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Students Compete to Meet Powerful Alumni

By Shen Nianzu (
Issue 641, Oct 14, 2013  
Nation, page 13
Translated by Elise Zheng
Original article: [Chinese]

In recent years, state leaders have been interacting more with their alma maters by delivering speeches and making campus visits. The schools use these visits to highlight things like anniversary celebrations, while students also compete for the chance to meet influential “senior fellows.”

Which Students get to Meet VIP Visitors?

At the recent 60th anniversary of China University of Petroleum, alumni and former State Council Vice-Premier Wu Yi (吴仪) spoke at a celebration and even joined the chorus in singing about oil workers. Then two days later, she showed up for a ceremony at the school’s Qingdao campus to unveil a new statue.

Zhang Jiwang (张继望), a student majoring in petroleum safety, was inspired when he saw words written by Wu Yi in the university’s museum three years ago. He never thought he’d actually get to meet her, but he got his chance when he volunteered to help at the anniversary celebration. 

When the ceremony was over and Wu was about to leave, she was surrounded by about 50 students, including Zhang. Wu asked students whether they’d gone home to visit their families during the recent National Day holiday, and advised them not to worry too much about their appearance.

Zhang recalled that Wu was like a gentle grandma, but carries herself with more class and poise). To many, meeting with state leaders is inspirational. It becomes an honor to shake hands or take pictures with them.

Zhang Zhaoyuan (张昭源) and Chen Zhongxiang (陈中祥) similarly still treasure a picture they took with former President Hu Jintao when he came to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his alma mater Tsinghua University.

When leaders make such visits, the students who get to meet them are primarily chosen by their political accomplishments. Zhang had been working for the Communist Party Youth League, was captain of a school sports team and also chair of a student entrepreneur association. Chen was class monitor, Communist Party branch secretary, Party building assistant in the graduate students’ office and also responsible for the anniversary celebration’s organization work.

Zhang was the sixth in line to meet Hu Jintao. Having been a student host at the school, he wasn’t nervous at all. “Every year a lot of us go from Tsinghua to work at the grassroots level and in the West [of China],” Zhang told Hu. “This year I was one of them.  I’m proud to serve society and the masses. I will work hard at the grass roots level, and will try my best to keep fit and work for my country for another 50 years.”

Zhang’s “report” to Hu lasted only 20 seconds. “I was so excited. I was not representing myself; I was representing the whole school.”

Chen, who had done work in Tibet, was the last to report to Hu. He clearly remembers that several days before the meeting, his teacher had called him saying that an important leader would come to school, but he didn’t mention the name. Chen was on vacation at the time, but he returned to campus immediately to prepare. “It was more inspiring than reading 10 inspiring books,” Chen said. “It would have inspired me more though if Hu would have patted my shoulder.”

Lower Levels

Leaders don’t only visit the universities they graduated from. In late 2012, Hu Jintao went back to his former middle school in Jiangsu Province where he planted a gingko tree in the campus garden. Leaders often plant trees as a metaphor for education. 

Retired politiciansalso frequently write letters and inscriptions. In 2012, then Premier Wen Jiabao went back to his alma mater China University of Geosciences (CUG) in Wuhan and wrote the words “Hard Work, Simplicity, Truth-seeking and Pragmatism.” The school made those words its official motto.

But not all of these visits cause a big stir. Since graduating from Tianjin Nankai Middle School in 1960, Wen Jiabao had gone back three times. The most recent trip was in 2002, when he appeared in a dark jacket and made it clear to staff that he was just “looking around” and that they shouldn’t call attention to him. He quietly went to see some students after they finished evening classes.

The Power of “Senior Fellows”

Keeping a close relationship with powerful alumni can pay dividends for some schools. Last year former Premier Li Peng set up the “Li Peng – Yan’an Education Fund” which provided 3 million yuan in financial aid to students at his alma mater Yan’an University. 

Former Premier Zhu Rongji (朱镕基), on the other hand, has always been proud of the Tsinghua University School of Management he graduated from. Over the years he’s used his influence to help facilitate cooperation between the school and MIT and Harvard. When making foreign visits, he’s even been known to introduce himself as a Tsinghua professor and director of the School of Management.

In June 2001, Zhu resigned from his official position as the school’s director. At his farewell ceremony, he gave a speech saying, “This is my goodbye to Tsinghua. I will probably never come back physically, but don’t worry. My heart is always with her. I will cheer her every achievement, care for her every difficulty and criticize her every shortcoming. Farewell! I’m a Tsinghua man forever.” 


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