Show of Power, or Carnival of Sycophants?

May 03, 2011

The who’s who of China’s elite gather at the 100th anniversary celebration of the prestigious Tsinghua University.

On April 24, 2011, Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious institutions for higher education, celebrated its 100th birthday.


Tsinghua University is famous as a factory for engineers and scientists, many of whom head directly to the United States after graduation. Often called “the MIT of China”, Tsinghua ranked first as the university that produced the most number of PhD students in natural science or engineering at U.S. institutions in 2006, ahead of Cornell University and University of California at Berkeley.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and his heir apparent Xi Jinping both graduated from Tsinghua.

However, Tsinghua is more notable as a cradle for politicians in a technocracy that depends on engineers to build the infrastructure. Two hundred and fifty of its alumni are or were heads of Chinese universities; 480 are or were officials at or above the provincial/ministerial level. Chinese President Hu Jintao and his heir apparent Xi Jinping both graduated from Tsinghua.

Priding itself on its large elite pool of students, Tsinghua took the grand celebration to another level. The campus was decorated with flying colors. On the outside walls of each and every school building hangs banners that read “Welcome to the alma mater, alumni!” A massive stage was built on campus for an evening song-and-dance. Nobel laureate in physics Chen-ning Franklin Yang and Jackie Chan, among other celebrities, were invited to the gala and held the stage.

A joke said that Tsinghua’s centennial celebration had so many alumni to accommodate that it had suggested to those who are lower than the bureau level in the political realm, who owns less than 10 million as an entrepreneur, or who hold no professorship as a faculty member, to make do with a meal in any little parlour outside Tsinghua’s western gate for the reunion, instead of heading straight for the university grounds.

A convention marking the centennial anniversary of Tsinghua University was held in Beijing’s Great People’s Hall. A star-studded line-up of politicians, academics, presidents of world-class universities and business tycoons – including six of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee – joined over 8,000 people in the meeting. The banner hanging from the second floor of the auditorium reads, “Thoroughly apply the Scientific Outlook on Development, accelerate construction of a world-class university, strive to train socialist builders and successors who have all-round attainments in moral, intellectual, physical and aesthetic education.” Netizens were flabbergasted, “This is not a celebration of a university. This is a Party Central meeting.”

This is not a celebration of a university. This is a Party Central meeting.

Liu Daoyu, former president of Wuhan University, said: “The entire celebration did not stray from its traditional model – making a big fanfare, inviting dignitaries to the show, and pulling out all the stops to sing praises and showcase strengths.” Gong Xiaoyue, Former editor-in-chief at Xiaoxiang Morning Post even said that the centennial celebration is “a feast of power, a carnival of sycophants and a convention on how to succeed”.


706 Chinese president Hu Jintao, a Tsinghua alumnus, gives a keynote speech.




709 Richard Levin, the president of Yale, addresses the ceremony held at Great People's Hall.


Kuai Dafu

Among those who showed up for the celebration was Kuai Dafu (蒯大富), a high-profile rebel leader during the Cultural Revolution. A industrial chemistry major enrolled in 1967, Kuai Dafu led multiple Red Guards revolutions. Some people say that in Tsinghua’s 100 years of history, two years belong to Kuai Dafu.

During his studies at Tsinghua, Kuai Dafu denounced several Communist leaders at public meetings, including Liu Shaoqi, then head of state; Mao’s biggest rival within the party, Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader after Mao’s death and economic reformer; and Bo Yibo, father of the political wonder boy Bo Xilai. In order to inveigle Wang Guangmei, wife of Liu Shaoqi, out of their domicile, he telephoned Wang, claiming that her daughter had been hit in an accident and was in hospital. Soon after Wang arrived, his Red Guards detained her and forced her to do self-criticism in front of a huge crowd.

710 Wang Guangmei, wife of Liu Shaoqi, was detained and forced to make self-criticism by Red Guards led by Kuai Dafu


711 Kuai Dafu returns to Tsinghua for the centennial celebration.




From April to July 1968, Kuai Dafu called on his Red Guards to fight another Red Guards group at Qinghua University, seeking control of the university, which was later called the hundred-day battle at the Tsinghua University. Thirteen were killed in the conflict, more than 400 were injured, including over 30 were permanently crippled.

The legendary Kuai Dafu was sentenced to 17 years’ imprisonment after the end of Cultural Revolution. However, Tsinghua students surrounded him on seeing him at the celebration and asked for his autograph.


Zhu Rongji 

Zhu Rongji, former Chinese premier, also went back to Tsinghua for the event. As a Chinese politician, he enjoyed a great reputation for his pragmatism and relentless efforts to fight corruption and push for economic reforms. He had been maintaining a very low profile since he left the office in 2003. However, at the meeting with students last Friday, the Tsinghua alumnus made jaw-dropping remarks.

713 Zhu Rongji, former Chinese premier who graduated from Tsinghua, recommends a banned book on Chinese peasantry to students.