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Love is blind but not the authorities
( 2004-01-10 00:20) (China Daily by Raymond Zhou)

Love is in the air but some lovers cannot freely breathe it or they'll risk their diplomas or careers. Raymond Zhou looks at the tug of war between lovebirds and the authorities who hold the line on ethics.

Cai Zhenhua [filephoto]
Forrest Gump might have been puzzled. If he and Jenny, his childhood sweetheart, had had an open fling in the early 1970s, he would not have made the national ping-pong team -- that is, if he were Chinese.

The national ping-pong team has just sacked four players for romantic involvement. When people questioned the severity of the penalty, coach Cai Zhenhua explained that, technically, it was not sacking, but returning them to the provincial teams where they came from; and their offence was not "dating", but "dating that negatively affected their job performance".

"If their ping-pong playing skills improve, our door is always open to them," Cai added.

Love takes it own sweet time, that could be better spent on "proper activities" such as studying, training and working, according to some educators and employers. Falling in love can be an adventure, and falling in love under certain circumstances may carry a hefty price as it is frowned upon on campus or in some workplaces and may result in being shown the door.

But some people won't take it lying down. They say there is nothing in the law book that forbids adults from courting one another. "We thought stories of forced separation happen in period melodramas only, but obviously some want to keep the tradition alive into the 21st century," reads a commentary in Shenzhen-based Jingbao newspaper.

Much ado about love

College students are the most vociferous in protesting puritanical policies. Many of them take it for granted that campus is the best environment for lovey-dovey interaction. "I have nothing else to do besides studying and sleeping. It would be a sin if I don't use my spare time for dating," says Du Yang, a 23-year-old Nanjing University senior.

A survey in Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province, reveals that 63 per cent of college students indulge in amorous affairs out of peer pressure or a sense of loneliness. It also finds that almost all have had dates, but 80 per cent of the relationships end before leaving the campus. Less than one per cent leads to marriages.

Most colleges do not forbid dating outright. There are exceptions, though, such as Shenyang Aerospace Institute, where young women training to be airline stewardesses not only draw stolen glances but make jaws drop wherever they show up. The school specifically prohibits romantic dalliances, and does not even allow men to visit their dorms.

Xue Zhaofeng, an economist, offers a theory that justifies the old-school way of outlawing campus amour but argues against it in this day and age. Attending college used to be a privilege and all expenses were paid by the State. Since you didn't pay for the education, you'd have to obey the rules of whoever was footing the bill. But today's students are "consumers" and colleges are "service providers". There is an implicit contract between the two. It's like a restaurant that refuses service to those who do not wear suits and ties. It has this right if it is spelt out. On the other hand, when there are more choices, such as for-profit schools, things will change.

Some scientists have come out to support the notion of college romance. "From a sociological point of view, it is an exploration of uncharted territory between the sexes. In the process women can learn the beauty of men's rationality, and vice versa. And society will be more harmonious," maintains Zhou Xiaozheng, professor of sociology at Renmin University of China.

Campus cuddling

Government-funded or privately financed, students are almost unanimous that dating should be allowed. It is usually the public display of affection, humorously known as PDA, that has aroused much controversy. It not only includes hugging, kissing and holding hands in public, but also feeding each other in the school canteen -- a ritual of flirtation common on many campuses.

The campus is the ideal place for making out, says one female student in a Beijing college. There are lovers' corners, usually by the lake or in the woods, that attract an inordinate number of campus Romeos and Juliets. Some schools have explicit policies banning such trysts, while others crack down periodically or even have "sweep" days that often precede the visit of outside officials. Those who are "caught" in the act are issued warning notices or token fines, sometimes even threatened with expulsion.

"PDA should not be encouraged, but neither should it be forcibly prohibited," says Hu Bo, a student in Beijing. But many students, as well as most school authorities, tend to see it as an embarrassment. "What is all this fuss about spoon-feeding? It's not like someone is sick and bedridden. It's more an affectation than affection," goes one argument. "It may look sweet on screen, but it's an eyesore in reality."

Those who place passion above all else see it differently. "If love is allowed, why should the natural expression of it be banned?" they contend. "Hey, light up. We're not intruding on other's rights here."

However, one thing may lead to another, and according to a Sina.com poll of college students, which is unscientific in nature, about 45 per cent of respondents admit they have had sex in college. That is a big no-no and has serious consequences if found out by the authorities.

