Tea Leaf Nation

Signs of Resistance to China’s Latest Ideological Crackdown

Forcing students to reject ideas from the West may just encourage them to live there instead.

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

The Chinese government is telling its educators and pupils to forswear Western ideas. But teachers and students aren’t sure they agree with the new, stringent policies designed to enforce the ideological shift, and they are voting with their feet.

On Jan. 29, Chinese Education Minister Yuan Guiren summoned administrators from China’s top universities, including Beijing-based flagships Tsinghua University and Peking University, to lay down a new government mandate. Colleges must not allow classrooms to be “infiltrated by textbooks that spread Western values,” Yuan informed university officials, and ideas that “smear” socialism or the Chinese Communist Party leaders must be banned. The minister also indicated that Western textbooks used in Chinese classrooms should receive greater scrutiny.

University officials soon called for political conferences to inculcate the new guidelines, and delivered verbal and written pledges of loyalty to the party. Zhu Jidong, a top-ranking propaganda official at the government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, even suggested in a Feb. 2 essay that professors who criticize socialism or the party be singled out as one might when “plucking nails.”

This new round of ideological tightening has generated a chilling effect. Professors, especially those in the fields of humanities and the social sciences, feel the ice under their feet becoming dangerously thin — maybe impossibly so. “Every aspect of (China’s) laws, be it the concept or the institution, are converging with the West,” said He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, in a Jan. 30 interview with German outlet Deutsche Welle. “If Western values are banned from China’s legal education, we’ll have no idea how to teach our classes.” On Weibo, China’s huge Twitter-like microblogging platform, Professor He further pointed out the hypocrisy of the new mandate. “Top [Western] universities are crowded with high-ranking party leaders’ children. To protect the leaders’ children from Western values,” He wrote, “shouldn’t the Ministry of Education require them to only go to socialist countries, such as North Korea, for study abroad?”

Many educators and intellectuals in China have expressed concern over the ideological mandate’s impact on the vitality of Chinese intelligentsia and the quality of the country’s higher education. He Sanwei, a columnist at privately run Southern People Weekly, argued in a Feb. 7 Weibo post that “imported books and original texts are very important to academia. If the government prescreens these research materials,” He Sanwei asked, “how can there be scholarship?” He wrote that parents, not the government, should decide how their children are educated. And in a Feb. 9 interview with party mouthpiece People’s Daily, Gong Ke, the president of the prestigious Nankai University in the northeastern city of Tianjin, warned of ideological extremism. Gong said, “I object to the online chanting demanding to cleanse, purify, and rectify faculties. It belongs to a 1957 or 1966 state of mind.” Gong was referring to the government-led Rectification Campaigns and the Cultural Revolution, two ideological cleansing and suppression movements against Chinese intellectuals that had disastrous results.

Outflow of talent is a problem for China — and the party knows it. A June 2013 article in party mouthpiece People’s Daily concluded that China had the “world’s worst brain drain.” But subjecting Chinese education to further political and ideological interference may hurt China’s long-term strategy to stop its losses. Wang Dongcheng, a professor at the China Youth University of Political Studies, a training ground for future political leaders, wrote in an article published on Social Sciences Forum in July 2013, “The problem with education is, above all, the epitome of the problem with the state system, social culture, and political institutions. The party government politicalizes education to strengthen its authority.” Chinese education experts have long blamed a lack of academic freedom at Chinese universities, among other factors, for driving Chinese students and their parents to look overseas for higher education alternatives. Zhan Jie, a graduate student at New York University, is one of them. She says she has been passionate about human rights advocacy for years, but she told Foreign Policy that she understands this research field is “inconveniently sensitive” back in China, which stunts its development as a discipline there. “I chose to come to the United States to pursue my Master’s degree in political science, because I felt it would be less constricted here, and that I would receive a better education,” she said.

Statistics suggest the brain drain is real. Each year, more Chinese students have been opting out of the Chinese higher education system and heading Stateside. According to the Institute of International Education, 274,439 Chinese students studied in the United States in the 2013-2014 academic year, a 16.5 percent increase from the previous year. According to that data, since 2007, the number of Chinese students on U.S. campuses has grown by ten percent or more each year; there are now five times more Chinese students in U.S. universities than there were in 2000. A thornier problem for China is that the majority of the students who go abroad chose to stay. According to the statistics aggregated by China’s Ministry of Education, from the start of Chinese economic reform in the late 1970s to the end of 2013, the aggregate number of the students who went abroad for education was 3.05 million; only 1.44 million of them returned.

An even higher percentage of Chinese with advanced degrees have chosen to stay abroad. A January 2014 study published by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, which is affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy, tracked the 4,121 Chinese students who received science and engineering doctorates in the United States in 2006. In 2011, five years after their graduation, 85 percent of those students remained in the United States, far higher than the 66 percent average stay rate for all foreign science and engineering doctorate graduates. The only country with a greater percentage of engineering doctoral graduates staying in the United States was Iran, at 92 percent.

To reverse the outflow of talent, in 2008 the Chinese government launched a new initiative, the High-Level Overseas Talents Recruitment Program, to attract foreign and overseas Chinese experts to the country’s leading research labs and universities. In addition to salary and benefits, financial support for recruited experts includes lump-sum grants of $160,000 from the central government as well as research subsidies in some cases. As of 2014, this program has successfully attracted more than 4,100 top minds in various fields of science and technology from around the world, including over 1,400 renowned professors, 46 foreign science and engineering academicians, and three Nobel Prize laureates.

To be sure, more students have returned of late. An official 2013 survey showed that 72.3 percent of overseas Chinese students expressed strong interest in landing jobs back home. To some extent, this is the lingering effect of the 2008 financial crisis, which devastated job markets in many Western countries. The steady growth of China’s economy against the dire backdrop of global economic downturn has offered overseas Chinese student a convenient plan B. But it remains to be seen whether these numbers will persist as Western economies recover.

It’s impossible to predict or gauge exactly how China’s latest crackdown will affect its effort to retain talent. But it’s clear that in order to nurture and retain world-class academics and researchers, China needs creative intellectual communities and robust higher education institutions. Forcing Chinese academia into an ideological straitjacket is unlikely to help. After all, “you can ban textbooks, but you can’t prevent people from pursuing their dreams,” wrote Yu Shenghai, a financial and economic writer, on Weibo. “You can blindfold others, but it doesn’t mean that enlightenment belongs to you.”

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Liang Pan is a freelance writer and a doctoral student in political communication and international relations at the University of Washington.

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