China: Expelling “Western Values” from the Classroom

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Reprinted from GIMUN Chronicles

By Caroline Mountfield

AP Photo/Colour China Photo
AP/Colour China Photo

China has greatly expanded its higher education system as its economy has grown, with the total number of universities and colleges more than doubling in the past decade. Such an impressive outcome was only accomplished by giving priority to providing quality tertiary education across the country. In enacting an “educational innovation system”, China’s objective was to provide a proficient workforce to feed its socio-economic development. This implied setting up courses in key disciplines, talent development, improving research, widening participation and enhancing collaboration between institutions. As elsewhere, academic opportunities in China are shaped by a range of non-educational factors, such as social attitudes and changing patterns of employment and prosperity. However, traditional perspectives and Marxist commitments to fixed social roles and collective identities create a very distinctive structure when moving towards a more inclusive education system. China’s ruling Communist Party has long railed against Western values, including concepts like multi-party democracy, individualism and self-advocacy.

Anti-Western sentiment in China has increased since the early 1990s, especially amongst the Chinese youth. Notable incidents such as the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the 2008 demonstrations during the Olympic torch relay and alleged Western media bias, especially in relation to the March 2008 Tibet riots have resulted in a significant anti-Western resentment. Although available public opinion polls show that the Chinese hold generally amicable views concerning relations with the United States, suspicion somehow remains over the West’s motives towards China, emanating largely from historical experiences. These suspicions could increase with the Communist Party’s “Patriotic Education Campaign”.

In recent months, restrictions on academics appear to have been tightening. Late last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for greater ideological supervision in universities, urging authorities to step up the party’s “leadership and guidance”, and “improve the ideological and political work”. Mr Yuan, China’s education minister, said tertiary education institutions should “never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes”. Remarks “that slander the leadership of the Communist Party of China, smear socialism or violate the country’s constitution and laws must never appear or be promoted in college classrooms”.

Several cases of professors being dismissed or thrown into jail testify that controls on academics have tightened since Xi assumed the party leadership in 2012. After writing multiple articles criticising the Chinese government and refusing to apologize, law professor Zhang Xuehong says he was sacked by the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai. His case is not isolated. Mr Xia, an economics professor at the prestigious Peking University, was fired from his post in 2013 for persistent calls for political change in China. Xia was one of the original signatories of the reformist petition Charter 08, whose main author Liu Xiaobo remains in prison even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The minister’s comments can be seen as a warning to Chinese academics. Although textbooks promoting “western values” have not officially been banned, it has been firm reminder to those working in the arts, academia and China’s non-profit sector, of their subservient role.

Two months ago, a Chinese province sparked an outcry by announcing plans to install CCTV cameras in university classrooms. Lawyers say that this measure would further hurt academic freedom. Such means have already been practiced, like in the class of Ilham Tohti, an economics professor, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for separatism in September. Footage from the classroom cameras was used as evidence to convict the scholar. This case was highly condemned by human rights NGOs. Since becoming president, Xi Jinping has actively pushed the study of traditional Chinese culture. Such a stimulus has also encouraged a backlash against Western customs. Last year, for example, the education bureau in the eastern city of Wenzhou issued a circular banning all Christmas activities in local schools.

Despite censorship, reactions have burst onto social networks since the initiative of Mr. Yuan. A sceptical Chinese citizen raised his point: “The Chinese constitution states that the country must stay bonded to Marxism and the children educated following the principles of internationalism, communism, dialectical materialism and historical materialism, all of them born in the West before reaching China. The number of cases where China has learned from the Occident is countless. Therefore, could you, Minister, be kind enough to tell me where the border line stands between “Occidental” and “Chinese” values?”

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