In 2002, a pair of lovers in a Chongqing college, Zhang Jing and Li Jun, were kicked out of school when the girl got pregnant. They filed a lawsuit asking for 1 million yuan in compensation. The court encouraged them to settle, but the school insisted on the students issuing a formal apology and acknowledging the "inappropriateness of their behaviour". Neither side was willing to back down and the case was rejected by the court.

Late last year, a new regulation was issued by the Ministry of Education, rescinding phrases like "morally bad or ethically evil" in penalizing students for this kind of behavior. It also gives students more leeway, adding that borderline cases should be treated leniently. "But this case in Chongqing happened way before the new regulation took effect and must be dealt with by the old regulation," says an officer surnamed Zhao, who is the Party secretary of the school.

Campus opinion is divided. Many see the pregnancy as stupidity. Now that the new regulation allows marriage, why all the fuss about restraining intimacy, asks Jiang Hongbing in a People's Daily commentary. "Before I denounce the schools for over-strict supervision, I'd rather believe they have their raison d'etre. But they must know that managing a generation that has a strong sense of the law and worships individualism will be more and more difficult," it reads.

Puppy love finds patron

When one shifts down the age gear from college to high school, opinion is almost unanimous that students should not date that early. Parents and teachers tend to take the approach of flood control to those who are tasting young love for the first time.

But one person is experimenting with an alternative. Zhang Lin, head teacher of No 171 High School in Beijing, deliberately moves kids with budding romances closer in seating plans. As she analyzes, these feelings cannot be suppressed even if you want to. If you keep them apart in class, they'll secretly pass notes to each other, which is a big distraction. But if they share a desk, they have a more natural setting for communication.

Zhang adds that much of the mutual attraction comes from not knowing each other well. Once curiosity is out of the way, the relationship would be tested by more fundamental factors like understanding and personality.

When she moved three pairs together, she told them that she did it out of respect for their feelings, and she hoped that they would respect hers, too. "Be someone who has self discipline and who can take responsibility," she advised them.

These students went through high school without any problems such as low grades. And they were still together when they enrolled in college.

"I'm not encouraging 'puppy love', but if you take it as a grave issue, it will be self-fulfilling," Zhang explains. Adolescents are by nature rebellious. They'll more likely try out something because you, as an authority, bar it.

Sociologists assert that teenagers are now physically mature around the age of 13. If you want to blame something for the surge of high-school dalliances, you should blame the good food you feed your kids, which is the root of their fast growth, some claim.

Min Lefu, researcher of teenage education at Beijing Education Science Institute, praises Zhang Lin for improving "traditional teacher-student relations", but he does not feel that letting potential lovers share a desk is the necessary option.

Some of Zhang's colleagues have voiced strong opposition. "It's too risky. What if it leads to something complicated?"

"We should distinguish between moral and legal standards. What is discouraged and what is prohibited by law are two different things," Zhan Zhongle, associate professor of Peking University Law School, tells China Daily. "Proper guidance is the best option when students caught in passionate romances suffer poor grades or psychological complications. If you punish one with the mindset of `killing the chicken to scare the monkey', you'd more likely destroy the future of this person than offer a chance to piece his or her life together."

Liu Xue and Sun Wei are college students now. They used to be in Zhang's class, sharing a desk. "We always helped each other with our school work. What really counted is not whether our relationship bears any fruit, but the teacher's tolerance and understanding. Whatever comes out of it, it will always be a good memory."

Pros and cons

While serious debate centres on the legality of banning college dating and the practicality of discouraging it for fear of affecting studies, students with a sense of humour have come up with alternative interpretations of the advantages and disadvantages of campus hanky-panky.

* Ten reasons you should date in college:

You exhibit self-confidence, which would shine through in contrast with classmates who are lonely and know only about theories of romantic liaison;

You feel your life has a purpose, now that you don't have any time to spend on such extracurricular activities as playing cards or video games;

You'd spend less money on group entertainment or drinking yourself unconscious. A bottle of Coke and a bag of snacks go a long way when shared by just two;

You develop the rare virtue for college boys and pay attention to personal hygiene;

You become an overachiever because you wouldn't want to lag behind and beg for handouts from parents after you graduate;

You have more tolerance and restraint from winning an argument because you do not want to disrupt your temporary peace with a high-pitched voice constantly in your ears;

You amass a vast reservoir of knowledge and learn of every tabloid story about movie stars and athletes to find common ground in conversation;

Roommates feel more comfortable when you frequently come back in the wee hours and hence give them more space;

You become so creative as to instantly find a dozen reasons to ask for leave from a class;

You have the stamina to sit through longs hours of boring movies in dingy halls and try out every menu in the neighbourhood.

