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Chinese Government Moves to Limit and Eliminate Public Service NGOs: the Case of Liren Rural Libraries

By Song Zhibiao, published: November 17, 2014

Editor’s update: Liren Rural Libraries announced its closure on September 18, 2014.


One of the Liren Libraries.

One of the Liren Libraries.

The Liren (literally: “cultivating talents”) Rural Libraries, which is devoted to aiding rural students to broaden their reading horizons and expand their learning opportunities, has met with the worst crisis since its founding. Its official Weibo revealed that, at the end of August, eleven Liren Rural Libraries, one after another, have undergone official reviews by such local agencies as the Education Bureau, the Culture Bureau, and the Culture and Sports Bureau. Two of the libraries have already been notified by their partner schools that the schools were terminating their cooperation with the libraries.

In additional comments, Li Yingqiang (李英强), who previously served as a responsible person for the Liren Rural Libraries, said: “In 2011, they closed one library; in 2012, five; and in 2013, three. We didn’t fight back for our rights, nor did we cry foul. We just continued operating libraries where we could. From 2014 to the present, they have already closed five libraries.” This, I’m afraid, may not be the end of the matter, and the Liren Libraries should perhaps prepare themselves for dissolution.

As an educational public service organization, Liren had earlier been questioned about another of its projects — study tour summer camps. These summer camps organize young students to go on study tours, and they employ scholars as guidance counselors. As such, these summer camps have been well received. Soon after their formation, however, they found themselves in trouble and were forced to adjust their program in light of government surveillence.

Several years after public service organizations flourished, they are now becoming sensitive targets subjected to government review. Through territorial jurisdiction and the division of government duties, the government has developed comprehensive means to keep tight control over the public service NGOs. Through qualification review and then through monitoring their sources of funding and their activities, all types of public service organizations are being watched and controlled, be they NGOs with government backing or grassroots organizations not associated with the government system.

Liren Rural Library

Liren Rural Library

Since this year, special reporting requirements have been set up for public service organizations that obtain foreign funding, invite foreign guests, and so on. Based on the logic of the official reviewers, public service organizations are channels by which foreign forces enter China. By assuming these foreigners have ulterior motives, the reviewing officials treat them as enemies; and the reviews deter the development of these public service organizations. As this model of government control continues to expand, an organization such as Liren Library, that embraces ideals of social improvement, bears the brunt of the official reviewers’ suspicions.

In the eyes of government monitors, who see enemies everywhere, the ideals that the Liren Rural Libraries cherish are incomprehensible, and its modus operandi is even more suspicious. Beyond the control of the educational authorities, Liren convenes students of all ages, thus breaking an old taboo. The guidance counsellors who take the students on study tours are mostly liberal intellectuals who influence the students with new ideas that are likely to provoke a backlash from the government’s brainwashing apparatus.

The Liren Rural Libraries are ensconced in towns and schools where volunteers are recruited to perform routine maintenance, instead of handing the libraries over to the schools to be the custodians. This of course is seen by the inflexible education officials as precisely the type of action taken to invade their sphere of influence. When one  Liren Library was in trouble and investigated by the government, it would cause other Liren Rural Libraries elsewhere to be subjected to similar scrutiny by local governments, thus placing the entire Liren project on a very shaky footing.

During these past few years during which Liren has come under hostile government scrutiny, Liren has kept a low profile. Liren’s move to take corrective action in accordance with government requirements, moreover, is one reason that Liren has been able to continue its activities for a period of time. But as the work of public service NGOs is increasingly politicized, Liren’s setbacks are not entirely unexpected. We can very well expect that, sooner or later, Liren will have to cease its programs altogether due to the ever-tightening grip of government repression.

Li Yingqiang (李英强)

Li Yingqiang (李英强)

After taking measures to eradicate the “seven perils” [ideas perceived by the communist party to be subversive to its rule], various sectors and fields have all engaged in self-review and self-correction against such warnings. They have also quickly formed mechanisms for stability maintenance based on each sector’s characteristics, and between them, they have quickly formed a grid network of surveillance. With its ideological stand and its operation model that greatly challenge the existing order of education that aims at conforming to the communist ideology, Liren Rural Libraries is bound to find itself mired in difficulties.

