From above, the sun beams and Shenzhen glitters. A gleaming metropolis of glass and steel, it is the most densely populated area of China, with 14 million people living and working amidst its towering skyscrapers. Over the past three decades, its growth has been exponential. 30 years ago Shenzhen was little more than a tiny fishing village set amongst forested hills and mango trees. But due to its proximity to Hong Kong it was singled out in 1979 as China’s first ‘free economic zone’, spearheading China’s experiments with a more open market economy. The area today stands as a powerful symbol of the success of that experiment, and though other free economic zones now exist, Shenzhen is widely credited as being the area that has propelled China towards prosperity and what some call its ‘post-Socialist era.’
Fitting, then, that Shenzhen should be the home of what many believe is China’s most exciting educational experiment in recent history: the South University of Science and Technology. Led by the well-known Professor Zhu Qingshi, a respected scholar and former president of the University of Science and Technology of China, the university admitted its first cohort of 45 students ‘illegally’ in March 2011, before the university had received official approval from the Ministry of Education. This decision to launch the university without the permission of central government was unprecedented, unambiguously signalling its intention to fight for autonomy and the ‘right’ to innovate.
It was a bold move. Staff and students alike took a huge leap of faith in deciding to work and study at SUSTC while its future was still so uncertain. But they are united in their belief that it was a risk worth taking. “The university offers hope to people across China,” says Li Xu, the young and lively faculty member who has been assigned to be my host during the course of my visit. “Many people are disillusioned with the current education system. They are demanding something new – a modernised system to meet the needs of a modernised world.”
Li Xu has come to greet me at the airport in one of the university’s several brand new, chauffeur-driven cars: money, at least, is not something that the young university lacks. “The Shenzhen local authorities have committed to investing in this university,” Li Xu tells me. “They want to transform Shenzhen from an area that is dominated by manufacturing to one that is more high-tech and innovative – but they recognise that, in order to do this, they need a cutting edge R&D university, which attracts the world’s top talents and the best minds.”
Yet the challenges of doing this within the restrictions of the political system in China cannot be under-estimated. Li Xu herself is one of the 11 million inhabitants who are ‘migrant workers’ living in Shenzhen: originally from Beijing, the hukou system in China - which was originally designed to prevent too many rural workers from migrating to cities - forces her to live on a ‘temporary residency permit.’ “Because of the hukou,” Li Xu explains, “you often can’t automatically get medical care or access to appropriate child care if you’re not a native of the city in which you work.” This bureaucratic hangover of an ancient system represents a fundamental problem for those who wish to develop a highly skilled workforce: how do you attract international talent to an area where non-natives have to fight to get their kids into kindergarten?
Despite these challenges, the support for SUSTC from the media and people across China has been so great that is has elevated ‘brave’ Professor Zhu Qingshi to celebrity status.