Chinese ideo-political education at the university level – equipping tomorrow’s builders of socialism
The project of socialist construction taking place in China today is one of the most significant political and economic tasks of the 21st century whose success or failure will affect the course of history. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics has provided an example to the rest of the socialist world on how to move forward after the loss of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of world capitalism. At the same time, the Communist and worker’s parties of the capitalist world are studying the progress of their Chinese comrades and looking for lessons that they too will need to apply when the time comes.
Despite great promise, the Chinese project faces serious internal and external dangers that threaten to undo the gains of the Chinese people over the last hundred years of struggle. Among these dangers is the ideological threat, exacerbated by the “Opening and Reform” process began in the late 70’s. Bombarded with capitalist propaganda from the imperialist world, exposed to exploitation by both foreign and local capitalists and living through the growing pains of the reform process, how do Chinese young adults avoid ideological corruption? What does the Communist Party of China (CPC) do to ensure that the successors of the Communist cause, the builders of a new world, develop a Marxist-Leninist world-view?
Core concepts in current ideo-political education thought
The Communist Party of China has continuously carried out ideo-political education among young people since before the foundation of the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949. Education has always been aimed at producing the next generation of builders of socialism and successors of the Communist cause. What is the current thinking behind ideo-political education at the university level in China today?
The CPC has recognised the importance of carrying out ideo-political work among university students. Universities have been identified as a “battlefield for the popularisation of Marxism” while the CPC has used ideo-political courses at universities as a major tool in this battle (Li, Feng and Li 151). Ma Zhanjun described universities as shouldering the task of cultivating qualified builders of socialism who can play their part in economic and social development (Explore the Ideological and Political Work 119).
Ideo-political education is a component part of a larger category of world-view forming classes. These include patriotic education, civic education, professional ethics classes, psychological and mental health services as well as what we would traditionally call moral education. Each of these subject areas is taught with class-conciousness in mind. Taking patriotic education as an example, Li Changsong wrote:
... they have stepped up their efforts to inculcate socialist ideas and beliefs in youth during the process of patriotism education, encouraging the young people to convert their passion for the motherland into practical actions for the socialist modernisation drive ...
Former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao both raised the importance of uniting socialism and patriotism in patriotic education (Li “Experience and Revelation” 22-23). The same can be said for civic education and professional ethics classes, where a class-concious approach relying on Marxism-Leninism has been taken.
Current ideo-political education policy
The present situation in ideo-political education at the university level is based on two policy documents: “Reform of Ideo-political Curriculum in Higher Education” from the Ministry of Education (Lai and Lo 338) and “On Further Strengthening and Improving Ideological and Political Education” from the CPC Central Committee and the State Department. These documents and their associated policies are sometimes referred to in Chinese literature as “Project 05” (Li, Feng and Li 151). These policies, first implemented in 2006, reorganised ideo-political education at universities by introducing new compulsory classes for undergraduate students, introducing new guidelines for teacher training and for classroom teaching. Previously, undergraduate students were required to take the “two classes”, which included Marxist philosophy and its Chinese derivatives: Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Three Represents.
Under the 2005 policy, undergraduate students are required to take four compulsory ideo-political classes within their first two years of study. These four compulsory subjects are: “Basic Principles of Marxism”, “Introduction to the Concepts of Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Three Represents”, “Cultivating Ideo-virtue and the Foundations of Law” and “Contemporary Chinese History”. These subjects had been available previously as electives but now became compulsory, increasing the time spent by undergraduate students on ideo-political education to almost ten percent of their total study time (Lai and Lo 338). More compulsory subjects and greater ideo-political class teaching time were accompanied by greater centralisation over curriculum matters and textbook selection (Lai and Lo 339).