The series of premeditated government harassments against Liren Rural Libraries in recent weeks further proves that the path of using civil society as a moderating force to change China is also short-lived and dead-ended. As for those organizations whose main mission is to advocate ideas, they are seen as a direct ideological threat, and their survival is even more precarious.

That the public service NGOs in China are no exception to government suppression is not pessimism, but a fact.

Because of this fact, the public service sector will become even more divided; boundaries of public service will be more clearly defined; avoiding challenging the existing political authorities will be accepted and observed as a rule for survival. This harsh environment will force public service organizations to adjust and adapt. Those unwilling to compromise will perish.

Having not enjoyed a spring, public service organizations in China now find themselves in deep winter, and a large part of the public domain, which is weak in China to begin with, has thus collapsed.



Rural Library Chain Closes, Citing ‘Tremendous Pressure’, the New York Times sinosphere blog, September 22, 2014.

Official website of Liren Rural Libraries is still live.


Song Zhibiao (宋志标) was a commentator with the Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou and has been well-received for his commentaries on current affairs in China until May 2011. He is now an independent commentator and, by self-description, a media watcher.


(Translated by Ai Ru)

Chinese original



How Brainwashing Works in China

By Chang Ping, published: August 30, 2014


(This is Chang Ping’s third rebuttal, declined publication by Deutsche Welle, to Frank Sieren’s defense of the Tiananmen massacre and the “right to forget“  (links in German) in the Sieren vs. Chang Ping debate earlier this year in DW about the June 4th massacre in 1989 in China. Read Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, and Without the Right to Remember There Can Be No Freedom to Forget, Chang Ping’s first and second rebuttals to Sieren. – The Editor)


In his article, “From Tiananmen to Leipzig,” Frank Sieren reproaches Western media with “unilaterally exaggerating the facts in reporting the incident,” the “incident” in question being the Tiananmen massacre. After Chinese commentators, including myself, raised objections, the example Sieren gives in response turns out to be brainwashing. “I would like to re-explain what I meant. I believe that titles such as ‘Communist Party Succeeds in Brainwashing,” or ‘Unprecedented Brainwashing of the Chinese People,’ and “Imposed Collective Oblivion’ are all complete exaggerations of the facts.” In other words, he tosses out a completely new topic.

It is quite difficult to quantify the level of success the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) achieves at brainwashing, and reasonable people may well differ in their estimates. However, from Mr. Sieren’s reasoning, we can gather that he is completely ignorant of the brainwashing juggernaut at the service of the CCP and its significant evolution since 1989. From where he is sitting, he sees some people travel freely and have access to diverse points of view from around the world, and concludes that brainwashing is impossible. Acknowledging that the Internet is under tight controls in China, throwing up “multiple barriers,” he believes that “nonetheless, people can easily and cheaply get around censorship using VPNs.”

“Scaling the Great Firewall” Is neither Easy nor Cheap

A Chinese online commentator retorts that Mr. Sieren’s conclusion is not too far from claiming that “the Berlin Wall is no big deal, since East Germans can just dig tunnels around it.” Mr. Sieren may see this as another “unfair accusation against the Chinese government,” given that using VPNs is necessarily “easier and cheaper” than digging tunnels. The only problem is that this is not true. VPNs regularly break down during upgrades of the Great Firewall – some of the most sophisticated censorship mechanisms around. Technical interference is common, and in the worst cases VPNs put their users at risk of arrest. In addition, the authorities may camouflage viruses as popular circumvention software, and hapless users who install them find their computers hijacked or broken down.

Nor should we ignore the psychological impact of political taboos. Once censorship makes such terms as “Tiananmen massacre,” “Taiwanese independence” and “Falungong Sect” politically sensitive, even in safe personal conversations, people tend to steer clear of them. The same dynamic is at work when many people turn down offers of free VPNs, seeing circumvention of censorship as something the government does not allow them to do.

The Immense System Engineering of Brainwashing

It is even more important for us to realize that the blocking of foreign websites is but a part of the immense infrastructure devoted to brainwashing, whose mission is the unabashed engineering of hearts and minds. Its other parts include education, propaganda, publishing and pop culture.

