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As an English teacher working in a Chinese university, I took the opportunity following the recent UK election to introduce my students to a little something called democracy. They didn’t relish this as much as you may think, as many of them have been successfully conditioned into believing that one-party government is the best way. However, they did enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the British system, as all of them will be travelling overseas to work or study, many of them to Britain. I have three cohorts of students: university foundation course students destined to join British universities; local government workers being sent to study in British universities; and Chinese professors planning to go overseas, mostly to America, as visiting scholars.
Socioeconomically these groups are quite divergent. The university students are largely from wealthy families who can afford to pay the high fees that British universities charge overseas students. Conversely, many of the university professors hail from very poor backgrounds, although having fought their way to the upper echelons of Chinese society, they can now gain lucrative work on government projects that can substantially boost their relatively meagre teaching wages. The local government workers are probably the most middle class of the three cohorts, although they would insist they aren’t because most Chinese people consider themselves comfortably off only when they are rich.
During my week of classes I gave the students in each of my classes (totalling around 180 students) a brief overview of the election pledges of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, the Greens and UKIP. As a class we then went through the overview together while I explained difficult words (and ideas) such as referendum where necessary, being careful not to sway their decision-making process by offering any of my own views on the five parties. Once they understood what each of the five parties were offering I gave them ten minutes to make a decision and allowed them to discuss openly amongst themselves.
Then came the voting. This required two or three attempts with most classes, as Chinese students of any age don’t like to vote on anything. This may not, however, be due to unfamiliarity with the act, but rather because they are mortally afraid of ‘losing face’, by saying or doing the wrong thing in front of their peers. In English classes this situation is likely more pronounced. Once all votes had been successfully registered, I found that their choices were markedly different to the UK electorate’s.
In every class the Greens were the winners, usually by a landslide, with the students telling me (with varying degrees of fluency) that they liked the ten- pound per hour living wage paid for by taxing large firms. They also thought the environment should play a big role in government decision-making. I had somewhat expected this amongst the eighteen-year-old university students but was more surprised to find the older, more sophisticated professors and government workers agreeing with them. The three parties that alternated in coming a distant second in different classes were Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Among them, policies the students liked were Labour’s eight-pound per hour minimum wage (which some saw as more realistic than a living wage), the Liberal Democrats’ pro-European stance and UKIP’s plan to lower income tax but raise corporation tax.
The party who resonated least with the students were the Conservatives, although those who voted for them liked their plan to increase apprenticeships and help start-up businesses. Entirely of their own accord they seemed to have come to the same conclusion as many in Britain: that they are the ‘nasty party’. This was odd considering that I did let slip that UKIP aren’t too enamoured with foreigners. And it was even odder given that the source of my election primer (the simplest one I could find) was www.bridalbuyer.com, not exactly a hotbed for anti-Conservatism judging by their advertisers, articles and the omission of the SNP from their primer.
Once votes had been registered we then got to the fun part: the real result. Many of the students knew that the Conservatives had won, but they didn’t realise how that result had come about and what it meant. So on the board I showed them the percentage of votes that each of the main parties had gained in the UK election. They were mightily surprised to see that the Greens had fared so badly. However they were more surprised when I showed them the parliamentary seats each party had won.
Once they saw that the Conservatives had translated 36.9% of the popular vote into 331 seats, yet Labour’s 30.4% equated to only 232 seats, the more observant students saw that something didn’t quite add up. For the rest it was left to the apparently third-placed party to really let the absurdity of the British voting system sink in, as 12.6% of the vote had translated into only one parliamentary seat: a good thing for them, I assured them, but not for the idea of democracy. That the ‘fourth-placed’ party had gained eight times that number of seats turned many shocked expressions into bemused ones. And that the Greens had won just one seat, seemed to sadden many. I further deflated them by letting them know that the voter turnout of 66% meant that only about 25% of the voting-age UK population had voted for the ‘nasty party’, but that they now enjoy a clear parliamentary majority. And so the unwitting lesson in British democracy ended on a sour note and, I’m sure, most of the students went back to the Chinese world about them filled not with the hope of one day achieving democracy, but rather with the determination of staving it off.
Ben Keegan is an English teacher with Shanghai International Studies University. Born in Ireland, Keegan is writing a book on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.