Charter Changes and Book Burning Underline Party Control of Education

Recent years have brought a succession of moves to tighten the reins on China’s education system. Authorities have sought to drive out “Western values” and cultivate a new focus on Xi Jinping’s signature Thought, which was enshrined in the Party and national constitutions in late 2017 and early 2018. Earlier this year, the suspension of Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun became a new focus of discontent with the steadily chilling academic climate. Last month, The New York Times reported on the “growing number of ‘student information officers’ who keep tabs on their professors’ ideological views […] to help root out teachers who show any sign of disloyalty to President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party.” (CDT posted a translated account from one reported teacher in November 2018.) Now, several prominent Chinese universities have announced changes to their charters which starkly reflect these trends. Quartz’s Jane Li described Fudan University’s revisions:

In a notice (link in Chinese) revealing the revised version of its 2014 constitution submitted by Fudan that was published on the education ministry’s website yesterday (Dec. 17), the Shanghai university was found to have made more than 40 revisions to its bylaws. The changes went into effect in early December, according to the notice. In the original version, the university said that its “educational philosophy” was in accordance to the values advocated in its school song (video in Chinese), which are “academic independence and freedom of thought.” In the revised version, “freedom of thought” was taken out. In the sentences that read “the school independently and autonomously runs the university” and “teachers and students independently and autonomously conduct academic studies while abiding with the law,” the term “independently” was removed.

Fudan also added sentences that emphasize the firm leadership of the party over the school, such as “the university sticks to the party’s leadership, fully implements the party’s policies on education,” and “adheres to Marxism as the guiding philosophy and socialism as the foundation of the school’s operation” to the constitution, and that the school should “always serve the people, serve the party’s governance of China,” and “serve the consolidation and development of China’s socialist system with Chinese characteristics.” It also said that the university needs to “equip its teachers and employees” with “Xi Jinping Thought,” the signature political theory of the Chinese leader that was added to the party’s constitution in 2017. [Source]

In the China Neican newsletter, Adam Ni and Yun Jiang commented on these changes’ broader context:

Beyond the suppression of intellectual freedom, education is now seen by the CCP as critical for maintaining its intellectual and moral legitimacy. The Party is asking three key questions:

  • Who to education 培养什么人?
  • How to educate 怎样培养人?
  • For whom to educate 为谁培养人?

In Xi’s words: “the Party must cultivate generation after generation of [talented young people] that support the Communist Party of China’s leadership and the socialist system”.

The Party is rightly worried about its hold over the minds of the young. Throughout China’s history, student activism has been at the vanguard of calls for reform, including May 4th, June 4th, and the Red Guard movements. Today, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has students at its core.

[…] The Party cannot rely purely on coercive tools to maintain its rule in the long term. It needs ideological, intellectual and moral power. [Source]

Nanjing University and Shaanxi Normal University have also made similar revisions, following earlier changes by Renmin University in June. Discontent at Fudan helped bring broader attention to the issue:

From Mimi Lau at South China Morning Post:

About a dozen students started singing the first verse of the Fudan University school song – which celebrates the pursuit of academic independence and free thinking without political and ideological influence – accompanied by a harmonica as campus security and teaching staff looked on.

The flash mob lasted just under 20 minutes on the first and second floors of the Danyuan cafeteria in Guanghua Building on campus. More students joined the action which concluded with the participants dispersing. No slogans were shouted, nor banners displayed, according to a Fudan student who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

[…] A video clip of the flash mob at Fudan – a relatively liberal college and one of China’s most prestigious – went viral on Chinese social media. The clip has since been censored as debate over the change to the institution’s charter has continued to intensify. The Fudan song’s lyrics have also been widely shared on the internet.

[…] A number of Fudan’s teaching staff were approached by the South China Morning Post but declined to comment. [Source]

One did comment on the changes to The Financial Times’ Sun Yu and Christian Shepherd:

One Fudan academic said that officials in Beijing determined what should be added to the charter, but that university administrators decided what to delete.

“University leaders are so keen to self censor that they didn’t bother to think about the public response,” the academic said. The academic added that the new content about party control would provide a “weapon” for the university to use against political dissent in the classroom.

