for some assistance from Chinese volunteers to help him get through this difficult time.”

Outside Shandong University, it’s not uncommon for foreign students in China to receive a wide range of privileges, such as lower standards in admission, luxurious dorms, and having Chinese students perform cleaning duties for them. Unhappy with the unfair situation, many Chinese students often refer to overseas privileged classmates as “foreign emperors” in private.

Commenting on Shandong University’s next-level special treatment for foreign students, People.cn, the website of the Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, published an article (in Chinese) today slamming the school’s preferential policies. “Deep in its bones, does Shandong University think foreigners are superior to Chinese people? If not, why did it publicly encourage locals to sign up as study buddies for foreign students?” the author wrote. “Every year, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students leave China to study abroad. But how many of them are privileged enough to have foreign universities enact similar policies for them?”