China’s Youth Admire America Far More than We Knew
The Communist Party's is responding with a sweeping ideological crackdown on its universities.
In early December, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the country’s universities to “adhere to the correct political orientation.”
Speaking at a conference on ideology and politics in China’s colleges, he stressed that schools must uphold the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership and “guide the broad masses of teachers and students to be strong believers” in Marxist theories and socialist core values.
The conference had the highest profile attendee roster of any education event in recent memory: top university officials, representatives from the country’s military and propaganda apparatuses, and four of the seven members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. In case Xi’s speech left any doubt as to the meeting’s purpose, China’s education minister explained it in an article the following day. “Schools,” he wrote, “are the prime targets for the infiltration of hostile forces.”
For years, China’s leaders have feared that they’re losing their grip on the ideological loyalty of the country’s youth. According to official rhetoric, the forces wresting away young minds are cultural warfare waged through alluring foreign pop culture and the infiltration of “Western values.”
With the Party firmly in control and no obvious stirrings of a youth-led insurrection, it would be easy to write off this sentiment as paranoia. But according to researchers who study youth attitudes and how they are shaped by popular culture from the West, the commissars may not be so far off the mark. A series of surveys conducted over the past decade have found that many Chinese college students — perhaps even a majority of them — prefer elements of liberal democracy to China’s one-party system. “I think there is a real threat,” said Stanley Rosen, a University of Southern California political scientist who researches the relationship between Chinese youth and the state. “Certainly they’ve interpreted [the collapse of Communism] in Russia and Eastern Europe, at least in part, to the infiltration of Western culture.”
When actor Alan Thicke died in December, there was an outpouring of sympathy on Chinese social media among a generation that had come of age with Thicke’s affable father character on Growing Pains. One of the first U.S. television shows to air in China in the early 1990s, it presented a lifestyle and culture in stark contrast to what Chinese state television offered. “Although this show was from the other side of the world, ordinary Chinese people could relate to it,” one Chinese man recently told the Los Angeles Times.
Growing Pains’ early 1990s broadcasts in China may be as good a marker as any separating the Chinese generations that came of age before and after an explosion in access to foreign culture. Those born in the late ’80s and ’90s grew up as American entertainment rapidly became accessible — both through censored official channels and uncensored mediums like bootleg videos and the Internet.
Today, Hollywood imports still offer an attractive alternative to state television’s tightly controlled lineup dominated by historical costume dramas and anti-Japanese war films. Yang Gao, a Singapore Management University sociologist who researches foreign entertainment’s influence on Chinese youth, says that American television is massively popular among young Chinese for its perceived authenticity. “This fascination is coinciding with the rise of the new ‘golden age’ of quality television in America, with complex characters and unconventional storytelling,” she said. “By comparison, Chinese TV can feel uninspired with relatively predictable plotlines and unambiguous characters. Heroes are heroes and villains are villains.”
Gao says that the Chinese generation born in the ’80s and ’90s came of age amid a clash between traditional collectivist culture and the emergence of individualism. In this atmosphere, Hollywood characters have provided young people a basis on which to interrogate their own identities that isn’t often found in state-sanctioned sources.
“Growing up we were taught to obey,” Gao said. “It’s written all over the political discourse and goes down to the very cultural fabric of society: We value conformity and harmony. But at the same time, economic development is arousing this neoliberal ideal: You must be independent and autonomous — you’re on your own now.”
In research Gao conducted with university students in Beijing, she found that Hollywood themes of spontaneity, nonconformity, and self-realization particularly resonated with young Chinese fans of American television. “While many students applaud misfits, oddballs, or otherwise unconventional figures on U.S. TV, what seems to have more forcefully struck a chord is the image of a ‘challenger,’” she wrote. “Someone who fights against powerful social establishment or authority.”
One of Gao’s subjects, a 21-year-old undergraduate, reported being inspired to go to law school by the TV drama Boston Legal’s depiction of lawyers suing government agencies like the FDA. “. . . [To] me, it’s a gesture of challenging authority, which suggests that the authority is challengeable,” the woman said. “But in China, I’ve never been exposed to that idea at school, not to mention watching the government get blamed or sued on TV.” Said another interviewee, “Whatever the reality is, American TV always reflects a distrust of and challenge to authority, whereas Chinese media basically dodge the issue.”