Aside from practical changes to classes, textbooks and curriculum matters, the 2005 policy change also exhorts teachers to focus more strongly on linking theory with practice. This could be seen when the policy documents mentioned the need to link theory with social reality and the life experiences of university students (Lai and Lo 339). While non-Marxist writers may see this as merely a pragmatic attempt to garner student interest, Marxists will recognise the fundamental principle behind the Ministry recommendation. The link between theory and practice is one of the core tenets of Marxist epistemology. Kharin, writer of the Marxist philosophy classic Fundamentals of Dialectics wrote:
Marxist-Leninist epistemology has overcome the one-sidedness of the previous philosophical doctrines in understanding the cognitive process. Reflection of reality is a complex dialectical process … . In this process of cognition, the object-transforming practice is the basic principle and foundation and it’s ultimate aim.
The new focus on linking theory and practice should be seen as a significant improvement of ideo-political education to not only teach Marxist content, but to do it with Marxist methodology.
In the same year, the Ministry of Education published the “Code of Conduct for Higher Education Students”, which outlines 8 sets of values that university students should internalise. The very first of the values in the Ministry list is “diligently study Marxism-Leninism” and its Chinese developments as well as establishing “the road to a socialist society under the leadership of the Communist Party of China” (MoE 84). The rest of the values in the ministry document include supra-class values such as diligence, honesty, obeying the law, being frugal and courteous.
These documents from the Ministry of Education and the Central Committee of the CPC formed the groundwork for the next ten years of ideo-political work among university students. Although some earlier deficiencies were addressed, other serious problems continued to emerge and worsen.
Problems with current ideo-political education
Despite the changes and improvements to ideo-political education at the university level made by Project 05, scholars both within China and internationally have criticised the content and methodology of current practice. The critics can be roughly divided into two groups. The first group sees serious methodological problems with current ideo-political education and are considering ways that Marxism teaching can be improved with the ultimate goal of producing the successors of socialism. The second group consists of scholars and teachers who want to reduce or eliminate the Marxist content of ideo-political education.
A common problem that both groups have identified is the almost universal contempt that Chinese university students hold for ideo-political education. Li, Wu etal described the trend as follows: “Listen carefully (to) the professional course, listen casually (to) the elective course and listen disgustingly (sic) (to) the political course” (Li, Wu etal 592). According to this reasoning, students pay the most attention to classes that they feel will better prepare them for their future careers, while meeting their study load requirements by taking electives that are easy to pass in order to improve their GPA. In contrast, students are uninterested in ideo-political classes but are forced to take them, reducing their enthusiasm for the subject. A segment of students react to what they perceive to be indoctrination by adopting a sceptical attitude towards the purpose and content of the classes (Fairbrother 404).
Other scholars lay the blame for student disinterest or hostility towards Marxism on the penetration of ideas from the capitalist world. Li, Feng and Li wrote: “As a result of (the) invasion of all kinds of western thoughts and cultures, university students come into doubt and disbelieve Marxism” (Li, Feng and Li 152). In fact, many undesirable traits such as individualism among current university students are blamed on western capitalist infiltration both through popular culture and direct ideological assaults. This penetration has intensified since the beginning of the “Opening and Reform” process and the development of a socialist market economy has allowed a diversification to take place in the ideological concepts of university students and teachers (Ma “Explore the Ideological and Political Work”118). Regardless of the reasons, student disinterest or hostility towards ideo-political education is a serious problem that requires solving if reliable successors of socialism are to be cultivated.
Among scholars loyal to the cause of socialism the key problems, including a lack of student interest, are largely methodological and management issues. One of the most common criticisms made by Chinese teachers of ideo-political classes is the lack of student participation in the process of learning. The active role that students can play in learning is too often sidelined with teachers expecting students to passively receive knowledge (Tam, Heng etal 147). Teachers can hardly be blamed for adopting a lecturing style when they are faced with large class sizes. Typical undergraduate ideo-political classes are taught to 4-6 classes of students concurrently with more than 100 students attending (Zhang 41). As a result of large class sizes, teacher-student communication time is limited, student discipline during class is lax, students are less inclined to pay attention and the scope for student participation is minimal (Zhang 41). Simply put: “the methods of knowledge-based passive learning and lecture-based cramming no longer adapt to universities’ educational aims and contents or the intellectual level of students” (Xiao and Tong 47).
