Xi Wants Chinese Students Back in the Countryside

New labor education policies echo Maoist obsessions.

A Chinese employee works on vehicle parts at a factory in Jinan in China's eastern Shandong province on May 11, 2019.
A Chinese employee works on vehicle parts at a factory in Jinan in China's eastern Shandong province on May 11, 2019. STR/AFP via Getty Images

As the novel coronavirus outbreak waned in China, millions of wary students in select provinces and cities have gradually returned from their bedrooms to their classrooms. Myriad health safety measures await them, as does a new policy designed to promote their physical activity. The cause isn’t COVID-19 but a renewed ideological campaign barely noticed outside the country.

China’s cabinet, the State Council, and the powerful Central Committee quietly announced joint guidelines on March 26 to improve China’s “labor education.” Once referred to as the “biggest shortcoming” in China’s education system by a top official, the measures look to reverse declining physical activity among Chinese youth while instilling “the Marxist view of labor.” “Over the years, some youth have become less appreciative, less willing, and less able to perform manual labor,” the document states.

The newly released rules call for more manual labor activities in curriculums across academia to inculcate students with a “hard-working spirit.” Schools from the elementary to the university level must provide mandatory labor classes, including vague activities that “work up a sweat” and household chores like doing laundry. While the policy is short on specific activities, it hints that students will do work at companies, farms, and factories.

The policy is the latest undertaking in a broader government initiative to reshape Chinese education along increasingly tight ideological lines. President Xi Jinping has stressed modernizing China’s exam-oriented education system while ensuring it remains firmly tethered to Communist Party orthodoxy and Chinese socialist principles. He has repeatedly called for an education system that cultivates five quintessential qualities: “morality, intellect, physical ability, aesthetics, and work ethic [labor]”—a mantra that harks back to Mao Zedong’s first educational policy in 1957.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China’s education system has oscillated between politics and scholarship. Slogans spoke of being both “red and expert,” but the two were more often in contention. William Saywell, a former top Canadian diplomat, wrote in 1980 that Chinese education shifts “between education as a party device designed to inculcate and sustain revolutionary values and education as a governmental instrument used to promote modernization.” As with virtually everything else in China under Xi, the pendulum has swung hard back toward redness. This time, instead of inculcating revolutionary values, it’s their ideological cousin, “Xi Jinping Thought”—the blueprint for national rejuvenation that’s enshrined in the party’s constitution.

At the national education conference in 2018, Xi elevated the ideological importance of labor education by designating it a requirement in training China’s future “builders and successors of socialism.” Not one to forgo a symbolic opportunity, the Chinese leader announced the strategic shift on Teacher’s Day. “While promoting a spirit of labor, education must guide students to uphold and respect labor, as well as understand that it is the most glorious, most lofty, most grand, and most beautiful principle,” Xi said.

The first indication that Xi’s labor agenda was being put into practice appeared in 2019 with a modified gaokao, China’s daunting college entrance exam. Students participating in the exam that summer were tested on the five qualities championed by Xi, including “labor” for the first time.

Xi’s own reverence for the red virtues of labor traces back to his experience as a teenager toiling among peasants in the yellow-silted terrain of China’s rural northwest. Mobilized under Mao’s notorious “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement,” Xi was one of around 17 million young urban intellectuals relocated to China’s countryside to be reeducated in the bucolic beliefs of the common citizenry. In 1970 alone, 10 percent of China’s urban population was sent away, a program that continued into the 1980s in some areas. Even recently, Xi has championed a “rural rejuvenation” that culminated in a Communist Party program to send university and vocational students on voluntary trips to China’s backcountry.

For many of the sent-down teenagers, the experience was a deeply traumatic one, especially for young women who often became victims of sexual abuse. Others remember their youth through rose-tinted glasses—including, it seems, Xi himself, for whom the countryside was a refuge from the murderous intrigues that caught up his politically exulted family. According to Chinese state media, the 15-year-old Xi’s experience doing hard labor toughened him into the dogmatic yet down-to-earth leader he is today. In 2003, Xi wrote that “the hard life of the grassroots can cultivate one’s will.” Other fellow rusticated youth—many of whom occupy the highest rungs of Communist power—lament that values like frugality and perseverance have become relics of a foregone era in Chinese cosmopolitan cities. A 67-year-old Xi is now looking to rectify the extravagance of the present by renewing China’s relationship with its austere past, and that starts with education. The labor education guidelines state the need to redress “wrong ideas” that include “idolizing wealth,” “seeking pleasure,” and “reaping without sowing.”