These values are at direct odds with what the state tries to instill in its youth. Every September, all incoming college freshmen must attend weeks of military training designed, in part, to instill collectivism, love for the Party, and obedience to authority — the culmination of an education that stresses socialist values and the unchallengeable supremacy of Communist Party rule. Extensive censorship of Chinese entertainment likewise insists on messaging conducive to social stability and the “correct” moral values.
China’s censors have attempted to clamp down on popular websites offering American shows like NCIS, The Practice, and The Good Wife, and then met with widespread anger among the shows’ Chinese viewers. In 2014, when The Big Bang Theory was removed from streaming sites, livid fans went online to deem China “West North Korea.” The term was quickly blocked on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media platform.
Gao said that even seemingly innocuous characters on apolitical comedies like Friends and Sex in the City can leave identity-altering impressions with young Chinese, and prompt them to question the values promoted by their schools, parents, and the government.
“There is a generation gap that is greater when it comes to interpretation of the sub-textual messages in those shows,” she said. “With ideas of individualism, democracy, more liberal thoughts, and this elevation of ambiguity and complex individual attitudes over unification and conformity — this is something I think younger generations are more appreciative of than the older generation.”
How deeply Hollywood’s influence has penetrated China’s young generation is unclear, but over the past decade, its members have demonstrated what appears to be a small but growing willingness to challenge authority.
One of the first major environmental protests involving tens of thousands of participants occurred in Xiamen in 2007 over a proposed chemical plant. It was a largely youth-driven rebuke to authority that would repeat itself in cities across the country over the following years. By 2011, Sina Weibo — which was overwhelmingly used by people born after 1980 — was hitting its stride, with Internet vigilantes felling a succession of corrupt officials and exposing government misdeeds and cover-ups.
In early 2013, protestors both on and offline gave what was perhaps the most significant challenge to authorities since 1989 when they decried press censorship en masse after the staff of a liberal newspaper went on strike over particularly egregious government censorship. Students across the country uploaded pictures of themselves in support of the paper and hundreds protested in person outside its offices.
It’s against this backdrop that Xi Jinping ascended to China’s presidency in March 2013. Shortly after, the Communist Party’s fears of foreign ideological infiltration were laid bare with the leak of Document 9, an internal communiqué́ instructing cadres to stop universities and media from discussing seven taboo topics: Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neoliberalism, the Western concept of press freedom, historical nihilism, and questioning whether China’s system is truly socialist.
The document precipitated a sweeping crackdown that’s felled lawyers, rights activists, labor leaders, NGOs, journalists, social media influencers, and generally anyone who’s been outspoken against government policy. Since the imposition of this crackdown, large-scale public protests have ebbed, and Weibo is a shadow of what it once was.
Carl Minzner, a specialist in Chinese law and politics at Fordham Law School, says that December’s education conference suggests the campaign is now poised to reach deeper into academia. “This is big and dark,” Minzner said. “This is several years in the making and it will likely roll out in colleges over the next several years. We don’t know how far it will go.”
He added that this trajectory predates Xi Jinping’s presidency. In October 2011 — one year before Xi assumed China’s top leadership post — the Communist Party Central Committee emerged from its annual plenum with an agenda focusing on “cultural development” and protecting China’s “cultural security.”
The following January, then-President Hu Jintao elaborated on the perceived threat, saying that international hostile forces were stepping up their plot to Westernize and divide China. “Ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” he said. “The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.”
That same month, then-Vice President Xi Jinping gave his first signal that higher education would be a key battleground in this struggle. “University Communist Party organs must adopt firmer and stronger measures to maintain harmony and stability in universities,” he reportedly told a meeting of university Communist Party officials. “Young teachers have many interactions with students and cast significant [political and moral] influence on them. . . They also play a very important role in the spread of ideas.”
In late 2013, China established a national security committee to focus on “unconventional security threats,” including Western culture. A senior colonel working with the committee said that Hollywood movies were dangerously altering the thinking and values of China’s youth. This posture appeared to pick up steam in academia by early 2015, when China’s then-Minister of Education Yuan Guiren reportedly ordered university officials to disallow teaching materials that “disseminate Western values.”
In many ways, this ideological battle builds on a narrative established after the violent suppression of the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square protests. In the aftermath, the Communist Party realized that its legitimacy, which rested largely on championing socialist egalitarianism and proletarian internationalism, was untenable amid its obvious embrace of capitalism. So it instituted a “patriotic education” in schools that stresses historical “humiliation” at the hands of foreign aggressors. It insists on the inevitability of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” — an official euphemism for the Communist Party’s monopoly power over a capitalist economy — and goes to great lengths to discredit the desirability of “Western democracy.”