With regard to education, as early as kindergarten, children are taught to sing songs that are either nationalistic or inculcate love of the Communist Party. They are directed to draw pictures of Tiananmen Square and the red flag, symbols of New China. Elementary school curriculum, in order to meet political needs, contains so much fabrication that several scholars have published research to enumerate the fallacies. A main subject on which the all-important college examination depends, Political Thought, focuses on developing unquestioning patriotism in aspiring students.

It is a well-known secret that the CCP propaganda organs issue a variety of customized, up-to-date censorship orders on a daily basis. Again, this is only one part of the whole. Ranging from industry access, operating permits and certification to shadowy controls on the personal and professional lives of Communist cadres, the workflow of news censorship, and financial penalties, the infrastructure is integrated and well-coordinated. The system did come under strong challenges when the Internet first entered China, but ultimately proved resilient after thoughtful tinkering, and now manages the Internet in a highly effective way.

The curbs placed on publishing are even stricter. One comparison would suffice. We all know that underground publications known as samizdat played a vital role in the expression of dissent during the Soviet era; this is altogether impossible in today’s China. While some websites with a critical bent are allowed to operate, there is little to rival the unfettered rebellious spirit of the samizdat.

Mr. Sieren may have an inkling of what goes on inside the notorious censorship of broadcast media and films. The insolence of this particular form of censorship is, moreover, quite arbitrary. Before May of this year, Chinese Internet users would never have believed that the powers that be would bar them from watching American dramas that are neither political nor pirated.

“Justice-free Education” After Tiananmen

The evolution of awareness among those of my generation took a drastic turn in college [in the 1980s]. Coming into contact with Western culture for the first time, we realized that we had been consistently lied to, and felt great anger. However, both education and propaganda have been transformed since then in a process of what I call “justice-free.” To summarize, if the government had posed as righteous upholders of justice, now they openly swagger as nihilistic thugs, teaching Chinese people that nowhere else are things any different.

To further these trends, thinkers were sidelined and eggheads given the limelight in the intellectual arena, and the distribution of university research funding also toes the party line. The consequence of political pressure and bribing is a degraded educational system focused on utility, weakening the capacity of the youth for critical thinking.

Spinning on Truth, not Just Blocking It

This vast, cumbersome and complex system is not without internal contradictions. For example, even as it preaches the need to “cast off the baggage of history and look forward,” it shows no aversion to the seeking of truth, busying itself with frequent “unveiling of the hypocrisy of Western democracies” where “the truth about the US/Germany is told.” Therefore, even those under its influence are not necessarily as anxious “to forget history” as Mr. Sieren portrays.

The brainwashing juggernaut solves its crisis by a selective and interpretive approach to the truth, which it deems more important than simply blocking information. Just how successful this strategy proves is clear when we see how many Chinese graduate students abroad continue to show sympathy towards the government even after seeing the gory documentary evidence of the Tiananmen massacre for the first time. They have accepted the spin from the government, namely, that China’s rise as an economic powerhouse is contingent upon the crushing of lives under tank treads twenty-five years ago.


Chang Ping. Photo from DW site.

Chang Ping. Photo from DW site.

Chang Ping (长平) was the  former chief commentator and news director of Southern Weekend (《南方周末》).  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.


(Translated by Louisa Chiang)

Chinese original

Where good news is disappointing and bad news is hopeful

Just a quick thought today:

As I tell people in the States, when it comes to China, seemingly good news is often bad, and seemingly bad news is often good. In many cases, like increased numbers of AIDS cases, higher numbers of people living below the poverty line, and shrinking college admissions, bad news can actually be signs of problems being acknowledged and addressed. On the other hand, reforms to the criminal code, the completion of bridges and rails, and “elections” often serve as reminders of how far China has to go in terms of human rights, safety, and developing a gov’t that is actually selected by the people.

In a story published the other day in People’s Daily, the gov’t announced that it planned for every other village in China to be staffed by at least one college graduate. This seems like a rather necessary step, as one begins to realize that the statement means that at the moment most villages in China do not have a single college grad on staff (not that they are necessarily qualified to lead either, but would likely bring new ideas). Surely, this kind of policy would help to spark innovation and develop the countryside.

