China schools lecturers on ‘correct thinking’ over Ukraine war

Staff reportedly told Nato is to blame for conflict triggered by Russian invasion

April 4, 2022
Chinese soldiers
Source: iStock

Chinese provincial governments appear to be mandating university teachers to attend lectures that “correct” their thinking on the war in Ukraine to align with the Kremlin’s official line, amid cosier relations between the two countries.

The move comes amid a deepening geopolitical divide. Last month, as Western nations doubled down on their sanctions on Russia, Beijing signed a new deal with Moscow, pledging cooperation across a range of issues, including security and economics.  

While Russian academics face mounting pressure to support their country’s invasion of Ukraine, with vocal opponents losing their jobs and risking up to 15 years in prison, some Chinese lecturers are also being told to accept – and teach their students – Russia’s version of events.

According to local media, Chinese teachers attending lectures were allegedly assured about the legitimacy of Russian military action and told that Nato, along with the US and Ukraine, is to blame for the war.  

One regional university website referenced a “collective lesson” on the “Russia-Ukraine situation”.  

“This collective lesson preparation meeting helped the participating teachers to further enhance their correct understanding of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” according to the Northeast Forestry University, located in the northern Chinese city of Harbin.

Although it was unclear from the statement how teachers should portray the war, it noted that lecturers should “recognise” the countries’ “historical missions and responsibilities” and should be guided in how to steer the “direction of classroom teaching”.

Chinese scholar at the University of Toronto, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the move came as a “surprise”, representing a progression from previous years.

“When I was in China many years ago, it was common that university teachers who are party members are required to attend meetings or study sessions about the political ideas of the party, but not everybody,” he said.

Other scholars were less taken aback. “It is not surprising that the party, particularly in the context of ideological tightening in recent years, wants to ensure the conformity of academics through various means,” said Philip Altbach, a professor at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

“This is not a step back from academic freedom, which has been significantly curtailed across the board.”

Jeffrey Ngo, an activist from Hong Kong who is currently pursuing a PhD in history at Georgetown University, said that already in China, academic freedom was limited, and “policies and mechanisms for students to report on teachers who say the ‘wrong’ things have existed for a long time”.

But he noted that the incident stood out in that it illustrated the “scramble for a coherent response up and down the chain of command so Chinese officials can appear to know what they’re talking about, even if information can be spotty and contradictory at the very top”.

“For the time being, blaming Nato is the safest bet as Beijing figures out how much economic, military, and other support – whether openly or behind closed doors – to offer Russia,” Mr Ngo added.

Other scholars wondered about the longer-term effects of such moves.

“It is difficult to see how this will be helpful to the international status of China's universities as they try to be more open, inclusive, and proactive in strengthening international scientific cooperation,” said Gerry Postiglione, coordinator of the Consortium for Higher Education Research in Asia at the University of Hong Kong.

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