This nationalistic education, coupled with China’s torrid economic growth, is often credited with subduing any interest in lofty political change among the country’s young. The most passionate and well-attended political protests of the past two decades have indeed been directed at the United States and Japan, which might appear to suggest political dissatisfaction has been successfully directed outward.
But studies again suggest that the young educated generation that is subject to the full force of the patriotic education is also the one that looks most fondly on the United States and its political system.
One 2007 survey of students at several Beijing universities found that 28 percent liked China’s overall political system, with 22 percent expressing dislike, and the rest remaining neutral. Conversely, 56 percent said they liked the overall American political system and only 4 percent disliked it. Results were similar with questions that probed more specifically into attitudes toward American personal liberties, separation of powers, and multi-party elections versus China’s centralized leadership apparatus.
The study tested knowledge about each country’s respective political system, and found that students tended to be “fairly well-informed” about both, and the more they knew about each side, the more they liked the U.S. system.
These findings would likely surprise anyone who’s spoken at length with Chinese college students, and they came as a great surprise to the study’s author, Professor Chen Shengluo of China Youth University for Political Science. In the study’s conclusion, he noted that in his prior personal interactions and face-to-face interviews with college students, they “almost unanimously” declared that Western democracy is unsuited to China.
“To put it simply, the survey results formed a sharp contrast with everyday impressions,” he noted. “How can we explain this contrast? It is possible, I feel, that the things we usually encounter may only be superficial and manifest political phenomena that cannot truly represent the real wishes of the majority of students.”
Stanley Rosen, the University of Southern California political scientist, says this accords with surveys conducted for internal government use never released to the public due to political sensitivity, which he accessed through contacts in government-affiliated think tanks. Rosen says one internal survey of history students at nearly three dozen universities, titled “The Influence of Western ‘Cultural Penetration’ and our Countermeasures,” found that more than half identified with American cultural concepts propagated by American media and entertainment; only 17 percent didn’t.
According to Rosen, it also found that 61 percent identified with “liberalism” and found it to be “a concept of universal moral significance, despite the fact that, as the surveyors put it, everyone knows that liberalism is part of Western political thought and the basis of the ‘democratic system’ associated with Western capitalism.”
Rosen agreed with Chen Shengluo’s assessment of the contradiction between everyday political conversations with Chinese students and the responses on these anonymous surveys: It likely suggests there’s a sizeable cohort that harbors critical thoughts of its government but does not speak out about these thoughts. “I think that’s what the government recognized,” Rosen said. “The people doing the surveys were shocked by the results, and you can be sure they’re seeing even more sensitive surveys.”
These findings don’t necessarily indicate the desire for a complete transformation of China’s political system. Rosen drew parallels to the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which are commonly referred to in the short-hand as “democracy protests,” but were in fact less about a whole-sale inception of Western liberal democracy and more about simply adopting certain elements like press freedom, personal liberties, and official transparency and accountability. “I don’t think [young Chinese today] would want the exact American system either — I think this past election gives you an example of that,” Rosen said. “But if things opened up more, then people would be freer to say ‘maybe these things aren’t such a bad idea after all.’”
“They don’t see any possibility for change in the Chinese system now, though,” he added. “Certainly not in the direction of a democratic system like the U.S. Given the perception that these things are not possible, people don’t think much in terms of how they might or might not work in China.”
What influence Donald Trump’s presidency will have on young Chinese opinions of American democracy remains to be seen. So far, anecdotally, opinions of Trump appear to be mixed. But admiration of American politics already has notable limitations. A survey of Chinese urban residents by professors from Duke and American University found what they deemed a “bifurcated image” of America. On a scale of 1 to 5, respondents gave American foreign policy and policy toward China relatively low approval scores of just above 2 on average, while American democracy, entertainment, products, and technology all received scores above 4.
“Nationalism matters,” the study concluded. “Nevertheless, nationalism’s impact on anti- Americanism is much more nuanced and complicated than conventionally assumed.”
It added that urban residents generally held more negative views toward U.S. foreign policy, but that attitude didn’t carry over into other political realms. “. . . [The] same group of people, despite heightened nationalism, are actually more likely to appreciate the U.S.’s advantages with respect to science and technology, education, political systems, and other socioeconomic achievements.”