Although Project 05 encourages teachers to draw links between theory and practice and to show students the truth of Marxism using examples relevant to their daily life, some teachers and schools still fail to do this. Teaching content that is divorced from the reality of students and lacking in applicability remains a serious problem that hinders student learning (Li “The Innovative Thinking in College” 550). Besides being an un-dialectical way to teach dialectics, it is also difficult for students to make the leap from simply knowing to being convinced that the content is absolutely true.
Finally, local teachers and researchers have identified management and implementation problems that hinder Marxism teaching. Chinese scholars have shown the need for greater cooperation between different departments within the university, Communist Youth League organisations and society in general for the extra-curricular teaching of ideo-political subjects to be successful. Currently, at some universities, there is little to no communication between these groups and the potential for them to cooperate in support of social practice activities (chances for students to see Marxism in practice) remains unrealised. Without support, teachers are limited by organisational and financial constraints as well as safety considerations (Li, Wu etal 592).
By identifying these problems, local researchers and teachers are able to give an honest appraisal of current education work and begin working on ways to improve how Marxism is popularised at universities. However, there is another category of criticism that is far less helpful and yet even more deserving of attention before it is able to harm the cause of socialism.
Internal and external threats to ideo-political education
Not all critics are well-meaning and not all advice is designed to support the lofty goals of the Communist Party of China. Even as a socialist country, there are people in important university posts who are either ignorant of Marxism or are actively hostile to it.
One harmful belief is the idea that the ideo-political component of moral education needs to be reduced in favor of a greater focus on the “moral” component. Some teachers feel that political education replaces moral education (Wan 159) or otherwise present political and moral education as mutually opposing subjects. Yu and Xiong claimed that problems with the morality of modern students are the result of a lack of “moral belief” and that it is difficult for Marxism to be a guide for people’s daily actions (108).They further claimed that Marxism does not have a complete and unambiguous value system and therefore is unable to provide moral guidance (Yu, Xiong 109).
While these writers praised the efforts of the CPC to materialise socialist values in ways that people could directly apply to their lives in the “Eight Honours and Eight Shames”, their assertion that Marxism teaching is too “political” to improve student morality sets a dangerous precedent that anti-communists within Chinese academia would be glad to exploit in their own ideological campaigns. Besides providing a cover for anti-communists, the idea itself is simply incorrect. Moral beliefs and values stem from a world-view. A Marxist-Leninist world-view should be the fundamental basis from which socialist morality is constructed, it is the ideological foundation that convinces students that they should be noble successors of socialism who build a new society based on the most progressive moral principles, those of the proletariat. This requires further strengthening of ideo-political education, not its weakening in favour of vague moral values presented without context.
A far more dangerous trend is to reduce ideo-political education, eliminate Marxist content or do away with these subjects altogether in order to promote a supposedly supra-class “moral education” based largely on liberal bourgeois ideology. A method of doing this is to claim that moral education is too politicised. Qi and Tang claimed that changes in China’s social background made “authoritarian and politicised” moral education out-dated while “modern” ideas are more suitable (477). The modern values they advocated were: freedom, democracy, pluralism, openness and dialogue (Qi and Tang 477). If these values were expressed in a class context, to show that freedom and democracy cannot exist for the vast majority of the population within an exploitative class society and that only a socialist society can truly realise these qualities, then they could be a valuable part of moral education. However the supra-class expression of ideas such as these only prepares students minds to uncritically receive propaganda from the capitalist world. As history has shown us, de-politicisation is a code word for disarming the working class and allowing bourgeois ideology free reign.
