On “thought control” in universities

Posted: January 6, 2012 in Politics
Tags: , ,

Recently Vice-President Xi Jinping called for more thought control over university students and lecturers. “University Communist Party organs must adopt firmer and stronger measures to maintain harmony and stability in universities,” he said. This is presumably to ensure his transition to president later this year goes smoothly.

However, this is unlikely to have much of an impact and could actually backfire to some degree. Universities are already packed full of political education. To get an idea of what students are already contending with, here’s a question from last year’s grad school entrance exam:

23) In September 1954, the First National People’s Congress held its inaugural meeting in Beijing, marking the establishment of the people’s congress system. This is China’s fundamental political system where people are the masters. This system is_____

  • A. The Chinese Communist Party’s great creation of combining Marxism and China’s reality
  • B. The Chinese Communist Party’s achievement of leading Chinese people through a long struggle
  • C. A reflection of the common interests and aspirations of the people of all nationalities in China
  • D. The inevitable choice in the social development of modern China
[All answers are correct]
(Click here to see more translated questions from this exam)
Students usually must take “philosophy” classes that extoll the merits of Marxism, Leninism and Maoism while only mentioning other ideologies to highlight their inferiority. And students are regularly required to attend meetings with timely political aims. One such meeting I remember from my time teaching was after the 2008 snow storm when all the students were gathered to watch a video glorifying the PLA’s rescue efforts and top leaders’ management of them.
These political initiatives in universities seem to be tolerated by students, but rarely embraced. In fact, they’re often viewed quite cynically and mocked. Over the past few months I’ve interviewed dozens of college students specifically about these things for pieces on political testing and military training. A few bought into the dogma wholesale, but overall students seemed to be aware to some extent that the political education is subjective at best…complete nonsense at worst.

I should note though that only a handful were overtly opposed to the political education. While many said they hated it personally, they said it was necessary to keep unity in ideology among others – which ensures harmony.

But I’m not sure what Xi Jinping has in mind to increase “thought control” further. If this means more political seminars, he’ll only be increasing awareness of the party’s insecurity and blatant propagandizing while giving students more to snicker about.

And perhaps more seriously, it could mean another step backwards in the attempt to get Chinese students to be more creative. When I asked Dr. E. Thomas Dowd, president of the American Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology, about political questions like the one above, he said, “People are constrained to think only in certain ways. So I guess by definition you can’t have much creativity under those conditions. In fact, in Hitler’s Germany a lot of thinkers of all kinds fled the country. Not just because they were Jews or communists or other unwanted groups; it was because they couldn’t exercise their creativity in that sort of state where only certain things were acceptable.”

A Marxism professor who teaches political subjects at a test-prep academy in Beijing told me straight up, “They’re not testing the ability to recognize fact. They’re testing the ability to recognize the correct opinion. The goal is to make the students achieve the same opinion and choose according to what they learned instead of their own mind.”

To a large extent, I’ve found Chinese students to be incredibly creative when put in the right situation. But when students are taught that opinions are fact, then they aren’t thinking in a way to find truth. They’re thinking in a way to find the answer they think  the higher-ups want to hear. The ideas may be there but the confidence to act on them isn’t.

So Xi Jinping’s idea to increase political indoctrination in schools seems to be self-defeating all around. But maybe these political seminars aren’t what he has in mind. “Young teachers have many interactions with students and cast significant [political and moral] influence on them,” he said. “They also play a very important role in the spread of ideas.”

So maybe his aim is to better monitor teachers and remove the ones that put forward unsavory ideas. If that’s the case, I think it’s time to stop and have some serious self-reflection on the path he’s setting the country on.

  1. I agree with your post that this is a problem for creativity, however the benefit is social stability. While I don’t always agree with the China government, I am impressed as to how they’ve managed to maintain relative harmony in a country with the world’s fastest growth rate and with a marked and expanding gap between rich and poor.

    Sometimes conformity is the key to achieving bigger goals, though the price may be the delay of being able to implement a high value creativity economy in the longer term.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, this is an interesting piece.

    • sinostand says:

      I’ll have to respectfully disagree. I don’t think this benefits social stability, and even if it did, it’s not worth it. I was impressed with China’s social stability up until about 5 years ago. Like you said, it does play a role in development, but I think China is at the point where it’s time to move beyond “stability at all costs” – which in fact, is setting the stage for greater instability in the long run.

      China won’t move up the value chain in the way that’s needed to continue growth if they don’t loosen these controls. 1 in 4 college grads are already unable to find jobs, and if there isn’t more creative input, it’s going to get a lot worse as wages rise and manufacturing jobs move down the pay scale to southeast asia. And having educated kids unemployed is a big recipe for instability.

    • Marel says:

      Begun, the great internet eudaction has.

  2. FOARP says:

    Having seen my fair share of riots in both Nanjing and Shenzhen before leaving China in 2007, and then not seeing these incidents in the news, the only thing I am impressed by is the success with which the CCP has kept people in the dark about just how unstable China really is.

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