The ability to tease apart American foreign policy from its culture, with an emphasis on the latter in forming impressions, appears particularly strong among China’s young. A 2016 Pew survey found that 60 percent of Chinese age 18-to-34 have a favorable view of the United States, compared to just 35 percent of those over 50. And a 2009 survey of Chinese under 25 years old found that “Hollywood” was the term that they most commonly associated with the United States.
“These young people are very pragmatic, even utilitarian people,” said Suisheng Zhao, a University of Denver professor who researches Chinese politics and nationalism. “They have much more information, more resources, more education, and they love American culture, music, sports, and movies. A lot of them even want to go to the United States”
“On the other hand, they’ve gotten used to China’s improving living standards and are proud of its rise,” he added. “And they’ve seen all those tensions between China and the U.S. and other countries in the last few decades and feel Western countries haven’t treated China well. So they have mixed feelings.”
While the “patriotic education” may not have particularly endeared China’s youth to their country’s political system or stopped them from looking fondly at politics in the West, it may still be having desirable effects for China’s leaders — just not in the way one might expect.
Haifeng Huang, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Merced, has conducted studies with Chinese university students testing the effects of political and ideological education. In one 2011 survey, he found that most students regard their college political courses as nuisances — only 8 percent said they even somewhat actively study for them. He went on to measure how much students actually absorbed from these classes by replicating questions they might see on their exams. (For example, on the question “What is the essence of elections in capitalist countries?” the “correct” answer is “An important measure to mediate the interests and conflicts within the ruling class,” since it suggests that elections in the West are merely facades.)
He also solicited the students’ feelings about China’s government and their willingness to partake in certain activities. He found that students with greater comprehension of the political education had no greater satisfaction with the government (more recent, yet-to-be-published surveys found that greater exposure to this education actually makes students trust the government less, Huang says).
However, those with greater exposure had a greater belief in the government’s capacity to maintain political order, and hence were less willing to express dissent through mechanisms like strikes or public protests. “That the government is capable of delivering the pompous and sometimes ludicrous propaganda without much overt opposition . . . has implied to the students that the government is strong,” Huang concluded.
In line with previous studies, Huang’s survey also found that 73 percent of student respondents agreed with the statement “Western political systems are very appropriate for our country.” Only 7 percent disagreed. Overall, students expressed lukewarm satisfaction with the Chinese government, but very little willingness to join public demonstrations of discontent.
“The conventional wisdom about propaganda in authoritarian countries, including China, is that propaganda tends to brainwash people,” Huang said. “My argument is that this kind of propaganda will not be able to indoctrinate people, but it may still be effective in that people see the government is able to impose a unified propaganda message on society. The government shows that it has high capacity in social control.”
He said that in coming years, the growth-driven performance legitimacy that the Communist Party has relied on to maintain public support will be stretched as the economy inevitably continues to slow and confronts painful restructuring. “The Chinese government cannot simply rely on performance legitimacy to sustain its rule,” Huang noted. “Given the central role that young people, and especially students, play in political crises, signaling social control capacity to them may actually become more important.”
Minzner, the Fordham University law professor, said that some of the rhetoric from the education conference on the role of professors in upholding the “correct political line” resembled that which preceded a redefinition of the role of lawyers, and a later spree of lawyer arrests. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in a year or so you see professors doing confessions on CCTV,” he said.
What was also striking from the education conference, Minzner noted, was the absence of the usual nods toward openness to the outside world and learning from foreign achievements and culture while developing China. Instead, there was an emphasis on guiding students to correctly understand the historic inevitability of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” when making international comparisons.
“I think they are sending a signal,” Minzner said. “And that signal alone will probably be enough to accomplish 70 or 80 percent of the goal by increasing self-censorship in universities. Then the push for ideological control may continue in some form until, ideally — from the standpoint of Party censors — it trickles down to students watching what they say even in the dorm room.”
Gao noted, though, that access to foreign entertainment is ubiquitous on university campuses through many channels. And when living on their own for the first time in a much freer environment compared to the years preceding their university entrance exams, students are especially anxious to access these resources to explore their own identities and worldviews. So the government will face an uphill battle in separating foreign culture from an educated youth cohort that’s especially thirsty for it.
“I think authorities have reason to be worried,” she said. “I heard discontent and criticism of the government among young people of the post-80s generation when I did my first research back in 2009, and I hear it now among the post-90s generation.”
“But I don’t think it’s some kind of fixed and packaged Western ideologies that they need to be worried about,” she added. “It’s the creativity and critical abilities that young people are honing through processing all this outside information and exposure to alternative ways of life.”