Xi’s labor campaign to toughen Chinese students reflects the government’s deep-seated fear over the country’s perceived physically and mentally weak youth—particularly fear of a countrywide decline in masculinity. These worries have only been exacerbated in recent years with the rise in popularity of effeminate Chinese celebrities (or “sissies” as one editorial by the state-run Xinhua news agency wrote) and the realization that China’s one-child policy abetted a generation of needy boys devoid of self-reliance. Pockets of state media have depicted masculinity’s decline as a national “crisis” that runs antithetical to the country’s strongman image embodied by Xi.

Chinese officials’ current worries stem from past precedents as China’s national status has been historically tied to the overall stature of its male population. Against the backdrop of Western intrusion during the Qing Dynasty, local elites linked China’s decline on the world stage to Chinese male insecurity. Later, amid the Republican era in the early 20th century, Chinese intellectuals concluded that the country’s backwardness was a consequence of “weak bodies,” among others. Physical exercise was linked to military drills and an assertive new masculinity. Mao, who used personal outdoor excursions like climbing mountains and swimming rivers to telegraph the importance of physical activity, believed from early in his career that improving physical education was a key ingredient in enhancing China’s national power.

In theory, Xi’s labor education guidelines are part of a wider effort to steer China’s shift to an innovation-driven economy along the road to national rejuvenation. The plan is to rapidly move China up the global value-added chain—a country where product labels read “designed in China” as opposed to “made in China.” Chinese officials hope that by underscoring creativity and innovation in schooling, the party can meet looming national goals—even as creativity and innovation are actively discouraged as censorship grows and teachers are banned from using foreign textbooks or referencing outside ideas. What’s more, Xi is under additional pressure as 2021 marks the first milestone of the party’s “two centenary goals”—the building of a moderately prosperous society coinciding with the Communist Party’s 100th anniversary.

Even while top officials venerate labor with rhetoric and policy, in the hands of student groups, labor is viewed much differently. The Chinese government has long been suspicious of student-organized movements and campus activism for social causes like labor. Such suspicions have intensified under Xi—even avowed Marxists advocating on behalf of workers’ rights have been punished by the state, sometimes with assistance from universities themselves. In 2018, leftist students from Beijing’s prestigious Renmin University disappeared or were reportedly forced to participate in staged public confessions after joining a labor protest in the southeastern metropolis of Shenzhen.

A professor of education policy at a leading Hong Kong university who asked for anonymity out of safety concerns over China’s new national security law for Hong Kong said the impetus behind Xi’s labor education push is more about politics than economics. “On one side, he wants to be the world leader in high-end areas like 5G,” the professor said. “In the meantime, he will also want to control people in the basic and higher education systems, so he’s reemphasized labor education.”

The professor added that the reemphasis on labor education suggests a recentralization of government. It’s also to compartmentalize society, said the education scholar. “For that policy [labor education]—it’s a kind of social stratification to keep a high number of youthful students in the center layer of the labor market,” the professor said.

If recent educational reforms were intended to promote creativity and innovation, it hasn’t manifested in practice. An English lecturer at a university in China’s southeastern Fujian province who requested anonymity said there is a common perception among students that critical thinking isn’t a priority. “Year on year, they’ve become more indoctrinated,” the Fujian-based teacher said. “It’s become more difficult to get across the idea that you can think critically about something or, at the very least, look at something with a different perspective.”

In the hypercompetitive upbringing familiar to Chinese youth, the outsized importance attached to academic performance explains why many students are less than eager to perform manual forms of labor. Physical activities like manual labor hold little importance in a society that maintains test scores as the pinnacle of achievement. In life after academia, wealth, social mobility, and status appear as markers of success—albeit, with many young, middle-class Chinese growing increasingly apathetic to them. Yang Jieyi, a 24-year-old Chinese graduate student studying anthropology at University College London, said younger generations, specifically urbanites, have become “very self-centered” over the years. “It’s all about showing how successful you are on social media and how great you are by owning a nice house and car.”

Xi’s labor education initiative aims to politically sanitize such social ills. The policy is most importantly a means to remedy younger citizens’ lack of mental and physical fortitude by way of Xi’s party-centric ideology. Whether a renewed ideological focus through labor education produces greater political adherence among future generations, only time will tell. In the meantime, one aspect remains certain—labor education isn’t going away anytime soon. The reason: Officials plan on amending China’s Education Law to include the word “labor.”

Don Giolzetti is a China affairs analyst and writer based in Washington, DC.

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