A Chinese government campaign to better control its classrooms is inciting a wave of detractors who worry academic freedoms are being squeezed and that the country is returning to an period of anti-intellectual Communist zeal.
Late last month, China’s education minister Yuan Guiren called on schools to “never let textbooks promoting western values appear in our classes,” according to the state-run news agency Xinhua. This week, a group of nine Chinese lawyers has asked for officials to publicize the legal basis of the ban and to define “Western values,” according to a blog post yesterday by one of the lawyers.
The president of China’s Nankai University also spoke out against the campaign today, warning against returning the mentality of China’s chaotic anti-rightist movement in the 1950s or the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. He said in an interview “I’ve read people on the internet saying that the ranks of academics must be cleansed, purified and rectified… I cannot agree with this.” A former vice president of Peking University, China’s top school, asked last month, how the government proposes to “delineate the line between “Western values” and “Chinese values.”
Criticism has gotten to the point that the central propaganda department has issued a directive to local media to take care to “suitably disseminate” Yuan’s points. The lawyer’s blog post has been censored from Chinese social media.
The criticism highlights the fact that campaign is likely more about monitoring China’s academics and public intellectuals than stripping out Western influence. After all, Chinese officials often proudly discuss their familiarity with Western history, literature, and philosophy.
In Paris last year, Chinese president Xi Jinping listed the many French writers he had read, claiming “by reading Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Sartre, I have deepened my understanding of how progress of the mind propels progress in society.” As a student at Peking University, premier Li Keqiang translated The Due Process of Law by the English jurist Lord Denning.
Specifically, the rules announced by Yuan call on academic institutions to bar statements in classrooms that attack party leaders or malign socialism, or allow teachers to “pass their unhealthy emotions to students.”
Rogier Creemers, of the Oxford China Centre, pointed out in recent commentary that China’s academics may be targeted because they are arguably the most internationalized professional group in China and also have influence over the country’s policymaking process. It may not be long before more provinces follow the lead of Guizhou, which has ordered its universities to install cameras in classrooms.