Teaching European Political Systems in China

In 1986, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies became the first Western academic institution to establish a formal presence in China, when it opened a campus in Nanjing, in collaboration with Nanjing University. Since then, and increasingly since 2004 (when the University of Nottingham became the first university to establish a full branch campus in the country in Ningbo), these Sino-Foreign collaborative universities have begun to proliferate throughout the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong.

Wenzhou-Kean University, the branch campus of Kean University (a mid-sized public university located in Union County, New Jersey), has been existence since September 2012, and has been the university that I have been lecturing courses on Political Science at since September 2014. While WKU does not have a degree program in Political Science (or a closely related field), students at the university are required to take classes in a social science subject as part of their “general education” requirements, the standard structure of American undergraduate programs which requires students to complete courses in a broad range of academic disciplines. If one is to ignore the language barrier, teaching Political Science in such an environment presents unique challenges which are not often faced by my colleagues and counterparts in Irish universities. For one thing, I often have to be careful what I discuss with students in class: even though WKU offers full academic freedom, topics such as the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre, the status of Taiwan, and Tibetan separatism and the Dalai Lama (amongst others) are culturally and politically sensitive subjects which have the potential to offend student sensibilities (at the least). For another, as was already stated, none of my students are studying towards a Political Science undergraduate degree, and as such, many of them struggle to grasp the relevance of these courses to their immediate studies or to their future careers. Most importantly of all, however, is the basic knowledge gap the average student has regarding Western, and particularly European, history and political systems, which necessitates some creativity and flexibility on the part of the lecturer to ensure that they can develop this understanding.

This last sentence should not be taken to mean that the students at WKU are unintelligent or are underachievers; on the contrary, the students at this university are some of the smartest, most diligent students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. However, given the often Euro-centric and Western-centric nature of political science, it is sometimes easy to forget that events and figures that are seen by Europeans as being of eminent importance, may not carry the same (if any) cultural or historical resonance in China. In a recent class, for instance, when trying to teach students about the balance of power in early- to mid-19th century Europe, I was surprised to find that almost none of them had heard of Otto van Bismarck, and several of them had never even heard of Napoleon Bonaparte. This is even more of an issue in Comparative Politics classes; while students will have some understanding of the United States system of government, fewer will have a knowledge of the parliamentary and semi-presidential systems of government more commonly found in Europe. Fewer still will have an awareness and an understanding of the complexities of voting systems, and their significance in terms of shaping and informing electoral outcomes. And while students have some awareness of the variations between individual political figures in the United States such as Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, they are not as clear about the differences between the more ‘niche’ political party types that can be found in Europe, such as Social Democrats, Liberal centrists, Greens, and the Radical Right and Radical Left. As such, when they begin taking Comparative Politics classes, they are truly starting from the very beginning.

Given the breadth of basic information that students need to learn in order to be able to successfully progress in this class, a traditional ‘lecture and reading’ approach can often leave students with a very thin understanding of the material. Additionally, given the nature of Chinese politics, the array of party platforms and positions that can be found in European parliaments (as opposed to the more familiar American system) is often somewhat abstract to the students at WKU, and as a result, may fail to resonate. In order to bring these differences to light, in the autumn 2016 semester I designed a simulation exercise which sought to replicate a general election in China, if China had the political system of a European country with a uni-cameral parliamentary system and a proportional system of voting. Students were split up into groups of four or five, and were asked to form a political party using a given archetype (Green, Populist Radical Right, Conservative, etc.) As part of this, they had to design a manifesto, and had to prepare an appropriate series of electoral campaign videos, posters, and so on. Additionally, they had to present their manifesto publicly, debate and defend it, and hold an election. Finally, once the results were tallied, students were required to work amongst themselves to form a workable coalition government, if needed. In this manner, the simulation attempted to bring to life the complexities of a European political system in a manner that is recognizable to Chinese students.

Results of the simulation were quite interesting; in each class where the simulation was performed, Conservative parties formed electoral pacts with the Radical Right archetype, although the successes of this strategy were quite mixed. The Green parties and centrist Liberal parties generally tended to do quite well, while traditional Social Democratic parties underperformed (in some ways mirroring the travails currently being suffered by Social Democratic parties throughout Europe). In terms of the “governments” that students formed, no party was able to win a full majority in any of the three classes, and three coalition governments were formed; a Conservative-Green coalition in the first class, a Liberal-Green-Radical Left coalition in the second class, and a Radical Right-Conservative-Liberal coalition in the third class. Students were debriefed at the end of the exercise, and were given some analysis about the future feasibility and cohesion of these coalitions, as well as the prospects for the parties who would now form the opposition in the would-be parliament.

Initial data from this exercise has been promising; student evaluations taken shortly after the conclusion of the simulation indicated that there was a small but statistically significant improvement in terms of the students’ enthusiasm towards the study of politics and political science. In the coming months, I will be gathering and analyzing further data to evaluate the effectiveness of this pedagogical approach. While it is too early to make strong statements about the effectiveness of this role-play simulation itself, the challenges of teaching politics and of teaching European political history in China suggest that an active-learning approach may just be the way to unpack abstract concepts and ideas, and to help relatively unfamiliar students to gain an understanding of the nature of politics in Europe.


Michael Toomey is currently a Lecturer of Political Science at Wenzhou-Kean University in Wenzhou, China. He received his Ph.D from Rutgers University in 2015 for his disseration on The Normative Disconnect: Normative Power, EU Enlargement, and Democratization in Hungary and the Czech Republic.


About cmlharris

Senior Lecturer, Department of Government, University College Cork, Ireland
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