Donald Trump’s recent tweets and statements about alleged Chinese protectionism and military build-up have undoubtedly riled the Beijing hierarchy. But some in China are cheered by the prospect of Sino-American relations being driven by pure deal-making, unperturbed by US nagging about democracy and human rights.
In a recent piece in The New York Times, venture capitalist and political scientist Eric Li argued that “without the shackles of ideology, even the most competitive rivals can make deals”.
But if this change in the US approach materialises, its timing would be very bad. Chinese president Xi Jinping’s regime is ramping up ideological control, especially in higher education. Only last month, he made a speech in which he pointed out that “China’s higher education institutions are under the leadership of” the Communist Party of China (CPC), and that as they shoulder “the major responsibility of cultivating successors for the socialist cause”, they “must adhere to the correct political orientation”.
Such statements are not unusual. In May 2013, six months into Xi’s reign, the CPC allegedly issued a directive named the “seven don’t mentions” to institutes of higher education. Leaked on social media, it outlined the topics that academics could not raise with students: universal values, press freedom, civil society, civic rights, historical mistakes by the CPC, elite cronyism and independent judiciary.
Subsequently, several high-profile academics were sacked. One was Zhang Xuezhong, professor of law at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, who, in 2011, wrote an open letter to the education minister calling for an end to compulsory political and ideological education in schools and universities. Xia Yeliang, professor of economics at Peking University and a consistent critic of the Chinese government, also reported having been dismissed.
More mildly liberal intellectuals also suffered. Chen Hongguo, professor of law at the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Xi’an, was reportedly pressured into resigning because he encouraged critical discussion among students and invited guests to speak on sensitive issues. And, according to local reports, even a lowly Hangzhou college lecturer was removed from his teaching post and placed in charge of sports equipment after being accused of “sabotaging the stability and harmony of the college and of society” by organising a discussion group on improving citizenship education.
In January 2015, the CPC launched a further campaign of ideological control. The “seven don’t mentions” became more directly referred to as “Western values”. According to reports, education minister Yuan Guiren said: “Never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classrooms.”
More academics were targeted. One leading critic of Chinese media censorship has told me that he was frequently “called back” from his fieldwork – often in areas of social unrest – by his university department’s party secretary. His lectures were monitored by “unknown strangers”, who appeared without warning. He was prevented from travelling to the UK for a research visit because of his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. And, in 2015, he was dismissed for alleged “poor delivery” of one module.
It was not always like this. China made huge progress in modernising education in the pre-Communist Republican period. For instance, in his time as chancellor of Peking University in the early 20th century, Cai Yuanpei became a champion of “free thinking”, encouraging diversity and tolerance among academics. He appointed radical Chinese intellectuals educated abroad to introduce and develop new cultural trends, and invited leading thinkers such as John Dewey and Bertrand Russell to deliver lectures that often contained explicit criticism of Chinese society and politics.
As China expert David Shambaugh says in his 2016 book, China’s Future, the central problem with modern China’s education system is the “extreme degree” to which the political system “stifles the entire intellectual sphere”. It is an enormous pity that a Trump White House seems so unlikely to put much pressure on the CPC to remedy that situation and allow Chinese academia to flourish.
Tao Zhang is a senior lecturer in the College of Arts and Science at Nottingham Trent University.