* Ten reasons you should not:

Language and computer proficiency tests become so much easier now that you have time to actually prepare for them;

You are not ripped off by telecom companies that charge phone calls by the minute as you'd have no need to go through every mundane matter with your date;

You know what freedom means when you don't have to torment yourself about which shirt in your laundry basket looks least dirty and is presentable for the occasion;

You have more integrity and avoid making compliments that are either unintended or outright lies;

You have more appreciation for life as there's no chance of duelling with a rival;

You develop a vast reservoir of knowledge because you don't have to pore over every tabloid in the market;

You have a healthy lifestyle by spending more time on sports and less money on oily food;

You don't need to worry about losing a date, but are always in the position of gaining one;

You have less chance of getting soaked in rain and falling ill while waiting outside someone's window;

You will not suffer from insomnia by writing love letters into the wee hours of the night.

Office romance enters a deep dormancy

Office romance has always been a given in China. To an extent it was even encouraged. When man and wife both work for the same employer, the reasoning goes, it makes family life and office work so much easier to co-ordinate and more efficient.

As a matter of fact, when a college graduate first takes a job, he or she immediately scouts the office for candidates available for dating. If the newcomer does not do it, the colleagues will do it for him or her.

But things are changing. Multinational corporations and private companies increasingly discourage office affairs. When office politics are mixed with private life, it will be detrimental to both, many employers claim.

A human resources officer at UFSoft, a Beijing-based software firm, tells of an incident when two employees started dating each other. They spent too much time together and it interfered with their job performance, even negatively affecting their co-workers, he says. So, the company has made it a policy that no immediate relative of a current employee should be hired. If employees date each other, one party has to go within one month of the marriage or their relationship being exposed.

We don't want to form a culture of nepotism, Han the HR officer explains. It would throw a wrench in the principle of fairness and equality. Imagine a superior and a subordinate are a couple, managing the team would be real difficult and team-mates would be justified to suspect preferential treatment.

The funny thing is, Wang Wenjing, the company's CEO, fell in love with and eventually married a department manager of his own firm. Mrs. Wang had to quit her job so as not to break the corporate rule. Fortunately these cases are few and far between, Han says.

Most firms do not put the ban in the company guidebook. Instead, they advise employees not to date or they would be "encouraged" to leave the job. Kingsoft, another software maker, turns a blind eye when an office romance is in the underground stage. Once it becomes public, one party would be "advised" to quit, according to Gao Ningning, assistant to the president.

But some legal experts do not see it that way. Inside dating and marriage does not violate the labour law or the marriage law, argues Zhan Zhongle, associate professor at Peking University Law School. Instead, banning it has no legal base. That's why most employers do not dare to put it down as company policy and some even deny the existence of verbal warnings.

Surprisingly, white-collar workers are not grumbling. It's not easy to get into one of these companies in the first place. Besides we have been forewarned, so there's nothing unfair about it, many acknowledge. So the laws of economics are in play here.

But State-owned enterprises (SOEs) tend to take a different approach. Chang'an Group sponsors special tours for its single employees, creating opportunities for them to get to know one another outside the office environment. It even awards each new couple 500 yuan for tying the knot. "The Chinese saying 'an ju le ye' makes a lot of sense as one has to 'make a home' first and then 'take pleasure in work'," an executive with the company rationalizes.

Some companies adopt flexible policies on corporate "incestuous" relationship. They prohibit it when they see a conflict of interest or potential risk for abuse. For example, no couples are allowed to work in the accounting department.

Others take a totally laissez faire attitude. "Hey, this is not a school and we're not school administrators. What employees do with their private lives is their own business," exclaims a Chongqing Beer Group personnel manager, without realizing that college rendezvous have always been kept underground and are only now coming out of the dark.

"You can fire an employee for poor performance -- if it's induced by office romance, but you cannot mete out penalty simply because of the romance," Professor Zhan remarks.

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