Liberal bourgeois ideology is not the only reactionary set of ideas peddled by the enemies of Marxism. Confucianism has seen a resurgence in the last twenty years as scholars both within and outside of China have tried to rehabilitate it. This philosophy is attractive as an alternative to Marxism as it encourages a system of feudal obedience and control that would prove useful to any forces attempting to solidify their rule after overthrowing socialism in China. The proponents of Confucianism as a replacement for ideo-political education claim that it “sought to cultivate virtuous people and a benevolent ruler” while also addressing psychological problems and helping people understand how to fulfil their own needs (Murray 523). These same proponents curse current ideo-political education as simply existing to support the government and the CPC without actually aiming to better people or improve society (Li “ Moral Education” 170). The irony of comments like these is that the application of Confucianism, as it was historically applied, would lead to exactly the “supporting of autocracies” (Murray 510) that its supporters claim ideo-political education does today, while actual Marxism teaching is about improving individuals so that they may improve society. Honesty has never stood in the way of the proponents of reaction, so the quest to install Confucianism as the core of Chinese moral education continues.
At this point it is important to note that Confucianism has in fact been rehabilitated and does play a part in moral education. How can we reconcile the promotion of a reactionary feudal philosophy by a Communist party as part of its educational policy in a socialist country? The answer lies in what is actually said about Confucianism, how it is being used and what parts of it have been salvaged. Rather than resurrecting the spiritual/religious aspects of the philosophy or its harmful feudal world outlook, Chinese educators have identified core ethical principles that are compatible with the collective spirit of Marxism-Leninism (Yu 364). According to Yu, those principles are: loyalty to the country, commitment to serving the people, social responsibility, self-discipline, and self-cultivation among others (364). All of these are values that are consistent with socialist morality and are all essential values for the building of socialism and a new kind of person. Chinese Marxists throughout history have regularly used quotations of Confucius and other feudal scholars to legitimise or support their position to the masses. So, far from Marxism being abandoned in favour of Confucianism, it is feudal superstition that is being abandoned in favour of socialist morality.
While all of these problems are serious, local teachers and researchers have already found innovative new ways to improve ideo-political education. Progress is made every year, examples of excellent political work are publicised and more Marxism departments are adopting updated methods to ensure that ideo-political education is truly effective. The proposed changes are a major departure from how education has traditionally been carried out in China and involve a complete rethink of core assumptions about teaching. The changes may be roughly divided into two categories; changes to where the battle of ideas takes place and changes to the methods of persuasion.
Instead of merely relying on ideo-political subject teachers to perform their mission in the classroom, new thinking demands that teaching is expanded to include all spaces that students utilise. This aim, called “systematic comprehensiveness” by some researchers (Zhou, Qin etal 190), involves using both physical and intangible campus culture as well as including moral education messages within major courses taught by non-moral education teachers to ensure that students are immersed in an environment conducive to the popularisation of Marxism (Ma “Tentative Exploration” 60). Others advocated that universities carry out “Red dialogue”, “Red promotion” and “Red guidance” (Li, Wu etal 593). Red dialogue means promoting the dissemination and in depth study of Marxist classics among students through debates, discussions and reports. Red promotion requires the use of themed activities based on important dates such as the founding of the party, the May 4th movement and the anniversary of the Japanese invasion (September 18th) as well as promoting emulation of role models, heroes and revolutionary martyrs. Finally, red guidance allows for teachers and party cadres to maintain long-term and individual contact with students to ensure that students political values are cultivated over an extended period and any individual circumstances are properly handled (Li, Wu etal 594). These activities are supplemented by series of political lectures, public display of party leaders and role models portraits and the broadcasting of ideologically sound films as well as student produced films. Activities differ from university to university but hopefully successful examples will spur other universities to adopt better practices.
