2016: A Year of No Significance

In the year of 2016, a school in Shanghai celebrated its 20th founding anniversary. Beyond this ceremony in December, its high school division students have made record-breaking college admission success: Engineering school admission in Ivy League had finally invalidated the 0 success rate record, and there was a student that made it into Columbia University after several years of hiatus.

However, compared to later years, it was quite an insignificant year, at least to the high school division. A year later, it would celebrate its 10th anniversary since it started the IBDP program. The college admission record in the next year also completely overshined the year of 2016. There were a few miniscale crises, but none of them had caused widespread dissent over a long period. Those small crises tend to be remembered less than a week. Yet, these events started to manifest themselves as symptoms of a larger problem, which might eventually lead to a spontaneous online protest that is beyond the imagination of school administrators.

Let's start with something small.

The Themed Showcase

According to my memory, there will be a club showcase every spring semester in the school. Clubs are supposed to show what they did during the annual event. This event seems to serve several purposes. Of course, it allowed students to demonstrate their interest and be proud of their accomplishments. It also allowed club advisers, who are usually teachers and tend not to attend the majority of the club meetings, to know what had happened in the last year. More importantly, it's a chance for some school administrators to identify clubs that are ghosting or under-performing.

However, things were a little different in the year of 2016. A major change had been introduced. The system of nuking underperforming clubs had been introduced instead of letting them die naturally (when their membership reached zero). Therefore, the club showcase seemed to be the last chance for those clubs that fight for their survival. Accompanying the change was a theming requirement. The school administrator who oversaw the management of all clubs unilaterally declared that the showcase must be around a common theme, and the club president had to write a lengthy report to demonstrate how the club is echoing with the theme in its daily operations. The theme can be roughly translated into English as: "Operating the clubs efficiently in the era of transformation".

Writing some nonsensical report that echoing the random broad theme isn't a hard task, given that most IB students already knew how to bullshit their internal assessment when they have nothing else to say. Still it's the first time that a theme is introduced and it looked like an added burden.

At that time I was the president of the Computerization club. I cannot speak for other clubs, but I could observe that some of them are deliberately echoing the theme. I would also infer from this fact that some of them might actually spend a non-negligible amount of time writing the report. I am different. I vaguely remember that I wrote the report with the following main ideas:

  • Computerization doesn't require its members to write stupid reports, so we can spend our time more efficiently.
  • Computerization doesn't require its members to work on our main project. They can work on their 20% project, so we can crowdsource good ideas more efficiently.

In summary, my written report was aimed to be an indirect rebuttal to the bureaucratic management of student clubs. Our showcase on May 4, 2016, was another rejection of the random theme: we chose to not echo the theme at all during the showcase.

To be fair, these acts should not be considered as heroic and I should not be considered as a martyr against the bureaucracy. Computerization is definitely not among one of the top-performing clubs that the school liked. It's still very far away from the danger of being nuked by the school according to the new rule. Even under the most conservative estimation, I would rank our club to be the top 30% one. To be a real martyr, I should send a virus to replace the stupid report and blatantly boycott the showcase. Instead, I knew that we would be fine as long as I submitted something for the report and showcased something.

On the day of the showcase, things were quite peaceful, though there was a little spark that was put down without causing big fire. The school administrator suggested that we could help the school or even the school district build a platform that managed clubs, and he could divert some resources to help us. In front of the administrator, I told the future club president: "you can choose not to do it and still receive my full support." The school administrator put down the fire by saying that it's only a suggestion, not a command, and the rest of the day passed peacefully.

Beneath the small-scale exchange of fire, there seemed to be a grand gameplay envisioned by the school administration. The administration appeared to be impatient with the clubs that did not win contests or gain reputations for the school. Abandoning the laissez-faire policies that had been left untouched for several years, it strived for tighter control.

I had been detached from active club management for almost 4 years and I graduated from high school three years ago. None of these affairs matter to be anymore. However, a sense of mistrust had already been built since then. I had heard from some rumors that the controls were still tightening since I left, and I would expect the era of wild exploration had almost gone forever.

That's exactly the reason why I started to sponsor the club with my personal fund, with the only attached-string being remaining independent. I reaffirmed my commitment last year with a public sponsorship agreement and strengthened it even more this year with even more generous conditions.

