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China Wants to Rid Its Universities of 'Western Values'

The country’s leaders worry that reforms implemented more than three decades ago have allowed non-traditional ideas and teachings to undermine communist ideology and Chinese culture.

by Samuel Oakford
Jan 31 2015, 1:10am

Photo by Kevin Dooley

China's education minister has instructed universities to eschew textbooks that endorse "Western values" — the latest indication of alarm among the country's leadership that reforms implemented more than three decades ago have allowed non-traditional ideas and teachings to undermine communist ideology and Chinese culture.

Minister Yuan Guiren's remarks on Thursday at a meeting of university officials came a week after China's State Council General Office, part of the country's central Politburo, issued a bold directive that described higher education as "a forward battlefield in ideological work" and declared that "strengthening and improving higher education propaganda and ideology work is a major and urgent strategic task."

Yuan stated that officials "absolutely could not allow teachers to whine while teaching, air their resentments, or spread negative spirits to their students," according to remarks quoted by state media outlet Xinhua.

"Strengthen management of the use of Western teaching materials," Yuan urged. "By no means allow teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms."

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Though Yuan was directly targeting textbooks used by universities, his comments reflected President Xi Jinping's emphasis on traditional Chinese culture and teachings. Last year, Xi demanded that universities "improve the ideological and political work" they undertake. But given the heavy reliance in Chinese universities on texts written elsewhere, it remains unclear what this effort will entail.

Even if the policing of educational texts proves difficult, the Chinese Communist Party has shown a willingness to crack down on educators who run afoul of their dictates. Several professors at state schools have been fired for criticizing the government since Xi took power in 2012. Last month, officials in the southern province of Guizhou announced that they would install CCTV cameras in university classrooms to "monitor teachers."

"Chinese central authorities are definitely amping up their ideological controls over higher education," Carl Minzner, a professor of law at Fordham University and expert in Chinese governance, told VICE News.

In light of Yuan's statements, some Chinese social media users pointed out the striking hypocrisy among the Politburo members, many of whose families live abroad and whose children pursue education at prestigious Western universities. In 2010, Xi's own daughter, Mingze, enrolled at Harvard University — an institution widely celebrated for promoting Western educational values.

The unease among China's central leadership shows them grappling with a less-welcome corollary to reforms that began in the late 1970s and opened the country to world markets. China has enjoyed unprecedented economic growth and lifted millions of its people out of poverty since then, but along with this prosperity has come a heightened awareness among its citizens of other cultures and political systems.

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Even as China has cemented its status as a world economic superpower, little has changed in the way of press or political freedoms since students mounted demands for democracy and transparency during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that were violently suppressed by security forces. The prospect of a resurgent democratic campaign within the country has worried the Politburo ever since.

"Starting in 1978 until the early 2000s, China was very much looking outward to the rest of the world to bring in experiences they thought could be beneficial," Minzer explained. "We're reaching an inflection point here, where the center is now coming up with some new language about where they want to go that's very much at odds with that."

'In the age of globalization, I really appreciate the opportunity that Chinese students can enjoy a different type of education, and that's a sign of advancement in education.'

The change in posturing by China's leadership comes as hundreds of thousands of the country's students — not merely the children of government officials — are flocking to American schools. According to the Institute of International Education, a record 274,000 Chinese students enrolled at colleges and universities in the US during the 2013-2014 academic year, a rise of 17 percent over the previous year.

Chinese students are coming to the US at earlier and earlier ages, many to attend prestigious and expensive private high schools. Last year, more than 30,000 Chinese teenagers attended American high schools.

Shortly after Yuan's statement, a contingent of American and Chinese primary and high school principals were meeting at the start of a two-day summit at the United Nations to discuss augmenting exchange programs between the two countries. Several Chinese educators who had toured elite American schools said that they wanted to adopt parts of the curricula and teaching methods they had seen in action — elements that could be prohibited under China's strict education policies.

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Dou Guimei, the principal of the primary school at Beijing's Tsinghua University, which already runs an exchange program, told VICE News that she really liked "the creativity and imagination in US education," and said that she wants her students to share classes with American pupils who are the products of such schooling.

She added that the local government is fully supportive of her program "because they want to have a more broad worldview."

Tsingua, like many other Chinese universities, has published translated versions of English language textbooks, including a guidebook on reporting written by Columbia Journalism School professor Melvin Mencher.

Ye Cuiwei, the principal of the prestigious Hangzhou #2 High School, told VICE News that more than 12 percent of his 2,000 students already take part in a study abroad program focused on a Western curriculum that prepares them to take American advanced placement tests and British A-levels.

"They strive to attend top universities in the States," Ye said. "In the age of globalization, I really appreciate the opportunity that Chinese students can enjoy a different type of education, and that's a sign of advancement in education."

Like Dou, Ye said that local officials had supported and encouraged his school's expanded purview. "All different areas in society are supporting this type of development," he claimed.

Asked about Minister Yuan's remarks, Ye replied that he hadn't yet read them.

For now, much of the Politburo's focus has been directed at universities and professors. But Minzner suggested that the directives will likely work their way down to local education officials that control primary and high schools.

"I think the fallout of what the center is doing is still percolating down," he said.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
Photo via Flickr