Universities find it difficult to grasp China’s dream

Has the Chinese government’s sophisticated message to its higher education sector come at the cost of clarity? asks Mike Gow

February 12, 2015

Go to any major city in China, walk down any street and I guarantee you will be within 50m of a poster listing the 12 core principles of socialism that have become the central pillars of president Xi Jinping’s “China Dream”. Since Xi gave his speech at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, the China Dream discourse has been spread far and wide, most visibly in public in the form of billboards and street-level posters. But let me also ask you to conjure an image of that poster in your mind. You may be thinking of a poster that is predominantly red in colour? A hammer and sickle, perhaps? A fluttering Chinese flag? Maybe a uniformed officer of the People’s Liberation Army saluting. Perhaps a slogan like this: “Love the Nation. Love the Party. Unity. Harmony.” These stereotypical posters do still exist, but public information emanating from the party over the past two years has been decidedly more sophisticated, interweaving socialist concepts, aspiration and traditional values. Xi Jinping’s China Dream message is being delivered over Sina Weibo, WeChat and other social media platforms as part of a major project aimed at building consensus around the Chinese Communist Party’s vision for a modern nation state.

But reform has and will continue to be a gradual transformative process, not an event. As new practices in disseminating propaganda take shape, others are transformed, some remain and some become redundant. Responses to party propaganda tend to follow a pattern, too. So it comes as no surprise to me to see the unease generated by remarks attributed to Yuan Guiren, the minister of education, recently. Yuan’s alleged warning that “Western values” must not be permitted in textbooks has been interpreted by many as an unacceptable threat to academic freedom.

His comments, formalised in an article published in the party theoretical journal Qiushi, were reportedly first voiced in a forum on ideological activities across the higher education sector and were directed at those party members with responsibility for this. On 29 December, Xi’s calls, made at the 23rd National Conference on University Party Work, to strengthen ideological work across universities caused a similar reaction. Between Xi and Yuan’s comments came the publication of a document on university party activity issued jointly by the Party Central Committee and the State Council. Add to this clear messages in Qiushi, including one extensive essay from head of the publicity (propaganda) department of the Party Central Committee, Liu Qibao, all of which serve to define the 12 core values of socialism and differentiate them from commonly understood definitions closely associated with Western liberal political systems.

The party plays a strong administrative and supervising function in universities and the role of universities as a tool in state-building is of central importance, particularly as a point of contact between the party and young people. Censorship, especially around sensitive subjects, is a feature of Chinese higher education but usually only when academia turns into activism, which is deemed in opposition to the state. However, it is unthinkable that Western ideas will not be discussed in Chinese classrooms. What has been communicated over the past few weeks is the need for party officials to be absolutely clear on communicating their messages through their campus activities and civics classes while not leaving room for misunderstanding.

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