FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

UK Election: the View from China

Shanghai.

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.

 

 

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
Robert Fantina
Yemeni and Palestinian Children
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Orcas and Other-Than-Human Grief
Shoshana Fine – Thomas Lindemann
Migrants Deaths: European Democracies and the Right to Not Protect?
Paul Edwards
Totally Irrusianal
Thomas Knapp
Murphy’s Law: Big Tech Must Serve as Censorship Subcontractors
Mark Ashwill
More Demons Unleashed After Fulbright University Vietnam Official Drops Rhetorical Bombshells
Ralph Nader
Going Fundamental Eludes Congressional Progressives
Hans-Armin Ohlmann
My Longest Day: How World War II Ended for My Family
Matthew Funke
The Nordic Countries Aren’t Socialist
Daniel Warner
Tiger Woods, Donald Trump and Crime and Punishment
Dave Lindorff
Mainstream Media Hypocrisy on Display
Jeff Cohen
Democrats Gather in Chicago: Elite Party or Party of the People?
Victor Grossman
Stand Up With New Hope in Germany?
Christopher Brauchli
A Family Affair
Jill Richardson
Profiting From Poison
Patrick Bobilin
Moving the Margins
Alison Barros
Dear White American
Celia Bottger
If Ireland Can Reject Fossil Fuels, Your Town Can Too
Ian Scott Horst
Less Voting, More Revolution
Peter Certo
Trump Snubbed McCain, Then the Media Snubbed the Rest of Us
Dan Ritzman
Drilling ANWR: One of Our Last Links to the Wild World is in Danger
Brandon Do
The World and Palestine, Palestine and the World
Chris Wright
An Updated and Improved Marxism
Daryan Rezazad
Iran and the Doomsday Machine
Patrick Bond
Africa’s Pioneering Marxist Political Economist, Samir Amin (1931-2018)
Louis Proyect
Memoir From the Underground
Binoy Kampmark
Meaningless Titles and Liveable Cities: Melbourne Loses to Vienna
Andrew Stewart
Blackkklansman: Spike Lee Delivers a Masterpiece
Elizabeth Lennard
Alan Chadwick in the Budding Grove: Story Summary for a Documentary Film
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail