Urban custodians and hospitable citizens: Citizenship and social actions of students at two liberal arts universities in Hong Kong and Shanghai

Cheng, YE and Jacobs, JM (2019) Urban custodians and hospitable citizens: Citizenship and social actions of students at two liberal arts universities in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Space and Polity. DOI: 10.1080/13562576.2019.1670053.

 The article is published as part of a Special Issue on Youth Politics in Urban Asia co-edited by Yi’En Cheng and Sonia-Lam Knott, which will appear in print April 2020. 


Dr Yi’En Cheng, National University of Singapore

Article Summary

Drawing upon the cases of two liberal arts universities in East Asian cities, this article trains the analytic lens on higher education practices and cultural arrangements that give meanings to politics and the political, and in turn addresses two interrelated questions: Where is urban politics located as it relates to the everyday work that students do to manage and create change? What constitutes youth politics in the city? The research that informs this article is a study on the travel of American-style liberal arts education into East Asia resulting in both curricular reforms as well as brand new campuses being built. It investigates particularly into the citizenship projects that underpin these initiatives. Fieldwork involving interviews and ethnographic observations was carried out in 2018 at Lingnan University in Hong Kong and NYU-Shanghai in China.

By focusing on the two groups of Hong Konger and mainland Chinese domestic students at Lingnan and NYU-Shanghai, this article offers an account of how young people’s citizenship and social actions are produced across spaces of the university and the city. It demonstrates that young students’ civic and political subjectivities are being shaped by and informing their social actions, and in the process reveal the ways in which higher education spaces condition and mediate youthful urban politics.

Both Lingnan University and NYU-Shanghai identify themselves explicitly as liberal arts educational institutions with a core vision of promoting a well-rounded learning experience that would cultivate students into cosmopolitan and moral citizens. An important element of this vision is for the universities to encourage community engagement among students, through designing a range of curricular, extra-curricular, and pedagogical programmes as well as supporting student-led initiatives tied to civic interests. This desire to instill a social purpose and to bridge the university with the communities that it serves has meant that the city – and its districts as well as neighbourhoods – is key to how both liberal arts universities view their role as urban educational and cultural institutions.

Hong Konger students at Lingnan University craft a narrative of liberal learning as a journey for young people to find ways to contribute towards society and to serve the communities that they inhabit, reflecting the university’s strategic blending of Service-Learning into its approach towards liberal arts education. They see themselves as urban repairers and innovators who aspire to take custodianship of a city that is perceived to be decaying under the weight of an inept government. There is a strong desire among these young people to safeguard a series of post-materialistic values that underpin their idea of the ‘good city’. Students seek to innovate projects such as those aimed at protecting local arts and culture (example of Cantonese as a linguistic resource) through which the ‘Hong Kong’ identity is define, and the protection of vulnerable urban communities in the city such as that of the elderly. This brand of urban custodial civic politics does not challenge political authorities head-on but seek to make right the urban conditions in which they envision themselves having to navigate and to grow up in. In a way, this is a politics not of overt contestation and conflict but of redress through direct action.

Mainland Chinese students at NYU-Shanghai define liberal arts learning as a process leading to individual expansion of worldviews enabling them to question their own political and moral orientations, particularly those that lie beyond China and what is being endorsed by the state. Through both earlier national education and present liberal arts curriculum, students develop a certain brand of urban ethic emphasizing the values of diversity and cosmopolitanism as well as a habit of solidarity and conviviality. By framing their aspirations and social actions as urban ethic, Chinese students can bypass an explicit identification with anti-government politics and political activism that is largely an out-of-bound topic within the national context. They mobilize through social media platforms, university clubs and societies, and hall committee to design a range of small-scale projects that reflect their civic aspirations and proclivities. Through these engagements, students rehearse their role as hospitable citizens of the city and the country by imagining themselves becoming cultural mediators of difference. This style of urban ethic constitutes a form of civic politics in that it addresses the possibility of collective culture, of respect, and of civility, and more importantly serves as a form of viable political expression for these young people.

Key contribution of this article is two-fold. First, it demonstrates empirically how higher educational institutions are informing and conditioning young people’s understandings of civic and political citizenship in relationship with the urban and national contexts. Urban politics as it relates to higher education therefore can be conceptualized as unfolding in and through the multi-scalar relationships formed across the cities, the universities, and the students, and the circulation of power across these sites in the forms of discourses and resources. Second, social actions of these liberal arts educated students point the importance of recognizing youth politics beyond galvanized antagonistic and activist movements. Furthermore, students practise a kind of generative politics concerned chiefly with protecting and making resources they imagine as vital to the city, as well as with cultivating urban sensibilities and relationships that help navigate consensus and conflict.

Lastly, custodial and hospitable styles of politics are by no means the only political genre undertaken by students at the two universities or young people more broadly at the two cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai. The ongoing political situation in Hong Kong is a reminder of how mass demonstration and antagonism are still an integral component of young people’s political repertoire. As such, urban youth politics expressed in the forms of civic/non-contentious actions or insurgent/antagonistic actions are not binary opposition; instead both forms serve to invigorate young people’s realm of political action. It is vital to maintain such a supple and less circumscribed view in order to more fully understand the relationship between cities and youth politics.

Relevant article

Cheng, Y.E. (2018) Liberal arts educated citizen: Experimentation, subjectification, and ambiguous contours of youth citizenship, Area. DOI: 10.1111/area.12440

 Corresponding Author Biography

Yi’En Cheng is Research Fellow in the Asian Migration cluster at Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore. His research interests lie in the intersection across education, youth, and mobilities in Asian cities. He is guest editor of Special Issues ‘Geographies of Citizenship in Higher Education’ in Area (with Mark Holton) and ‘Mobile Aspirations? Youth Im/mobilities in the Asia-Pacific’ in Journal of Intercultural Studies (with Shanthi Robertson and Brenda Yeoh). Prior to joining ARI, he was Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale-NUS College and Clarendon Scholar at University of Oxford where he completed a DPhil in Human Geography.

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