"Therefore I am made indifferent": morality and agency among university students in China
Based on sixteen months of anthropological fieldwork with thirteen student organizations on the campus of a large elite university in southern China, this dissertation unravels the complex tensions occurring as students struggle for freedom, moral integrity, and political agency within the educational system of urban China. It documents how aspiring and idealistic young people were disillusioned because of cultural and structural constraints in the university environment and in the larger political context. Through participant observation and through recounting students' narratives of their experiences in extra-curricular organizations, augmented by the results of large-scale questionnaires, my dissertation also shows how their efforts to gain new but elusive freedoms were experienced not only as liberating opportunities but also as burdensome responsibilities. My findings further indicate that the pursuit of self-cultivation and individualistic goals among young people in China do not necessarily indicate individualization and consequently atomization and moral apathy, which many China scholars and observers have claimed. Rather, as these students negotiated novel social roles for themselves as moral citizens in post-reform China, they also carved out a new space in between the public and the private for relatively uncensored experimentation in democratic practices and social activism. Individualization in the Chinese society did not result in a total retreat into the private sphere. Rather, it inspired young adults to imagine and actively cultivate alternative moral universes in which small personal actions and relationships take priority. Using a number of methodologies, my dissertation examines the processes of power contestation, moral negotiation, and political subjectivation occurring in the controlled realm of student organizations. It documents how students eventually adopted attitudes of passivity and indifference to mitigate their disappointment, as they came to see their compromises with and manipulations of institutional bureaucracy as a practical necessity external to any consideration of morality. At the same time, displacement of moral agency paved the way for university students' active reinterpretation of moral personhood and their pursuit of a new style of responsible citizenship in post-reform China.