The Student Union

On May 13, 2016, student delegates from both the middle school and high school divisions convened to elect the new 10 leaders of the student union. To the contenders, this was a significant day: they were just one step away from adding an amazing experience to their resume for college admission. To the rest majority, it was just another normal day, except that some classes were canceled so that everyone could watch the congress in real time. This was only an official statement. In reality, very few people actually listened to these speeches. Most students just chose to do some homework in a slightly noisy environment.

Why did students choose to ignore such an important moment that could decide their student lives for the entire next year? Is it because they are exam machines that don't want to give a second on non-academic subjects? That claim is far from the truth. Many students cared about some of the issues that the candidates talked about. They also wanted to participate in the democratic process. The only problem was that the process was designed to be undemocratic from its beginning.

Not everyone could be on the ballot on the election day. To be mentioned on the ballot, you need to pass two rounds of interview tests, which were held behind the scenes and controlled by the school directly. The two-round test had one clear goal in mind: limit the number of qualifying candidates to 12. 12 is not a random number here. It's not only a product of 3 and 4 but it's also close to 10. If you scroll up, you will find that 10 is the number of elected leaders.

I proclaimed myself as an outsider and anti-establishment, so I never participated in those stupid interviews. Therefore, I could only state the following in the form of a conjecture: Suppose I am the dictator of the school and I want to control the election result, then I can choose to leave the 12 candidates to be the ones that never challenged the school. Then no matter what the election result is, I will never get challenged. Given the rules, my attempt will very likely succeed, because people want the feeling of power, even though it's fake.

I could not verify whether the truthiness of the conjecture, nor could I confirm that the school administration ever thought about the idea. Nevertheless, we could observe some clearly decidable things, and here is a list of undeniable facts:

  • The secretary of the student union, who is responsible for the communication between the school and the union, is not even elected; instead, it's appointed.
  • The leaders of the student union have a term limit of one year. Therefore, they won't feel reelection pressure. Historically, they were never impeached.
  • Funding of the student union is provided by the school.
  • The annual charity event held by the student union gained huge fame for the school, and it was tightly bound to the annual trip to Dabie Mountain to teach rural students.

From these facts, I would infer that the student union is not designed to be accountable to the students. Instead, it's accountable to the school administration. Therefore, I feel it's reasonable to accuse it of not representing the will of the people, thus invalidating its legitimacy.

Now let's go back to the day of May 13, 2016. While I was happily doing homework ignoring the illegitimate nonsense, the head of the student affair office came in and turned off the light, trying to force us to listen to the sleepy speeches. Shortly after that, we did find some gold in the middle of nothing. The student delegates were asked to vote to approve or disapprove the new rules to manage student clubs, which includes the newly introduced rule of nuking student clubs at the school's will. I could almost imagine that it would be passed by unanimous consent out of intimidation, since the ballots are not secret. Yet one brave student voted abstain. We all understood what that meant.

Without doubt, something like the following is published on the school's public WeChat account: The convention ended with accomplishment and satisfaction. Students exercised their democratic power to decide on the issues they care about. They appeared to be supportive of various school measures to improve student discipline.

Yes, the world is beautiful and the big brother is awesome.

A Failed Group Activity

The high school has a quite diverse student body. Unlike most of the traditional high schools in China, where every student's stated goal is to enter XYZ university. Instead, its students have a wide range of life goals, ranging from businessman to artist. There is also a vocal minority of self-proclaimed computer scientists. As a result, the students have different personal beliefs that might not align perfectly with the school's educational goal.

The school's education goals are written in six Chinese characters and can be literally translated into English as caring, graceful, and generous, without much meaning loss. On top of that, IB added a few words to the vocab list, including some generic good quality like open-minded and risk-taker. As you can see, these adjectives are vague enough such that as long as a student is not blatantly bad, you can always use these adjectives to describe them, thus achieving school's educational goals.

However, the school is not satisfied with this kind of automatic achievement. Instead, it wanted these nice characteristics to manifest themselves and be reinforced during giant group activities. They can be summarized by an umbrella term called "moral education". The weekly flag rising ceremony is an example of that.