However, as the article goes on, it seems to be another well-intentioned, but poorly thought out policy. It’s a rather transparent effort to create 400,000 jobs for college grads to stem the growing number of unemployed students (this article is explicit in the intent). Again, it seems that the raw number is more important than whether or not these individuals are actually improving services in these areas, and with that bulk of new employees it’s hard to imagine that they will be very carefully screened for their abilities instead of their connections. As one applicant said in another article on the topic, “becoming a civil servant means a lifetime of insurance, stability and being relatively well-paid.” Such a program will further strain local budgets that already fail to adequately cover education and health care.

So what may look at first glimpse as good news, may actually be another costly policy that looks better on paper than it does in practice.

On the other hand, today People’s Daily reported that a Professor had plagiarized his student’s work and then claimed that he won an award with it (although PD found no evidence that he had actually won.) The article doesn’t do much to help with the underlying problems as it still refers to the man as an “award winning professor,” and includes a quote from a school official that seems to imply the award was what really mattered.

It seems at first like another example of the rampant cheating that happens in China’s universities, but in this instance the student has vocally opposed his former professor. Even after the prof. apologized and added the student’s name to the project, the student has continued to reject these attempts to calm the story.

This is not the first instance of a student rebuking a teacher for claiming their work, even though the students could face rather stiff punishments from their schools. To me it is a great example of the awakening in China of individual rights, and the value of creativity.

Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China – Book Review

A few months ago I reviewed Yes China! by Neil Clark, and when a friend asked me to review another book about teaching English in China I was a little hesitant to commit to reading what to me has already become a familiar story. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised to find Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China filled with thoughtful reflections packaged in an altogether new format.

Colorado China Council (CCC) Executive Director and author of this book, Alice Renouf, collects letters from former teachers and organizes them into a wide range of topics, and sorts them by location and date. I found this a wonderfully novel approach to creating a clear picture of China’s development and the diversity of experiences. This book shows it all, from adventurous eaters, eager teachers and avid explorers to painfully bad writing classes and border-line abusive department heads. Even though Alice works to place American teachers in China, she does not shy away from giving a complete picture of what that commitment entails.

Because Yin-Yang is a compilation of letters by a variety of people, it avoids some of the common problems in other writings about China – the problem of portraying China as a single entity (I fall into this from time to time myself). It gives a sense of time passing, and shows these teachers moving from their initial astonishment and shock to understanding and enjoyment (in most cases) of a new culture.  After finishing just the first chapter, I was wishing that I had had such a guide before coming to China; it would have saved me from many headaches. Also because these were written as personal letters instead of blog posts, they tend to give a more intimate look at life without trying to make profound pronouncements about the country. These captured the effects of culture shock and bouts of depression in a way that doesn’t sugar coat reality.

A number of friends also picked up the book to glance through a letter or two and found themselves laughing out loud at some of the classroom descriptions, like an entire room full of 50 students crying their eyes out at the end of Armageddon, even the boys. The short sections make for great snapshots of life in China, and I think they could be used for a variety of activities in ESL classrooms in China to spark conversations on life in China.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone thinking about teaching in China, and even more so for those who already have. The reflections on living in rural areas and the simple joys of bike rides through the fields brought me back to Guangxi. As one teacher sums up his experience,

“There are good China days and bad China days. The good far outnumber the bad, and even the bad have their good side.”

Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China is available on Amazon in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle editions (That link also has a free sample).

The rainy day guanxi fund – Understanding social obligations in China

Yesterday we explored why there is no such thing as instant guanxi, and were reminded that favors are often repaid in ways that we might not expect but have to accept. Today we’ll be looking at why your Chinese friends might feel uneasy pulling strings for you, and why foreign teachers are so wary of dinners with co-workers and bosses.

As an employee of a hospital, I occupy a prime spot in the guanxi hierarchy in that I know a few doctors in several departments. Even though my connections are very limited in number, the connections I do have can be incredibly handy when friends are sick. Yet, as they have come to see, if it can be avoided I don’t use my guanxi. It isn’t out of selfishness, but as my co-worker in an even better position pointed out, “Every time I use my connections for someone else, it costs me something.”

If I spend my favors today on someone I don’t know, I might not have any guanxi when a close friend needs special care. You can think of this as something like a rainy day guanxi fund.

I learned this through trial and error. Not so long ago a friend of a friend requested additional attention and I did my best to make use of my limited connections. To my dismay, the friend of a friend complained daily about her treatment and argued with hospital staff about her bill at the end. The bridge with that department had been burned.