“We are entering a new norm,” said the academic. “It would be unusual [now] for a university not to stress party leadership in its charter.” [Source]

Another professor at Fudan, who offered an emphatic defense of intellectual freedom and openness in a graduation address in June, did go on the record. From Philip Wen at The Wall Street Journal:

Qu Weiguo, a professor at Fudan University’s foreign-languages school, wrote on China’s Twitter-like Weibo service that he was “very shocked” to learn of the amendments, which he said were made without staff consultation and likely contravened university and education ministry regulations. The post was deleted several hours later.

“If we do not speak out today about such a blatant challenge to the bottom line of education and academic ethics, I am afraid we will never have the chance,” said Lu Xiaoping, vice-president of the literature school at Nanjing University—another university whose charter was rewritten—in a Weibo post on Wednesday that was also later deleted. Shaanxi Normal University, in northwestern China, was the third university to have its charter altered. [Source]

Such comments are increasingly elusive, as “China’s Millennials” author Eric Fish noted:

Anna Fifield’s report at the Post, which Fish highlighted, detailed other expressions of discontent with the changes:

“We studied very hard when we were little and were inspired by the freedom and the spirit of Fudan to enroll there,” a 2004 graduate, Wang Lili, wrote in a message to [Fudan’s Party vice secretary] that was shared online. “Since graduation, there hasn’t been a single day that I didn’t feel proud of my university, not a single day that I didn’t miss it. I am so sad to see the news today. It’s like our charter has been castrated.”

[…] A widely shared post [on Douban] likened the Fudan move to the way Heidelberg University changed its motto from “The Living Spirit” to “The German Spirit” in 1933. It was changed back after the Nazi era. “The [Fudan] constitution will hopefully be changed back as well. But probably at a great cost,” the post said. By Wednesday afternoon, it, too, had been deleted.

A Prague-based food writer named Guo Ting posted a picture of Winnie the Pooh — a sarcastic reference to Xi, who also has a notable belly and similar facial expression — in which Pooh asks Piglet which day it is. “It’s the day we burn the patriarchy to the ground,” Piglet says. Pooh responds: “My favorite day.”

“What a perfect meme to go with the Fudan news today!” Guo wrote in the post, which remains online, perhaps because the text is in English. [Source]

The charter changes closely followed another wave of alarm at a photo on a Gansu local government website of library staff burning “illegal” or “inappropriate” books. The local government later said that the staff would be disciplined, though as James Palmer wrote at Foreign Policy’s China Brief newsletter, “it’s clear the problem isn’t that they destroyed the books, but that they did it in public.” He went on to highlight the episode’s resonance with earlier book-burnings under China’s first emperor and during the Cultural Revolution. A commentary in the Beijing News, swiftly deleted but archived at CDT Chinese, cautioned that “we naturally mustn’t overplay this connection, but the incident’s impropriety and the social anxiety it has triggered are real nonetheless.” The piece asked two key questions: whether incineration was the most appropriate way of disposing of unwanted books, and what standards had been used to select material for destruction.

One set of standards had been issued by the Ministry of Education in October, and was later published on China Law Translate. The notice ordered a “national special action to review and clean up primary and secondary school libraries” in order “to thoroughly learn from Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and the spirit of the 19th Party Congress, to implement the decisions and deployments of the National Education Congress, to fulfill the fundamental task of cultivating morality and people [and] to create a healthy and safe environment for education.” After giving directions on organization, execution, and monitoring of the “clean-up” and subsequent library management, the document lists the criteria by which books are to be assessed. From China Law Translate, with permission:

I. Illegal Books

(1) Infringing, pirated, and other illegal books that violate relevant provisions of the Constitution, Criminal Law”, “Copyright Law” and other such laws, regulations and judicial interpretations.

(2) Books that violate the “Regulation on the Administration of Publications”, including books with the following content:

that which opposes the basic principles determined by the Constitution;

that which is harmful to national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity;

that which divulges state secrets, endangers national security or harms national honour or interests;

4.That which incites ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, or undermining ethnic unity or harming ethnic customs and practices;

That which promotes evil cults or superstition;

That which disrupts social order or undermines social stability;

That which advocates obscenity, gambling, terror, or violence, or which instigates crime;

That which insults or defames other persons, infringing other persons’ lawful rights and interests;

That which endangers public morality or the ethnicity’s exceptional cultural traditions.