Apparently, the school understood that no one really cared about the flag raising ceremony, and there was no guarantee that the students actually were instilled with the correct morals during these ceremonies. It needed something that took much longer that was forced onto students, so that the students could not just sleep through it.

One of those successful ones was the annual trip to inner mongolia designed for 11th grade students. While I'm always an exception, most students did report that they had transformative experience there. One of the bad ones was the annual autumn outing, which was framed as a change to improve your group work abilities. The planning of these activities are outsourced to random companies. The activities are neither interesting nor terribly boring, so more students just beared with it for one day while some were able to find some fun in it. However, the bad weather clearly ruined the one on October 19, 2016.

With bad expectation in mind, I pre-downloaded a ton of computer science podcasts to pass the time, so that day wasn't completely wasted for me. For the less-prepared, it appeared to be an organizational disaster. The event even caused some students to get hurt by slipping on rainy roads. However, at the end of the date, an unapologying post was published on the school's website, claiming that the event was a huge success.

The school's decisions are always correct. We should blame the weather instead. No compromises are given. Period.

Aftermath

I eventually faded away from active club management in the later half of 2016, and I was unable to make the newer generation resist the school's authoritarian control. The student union held another successful annual charity, once again proving its importance to the school. The college admission's success in that proved that the system was working perfectly fine, rather than in need for an urgent reckoning. The year of 2016 was a success for the school administration, although later years' even bigger success made the year of 2016 appear insignificant.

Yet, it was also the year when I saw things deteriorating with no return. Innovations were slowed down by bureaucratic overhead, reforms were stymied by school's insistence of total control, and strict adherence to vague educational goals made any potential improvements unthinkable. The year of 2016 might seem insignificant; nevertheless, it is evident that the school's willingness to concede had reached its limit. It no longer mattered whether the students are rebellious or conformists, whether the student union leaders are enterprising or incomptent, whether the school-sponsored events are successful or complete disasters - they all failed to stop the school administration from gradually degenerating itself into a traditional Chinese high school ruled by arbitrary decisions, coercion and tyranny. Thus our story has reached a sad end. The chances of gradual reform are starting to slip away and a major crisis is almost bound to happen.

Final Thoughts

The post is an indirect personal response to the IB final exam cancellation controversy. I would summarize the controversies as follows: IB decided to cancel final exams globally due to the coronavirus outbreak. Some IB schools decide to continue holding their respective mock exams and final exams. Students are especially outraged by some school's decision to assume IB's role to hold a final exam in addition to the mock exam. The original discussion thread about whether the decision was reasonable soon became a place for enraged students to publicly share the past tyranny instances. You can see the original thread here, and students in other schools (1) (2) (3) also joined the fight. (They are in Chinese and I'm not hardworking enough to translate them all into English.)

I read through all the replies, and I started to form my opinions. To be fair, I believe that what happened there was much more benign than many other Chinese high schools. For example, some authors said that the school was pressuring students to delete their responses. I would claim without doubt that in other schools, even a verbal complaint would lead to much severe consequences, like expulsion from the school. Yet, schools embracing openness should not benchmark themselves against those bad actors, and such comparison does not and will never shield these school administrators involved from public criticisms. The real disappointing fact is that: a place once praised for its openness had voluntarily degenerated itself into an institution that cannot overcome its management bigotry.

Reasons for the degeneration might be multitude. Convenience might be one of the reasons. Past examples have shown that it's already easier to use coercive power to achieve something or get something done than through faithful negotiations. It's very tempting to use coercive power when you happen to have the power. However, the world has changed forever since 1920.

You might ask why I joined this argument while it had nothing to do with my life. My answer for that question is that I considered this to my responsibility as an unthreatenable outsider. Chilling effects are real. If even an outsider won't bother speaking against the injustice, these incidents will just repeat themselves and the grievances will be buried in history without a trace. However, I wasn't able to obtain a directly evidence so far, so I decided to talk about the distant past that I know. I think the past still reflect the reality quite accurately.

The title and the layout of the post are influenced by historian Ray Huang's book 1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. You might have noticed that I didn't include something along the lines of The Ming Dynasty in Decline in the title. I really hope it's not the case for my high school.