Hao Da Xue – literally “good university” in Chinese – is no ordinary online education provider. It offers Chinese the chance to study, for example, a course on “being a competent Chinese person”, which teaches “pride” in the face of perceived Western belittling of their country.
The university is part of China’s “red education” movement, partly sanctioned by government, partly taken on independently by ultra-leftwing “Neo-Maoists”, which has been growing in influence over the past 10 years.
Jude Blanchette, the former assistant director of the 21st-century China programme at the University of California, San Diego, is writing a book on the rise of China’s Neo-Maoists, and he explained to Times Higher Education their impact on higher education.
“Over the past decade or so, there’s been a push on the part of the Chinese Communist Party to retell its origin story, its founding myths,” Blanchette says.
One plank of this plan has been an effort to revive the study of Marxism, partly to counter the spread of liberal and religious thought. Last year, Peking University began the construction of a new building to house its Marxism department – ironically funded by a bank.
Blanchette does not think that the department actually needs the extra space. But the construction is “symbolic of this larger effort” to encourage red education, he says.
More recently, President Xi Jinping repeated calls for such red education and urged universities to take up the agenda, Blanchette says.
However, resurgent leftist groups with views that appear to challenge those of the current party are also using the government’s red education campaign as “cover” to advance their own educational vision, Blanchette explains.
Despite draping themselves in the symbolism of Mao, Neo-Maoist left-wing views often challenge the ruling party, which has turned China into a largely capitalist economy and led it into the World Trade Organisation in 2001.
Neo-Maoists, by contrast, want economic state planning and the protection of state assets from control by foreigners and capitalists, Blanchette says. But they are not necessarily conventionally authoritarian, and support “freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to strike”, he says.
Hao Da Xue is one element of this Neo-Maoist network, Blanchette explains. Although its curriculum is not explicitly anti-party, “if you were to imbibe everything they were telling you, you come to the conclusion it [the party] has lost its guiding Maoist way”.
One section of its website, “Reflections on the West”, is highly critical of economic liberalism and globalisation, which could be read as an attack on the current regime, he adds.
Blanchette says that it is hard to say how many people take online courses at Hao Da Xue, just as it is difficult to know how many Neo-Maoists there are overall, because the group “keeps its cards close to its chest”.
More mainstream universities have embraced red education as well. Last year, Tsinghua University, one of the most prestigious in China, released a massive open online course (Mooc) about Mao Zedong on the popular edX platform.
Reviewing the course, The New York Times spoke to several students who found the programme uncritical of Mao, and quoted Western historians of China who attacked edX’s decision to host it.
For Chinese universities such as Tsinghua hoping to collaborate with Western academia, the release of an ideologically rigid Mooc about Mao – and the red education phenomenon in general – might seem an embarrassment at best, and a deterrent to international collaboration at worst.
But Blanchette sees it a different way. “Why wouldn’t you have a Mooc on Mao?” he asks. The leader, for all his well-known and catastrophic flaws, is still modern China’s “founding father”.
The same goes for the study of Marxism: modern China is, after all, “the product of Marxist intellectuals”, he says. “There is something quite natural about a country making sense of its future by drawing on its past.”
But the question remains, he cautions, whether Chinese students and academics can debate such politically sensitive topics “honestly and openly”.
Blanchette’s book – which for now has no firm title – is due to be published by Oxford University Press next spring.