Closely related to this is the idea of “social practice”. Social practice may take many forms and is already a part of current ideo-political education policy and practice. Improvements involve expanding its forms and improving the cooperation between organisations that facilitate social practice in order to provide a more meaningful experience to students. Instead of simply relying on overworked and under-resourced ideo-political subject teachers, researchers advocate better cooperation between the Youth League and the student affairs office to organise summer holiday activities (Li, Wu etal 594). Activities may include visiting graveyards for the revolutionary martyrs to instil patriotism, volunteering at nursing homes to study the spirit of Lei Feng (the most important Chinese role model for self-less devotion to helping others) or to promote environmental protection and respect for public property by carrying out activities aiming to educate “students to care for the environment, protect environment, beautify and construct the campus with their own hands” (Zhou “Red Community” 302). By improving cooperation with diverse organisations, social practice may be further developed as an excellent ideo-political medium that clearly draws the link between theory and practice and allows students to see the truth of Marxism from their own experience.
The two most common themes in Chinese papers that discuss ways to improve ideo-political education are the need for more active learning by students and the need to link theory with practice. As well as being a core tenet of Marxist epistemology, linking theory with practice is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways for students to grasp the truth of what they have been taught in the classroom. Scholars state that universities need to help students to realise the “unification of knowledge and action” by combining theoretical teaching in the classroom with opportunities for students to apply the knowledge in practice (Zhou, Qin etal 192). While social practice and campus culture are ways of doing this, teachers can also improve their own teaching methods by linking Marxist theory to practical examples in the lives of students, allowing them to see the real world applicability of theory.
While teachers in Chinese universities have traditionally applied the “lecture from the book” style of teaching, increasing numbers of ideo-political educators are abandoning this method in favour of student-centered approaches. Teaching should be understood as a dynamic process where students preconceptions and knowledge are always changing, so teachers need to adapt to meet the real needs of students (Li “Exploration in Classroom Teaching” 209). As students have differing political levels and experiences, teachers should wherever possible adapt different approaches to meet the different political levels, educational backgrounds and life experiences of students. In the spirit of Marxism, students should be encouraged to criticise, ask questions and “seek truth from facts” (Li “The Innovative Thinking” 549). This process of active inquiry, where teachers encourage students to apply the methodology of Marxism to examine contemporary issues not only hones their abilities as Marxist scientists but also demonstrates the correctness of theory through practice.
One of the proposed technical improvements to ideo-political teaching is better use of information technology. It is vital for moral educators to use the internet because it is the favoured medium of today’s university students (Zhou, Qin etal 191). One of the most important features of using I.T is the ability to close the gap between teachers and students. In a large classroom situation there is a gulf between the teacher and students who passively receive information. The correct utilisation of I.T will allow teachers to close this gap, building up a relationship of trust which strengthens teaching effectiveness. Teachers are able to do this by using forms of communication that students are more comfortable with social media like QQ, weixin, weibo, i.e. the forms that they voluntarily use with their friends on a day to day basis. At the same time, Zhou, Qing etal said educators should be encouraged to set up their own blogs or microblogs where they can propagate moral messages in a format that students are more likely to read (191). I.T can also allow faster and more accessible commentary on current events while they are still topical. This could allow teachers to pre-empt undesirable positions espoused by other sources and provide students with a view more in tune with Marxism.
During this primary stage of socialism, the Chinese nation is in desperate need of qualified builders. The successors of socialism can not merely be technically competent and innovative, they must also adopt the standpoint of Marxism and apply the Marxist method to fulfil their historic mission. Chinese universities are one of the major battlegrounds in the ideological struggle taking place between reactionary and progressive forces. In order to win this struggle, ideo-political education is carried out among all university students in the form of compulsory classes and extra-curricular activities.
There are significant problems with current ideo-political education that require immediate attention and resolute action by educators, managers, researchers and party cadre in order to resolve. Ideological dangers originating from both liberal bourgeois and reactionary feudal ideology threaten to corrupt the minds of China’s young adults and put the cause of Chinese socialism at risk.
These threats are being actively countered by sincere Marxists applying the science of Marxism-Leninism to the problems of ideo-political education in order to find innovative methods of teaching, particularly ways that adhere to the Marxist-Leninist method. The future of Chinese socialism may be decided by the success or failure of these comrades in their implementation of proposed changes and their ability to win over the next generation of socialist builders.
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