By Chang Ping, published: September 4, 2014
The U. S. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) recently issued a report titled Curriculum and Ideology which stated that the Chinese Communist government’s ideological education was startlingly effective: the textbooks for the course “ideology and politics” used since the 2004 curriculum reform have shaped students’ ideas and minds more effectively.
This NBER report destroyed many people’s illusions. Internationally, one of the common arguments used to justify the Chinese Communists’ brainwashing in education is that even though the Chinese Communists impose relentless internet censorship, in comparison to the past, the internet provides a wealth of information to China’s internet users. For example, not long ago, Frank Sieren, a commentator for the Deutsche Welle, questioned publicly, in his debate with me about the 1989 Democracy Protests in Beijing, “How can brainwashing occur in a country [like China] where one can travel freely and, even though one faces many obstacles, one can still come into contact with the diversity of global viewpoints? In a country where information is as advanced as in contemporary China, how can brainwashing be possible?”
One of the initiators of the NBER research, Davide Cantoni, a Professor of Economics at the University of Munich in Germany, stated that the result that surprised the researchers the most was that, even though Chinese students have opportunities for exposure to other media and news, nevertheless the government was still able effectively to change students’ ideological outlook by means of altering the teaching materials.
The research target for this NBER report were students at Peking University, a university recognized for gathering China’s most outstanding young people and for its tradition of critical thinking and rebellion. The research makes clear that the students who used the new teaching materials believed even more strongly that China was a “democratic country,” and had even more faith in China’s Central government and local governments, as well as the national institutions such as the public security agencies and the courts. Moreover, these students even more strongly trusted China’s policies toward ethnic groups.
In my view, the “success” of the 2004 cirriculum reform was not altogether an accident. Since 1989, the Chinese Communists’ new ideological education has been getting “better.” The Chinese Communists’ ideological education after 1949 was of course also quite “successful.” The Cultural Revolution, however, brought China to the point of collapse, and this “success” subsequently came to an end. The 1980’s saw the Chinese people trending towards accepting values established and cherished in the west. After the June 4, 1989 suppression of the democracy movement, the Chinese Communists utilized the deterrent produced by brutality to transform its ideological education.
There were two main changes. The first change was “de-glorification.” Before, the ideological education was marked by bombastic “false, grand, and empty” (假大空) indoctrination that declared to the world that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was the greatest, the most glorious, and the most correct political party. While similar a style of propaganda is still widespread, the new approach to ideological education acknowledges that the CCP has had problems, but also stresses that political parties in other countries also had their problems, and all political parties have issues just as “all crows are black.” By declaring that putting self interest first is a universal principle, the CCP succeeded in painting such western values as democracy, freedom, and human rights as just so much empty propaganda.
The second change lies in the teaching of China’s national conditions and the teaching of patriotism. Since there is no such thing as universal justice, said the CCP, it stands to reason that a country should seek the greatest benefits based on its own special conditions. As long as we Chinese completely understand the national conditions of our own country, then the West’s observations and criticisms of China are just things easier said than done that the West uses to interfere in China’s internal affairs.
Textbooks for ideology and politics classes after the 2004 cirriculum reform strengthened these two aspects. It reduced content on introduction to western civilization, and, at the same time, increased its affirmation of progresses made under China’s national conditions. The NBER research shows that these changes were not immediately evident but subtle and effective. Based on my observations, following on the heels of China’s expanding economic power, this type of ideological propaganda has effectively transformed how China is perceived in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the West. I believe that, among the Hong Kongers who oppose the Occupy Central movement and Taiwanese who opposed the Sunflower movement, many have gotten their “understanding” of the Chinese Communists through this type of propaganda.
No one is willing to admit that they are stupid, especially the Westerners who have dominated the modern civilization over the last few centuries. It is very difficult for them to accept this fact: not only are the Chinese the victims of the Chinese Communists’ brainwashing, but also all of mankind. In the West nowadays, urging people to “see the progress of the Chinese Communists Party” has even become a sign of self-proclaimed tolerance and wisdom.
When Xi Jinping visited France [in March 2014], he was able to get President Hollande not to raise the issue of “human rights.” Please note that it was not that there was no need to discuss human rights, but rather that the decision not to raise human rights was a compromise reached after deals and threats were made. Even as things of this nature are happening, not many Europeans have a clear realization that its political civilization is being rewritten by the communist China.
I hope that there will be a research report on how Chinese government’s propaganda has been changing Westerners’ ideas and views of China.
Chang Ping (长平) was former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周末》), and his writings have been banned and obliterated by the Chinese authorities. He writes columns for the South China Morning Post, Deutsche Welle, and a number of Chinese language websites. Forced to leave China and then Hong Kong, he currently lives in Germany.
Understanding China’s Diplomatic Discourse, by Zhao Chu
(Translated by Ai Ru, and the translation is based on a version of the original Chinese language text revised by the author.)