Written by Andreas Fulda.

The Greater China region is undergoing profound changes. While the process of economic integration of Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China continues unabated, there are increasing signs of social and political fragmentation in all three regions. China’s rise is thus overshadowed by rising public discontent at its periphery. Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement is a case in point. From 26 September until 15 December 2014 thousands of people occupied parts of the city for 79 days to underscore their demand for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong in compliance with international law.

Under very different socio-economic and political pretexts neighbouring Guangdong province has been hit by a wave of labour unrest. Throughout the year 2014, migrant workers have become increasingly vocal in demanding social security benefits that companies have withheld from them over many years. Taiwan too has seen its own share of public discontent over a proposed Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement by the Ma Ying-jeou administration. From 18 March until 10 April 2014 hundreds of students occupied the Legislative Yuan for 23 days to block the ratification of the service trade agreement and thus sparked mass protests throughout the island.

In order to explore in-depth the root causes and effects of economic integration and social and political fragmentation of Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, I took eleven undergraduate students from the University of Nottingham on the Greater China Field School (GCFS). The GCFS is a revamped version of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies’ highly successful Field School module, which previously had only focused on mainland China but now also includes Hong Kong and Taiwan as travel destinations.

From 28 March until 16 April 2015 I facilitated the experiential learning of participating students by visiting political party headquarters, government agencies, businesses, cultural entities and non-profit organisations as well as rural and urban communities in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Hualien and Taipei. This was an excellent opportunity for participants to gain a first-hand insight into contemporary history, politics, economics, society, culture and language of the Greater China region.

The Greater China Field School differs from conventional modules insofar as the students engage in experiential learning. Participants do not only read academic texts about a given issue (e.g. economic modernisation in southern China) but can also discuss their theoretic insights with practitioners (e.g. a factory manager of a multinational corporation in Shenzhen). Such conversations are thus informed both by theory and practice and allow students to engage in reflective learning.

This is what students had to say about their learning experience during this year’s Greater China Field School:

“I came here not really knowing what to expect. I did not know too many members of the group. What has happened here is an education. I have definitely readjusted my lens slightly about my thoughts of Greater China, such as specific areas like Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Taiwan. And [it’s been]an adventure,  definitely an adventure. I have made some great friends along the way.” Oliver English, Economics with Chinese Studies BA, Year 3.

“Overall, the Greater China Field School has been a wonderful experience which has allowed us to put what we have learnt in the classroom environment into real-life scenarios. Not only have we been able to experience true culture, but we have experienced the political background and the environmental  and economic issues. On the flip side it’s also been amazing fun. We got a lot of free time. We have been able to explore all kinds of touristy destinations, the little pockets of interest, which we might have not otherwise discovered. So it’s been just a wonderful experience and one that I will treasure for many years to come.” Laura Woods, Geography with Chinese Studies BA, Year 2.

“The Greater China Field School has been a really interesting experience for me. I have been able to see places within Greater China that I otherwise would not have visited myself. We have gained new perspectives on the economic, political, and social issues that we have been discussing in class. We have experienced some really nice cultures, and I think it has helped me widen and broaden my horizons on general issues across the world and the China way of life”. Monica Yeadon, Economics with Chinese Studies BA, Year 3.

“The Greater China Field School has been a really good experience. I think it was interesting to see the differences between Hong Kong, southern China and Taiwan – even just the differences in food, in etiquette, language and culture. They were all slightly different and interesting to learn about. I think you have to be quite adventurous – I would have never thought that I would try wasp wine or frog saliva! But you have to really embrace the opportunity that you are given while you are here. . and I think you have to sort of go with the flow and actually try things, otherwise you don’t make most of your experience. I really enjoyed it.” Amy-Rose Pearson, International Management BA, Year 3.

“I would highly recommend anyone to take part in the Greater China Field School. It has been an amazing experience. My favourite place out of the three we visited would definitely be Hong Kong. It is the most western, but still has a Chinese feel to it, and its own Hong Kong independence. China has definitely been an experience. It is a unique and individual place and I really don’t think there is anywhere like it on earth. Taiwan is one of the most beautiful islands I have seen in the world so far Now that I have seen the island, the people, the countryside, the seaside, it’s been beautiful and it is somewhere I would definitely think about coming back again.” Georgia Rose Winston, Geography with Chinese Studies BA, Year 3.

 A 14-minute documentary about the Greater China Field School 2015 offers some further staff and student reflections.

 Andreas Fulda is Lecturer in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and leads the Greater China Field School. Image by the author.