While this doesn’t mean that no one would use their connections on your behalf, it does mean that you will have to try and compensate them for the social capital they spend on your behalf (the preferred method of payment seems to be tea). It’s no secret that foreigners come and go quite regularly in China, and so your friend might think twice about spending favors on a person who may not be around long enough to repay them.

This brings me to my second point – favors can be called on immediately. That is why it can be incredibly difficult to build up guanxi, your contacts won’t let it accumulate. This may seem to contradict yesterday’s point, that there is no such thing as instant guanxi, however that point refers largely to asking for favors beyond what you have put in to the relationship.

Take a very typical example, a friend invites you to a fancy dinner, only to announce at the end that they would like you to help with X. X in this case very often has something to do with English teaching or being a token foreigner at some event. Of course you can refuse the offer, but it means that you will need to find some other way to repay the social debt of the dinner they just paid for. Giving an extra lesson or attending school events are also relatively easy ways of adding to your own guanxi balance. Furthermore, the school is usually asking you to do something that your contract encourages anyway.

This has probably happened to me and my wife at least a dozen times over the past few years, and happens so often it was explicitly discussed during our China orientation program.

While it might make you uneasy accepting such invitations, keep in mind that you can use this to your advantage as well. As we saw yesterday, favors are often returned in an unexpected way, if you ask for a specific favor at the time of agreeing to another one your request will often be fulfilled.

Finally it should be remembered that in virtually every case, it takes years to build solid relationships in China because of ideas about social responsibilities. Even after 2 years at the hospital, the amount of “special attention” I can ask for is little more than setting up an appointment with a specific doctor.

The case of the PHD cheat – guest post

The following is a guest post from a friend who writes on her blog

My Chinese friend turned to me the other day and said “What time is it? I got a plane to Shenzhen to catch.”

“Shenzhen? What are you doing going there on a Sunday night?”

She looked suddenly embarrassed and told me quietly that she was taking a PhD qualifying exam for someone. The first question that came to mind was why?; why this thirty-some-year-old was being flown out to Shenzhen to take a PhD exam. I have known her for two years, and she is a very kind and curious woman, but by no means a mover and shaker. Her English is pretty good, and if she had any other hidden talents, she kept them very well hidden.

“There is an English part to the exam, but it’s on a couple of different subjects. The girl I’m taking it for is overseas at grad school and can’t come back to China just for the test. My company [a study abroad facilitator who sends Chinese students overseas] helped her get into grad school, so her father asked my boss if he had any employees who could take the PhD test for her. I look the most like her, so he interviewed me then said I could do it.”

Moral quandary aside, I was a bit worried for both parties. Could she pass the test? What if she didn’t?

“He’s already paying for my flight and giving me 5000 RMB.”

Well, that’s not a little money.

She flushed in embarrassment again. “My father’s giving me a lot of pressure to make money, he says I’m underpaid and I need to step up, so whenever I can find a side gig, I take it.”

I smiled to show I wasn’t judging her. She is beyond the reasonable marriageable age (after 27 in China you’re “leftover,” not to mention 30). She worked overtime regularly to get Chinese students into schools in America, Australia, and England, but had never left the country herself.

“He also said if it goes well, his company could use an English interpreter when they go overseas. They’re going to Germany in the fall and I’d love to go.”

In America, there is a direct correlation between a student’s SAT score and his/her father’s income. It is undeniable that the top SAT scorers tend to come from environments that speak standard English, promote intellectualism and hard work, and/or have enough money to hire a tutor. So the US has its own set of systematic pulleys and levers that propel some while restraining others. For China, this system is also true, and then some. After living through a turbulent modern history, surviving famines, political crusades, and the destruction of religion, there is little platform for anti-cheating ethics. Many Chinese would not even call this a case of cheating, but rather a case of someone being well-off enough to afford a good education.

And as for my friend, I sincerely hope she does pass the test and get to go to Germany. It is hard to hold her morally accountable when, as she said, “If I don’t do it, he’ll find someone else who can.” Her saying no to the job would have caused more trouble than taking it on; her boss would have been angry, possibly lost face and business, and the possibility of strong connections and future opportunities would have been nixed. From her point of view, there is nothing to be gained by turning down the offer.