Shandong University’s “Buddy Program” Controversy is a Vivid Example of Why Uncalled for Altruism Backfires

The Chinese Internet has been boiling recently with droves of users eager to weigh in on the latest goings-on at Shandong University. What might sound like a lousy remake of Gossip Girl is a totally true story in which a provincial Chinese university was accused of sweetening up foreign students by providing each of them with several “study buddies” of the opposite sex. Shady right? But taking into account all the flabbergasted comments from the representatives and students of the university alike, it appears that this is just another case of excessive benevolence gone wrong.

Let’s go back a little to get a better idea of what happened. Shandong University, one of China’s top schools, introduced a student pairing program in 2016 to help its foreign students get accustomed to living in a new environment. In a year the program was updated and allowed anyone to sign up and enjoy its numerous benefits for a year, which included for foreigners as many as three companions and for the Chinese students – mostly an opportunity to practice english.

The need to have three study buddies, although fishy, can be justified by the fact that Chinese students easily outnumber any body of foreigners in any given school in China. And, naturally, matching all the local and overseas students, who signed up for the program would require some asymmetry.

But here’s where things took an unexpected turn. A notice issued by the school in 2018 made its way to Weibo, where it went viral. It stated that thanks to the “Buddy program” 141 Chinese students were successfully paired with 47 foreign students, mostly of the opposite sex. As it was found later, the registration form for the program stated explicitly that the buddies should be of opposite genders in a sentence that reads like an amateur Tinder bio – “make foreign friends of the opposite sex”. Ironically, the majority of foreign students in the program happened to be male, with most of their Chinese counterparts being female.

Shandong University Buddy Program party in 2018
Shandong University Buddy Program party in 2018 (Photo from 山东大学研究生会 on WeChat)

So here you have it, a school unconsciously plays matchmaker, and it seems like even the local students didn’t realize how ridiculous the whole set up looked, until the story made nationwide news. Recently, one of the Shandong University professors stepped in to defend the program, saying it was well-received by students and calling the current social media outburst a “malicious misinterpretation.” Some Chinese students spoke up, too. The SCMP quoted one student, “We are victims of a social media outcry. We have few English-speaking international students in our university but everyone hopes to improve their spoken English.”

Most Chinese, however, found the situation insulting, demanding that foreigners be treated equal to everyone else. Apart from the buddy program, Chinese universities provide scholarships and roomy accommodations to attract overseas students, while these luxuries are often not available for locals. Representatives of a more extreme crowd used it as an opportunity to throw in a couple of racist slurs mainly targeting African students. Some rowdy foreigners did not shy away from making foul shots either, including buddy program participants themselves, as a screenshot circulating online suggests.

(photo: weibo)

A quick Google search shows that similar buddy programs exist throughout the world. There is even a Europe-wide program simply titled Buddy System that is supported by the Erasmus+ Key Action 2 Higher Education fund. Similar programs are also offered by many American and Canadian schools, including McGill, Canada’s top university. None of those, however, draw attention to participants’ gender.

Shandong University has recently apologized for the wording used in the program registration form and all the “negative impact” it caused. The school claimed it never intended to emphasize pairing students of opposite sexes and promised to conduct a thorough reassessment of the program. The situation spiraled so out of proportion that after a question from a reporter even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to get involved, stating that China welcomes foreign students, and accenting that as long as they abide by Chinese laws and regulations, their rights and freedoms will be guaranteed. While this controversial story is approaching its overdue finale, there’s but one rock-solid takeaway that we can make – undue kindness can result in the weirdest conundrums.