Other content prohibited by law, administrative regulations, and state regulations.

(3) Books contrary to the Party’s line, directives, and policies; that vilify or malign Party and state leaders and heroes and models; or that overly dramatize Party, state, or military history.

(4) Books that have violations of religious policy.

(5) Foreign [non-mainland] books imported through unofficial channels.

(6) Fake books published falsely in the name of or impersonating famous persons or foreigners.

(7) Books that relevant departments order are to have circulation stopped.

II.Inappropriate Books

(1) Those not conforming to the Core Socialist Values;

(2) Those with deviant world views, outlooks on life, and values;

(3) Those advocating narrow-minded ethnic nationalism and racism;

(4) Those advocating religious teachings, doctrines and canons;

(5) Those in which clear errors on scientific concepts and rationales appear;

(6) Those not suitable for the level of mental development and cognitive ability of primary and secondary school students (other than books for use by teachers);

(7) Those of questionable taste or unhealthy thought, that include terror, cruelty, sex, and other such content;

(8) Those with old and outdated content that are of no practical use.

III. Books in poor condition for which there is not value in preservation [Source]

The ministry also issued positive guidelines in the form of a 422-page list of 7,000 books recommended for elementary, middle and high school libraries. From Dave Yin at Caixin last month:

Among the titles is a book titled “Third-Generation Gene Editor CRISPR,” commonly used DNA-editing technique, which is recommended for kids in middle and elementary schools. It’s among roughly 20 titles on genetic research, a discipline mired in controversy in China after Shenzhen-based scientist He Jiankui shocked the world last year with claims that he had altered the DNA of two human babies.

The list also includes about seven titles on quantum science, 50 entries categorized under “military affairs” and 50 on aerospace. Those totals are dwarfed by 2,200 literary titles, more than 1,000 under “culture, pedagogy, physical education,” more than 700 under history and geography, 300 on industrial technology, and more than 200 on communist ideology and philosophy. [Source]

Another echo of the Cultural Revolution appeared in a recently translated essay by Xu Zhangrun, who recalled an unsettling encounter on the Tsinghua campus soon after his suspension. From Geremie Barmé at China Heritage:

I had not gone five metres more when I encountered an old fellow in one of those electric mobility vehicles. As we approached each other I noticed that there was something in his mien that belied his air of seeming indifference. The old boy radiated vitality: he was a substantial figure and sported a full head of silver curls; the sole evidence of any frailty was his obvious lack of mobility. Directing himself straight at me he stopped and asked:

‘Are you the Xu Zhangrun they’re talking about? […] Everything reactionary is the same; if you don’t hit it, it won’t fall. This is also like sweeping the floor; as a rule, where the broom does not reach, the dust will not vanish of itself.’

It was a well-known quotation from the ‘Great Leader Mao Zedong’, one that, back in the day, people could rattle off without hesitation. You also heard it blasted from loudspeakers day in, day out, and it was chanted stentoriously at Struggle Sessions and Denunciation Meetings alike. The chanting was usually followed by punches and kicks, or it might be accompanied by wooden clubs or steel pipes, all of which rained down on whatever hapless Reactionary was being victimised. I also well remember that it was this particular quotation — vicious mantra that it was — that was changed in shrill tones just before they ransacked a home or an apartment.

[…] Although [having been born in 1962] for the most part I avoided things at the time, nonetheless, I did see and experience enough for myself. Even now, whenever I recall that era a tremor courses through me and a baleful sigh escapes my lips. Nonetheless, it had been many long years since I had heard that particular Mao Quote; in fact, I’d all but forgotten it. Yet now, here, right in front of me, was an old boy ensconced in his electric scooter incanting those dire words with earnest malice. It was like crossing paths with a malevolent night wraith, one who had the temerity to venture out in the full glare of daylight. [Source]

Updated at 8:06:11 PM PST on Jan 6, 2020: This post originally failed to credit Yun Jiang for her contribution to the China Neican post. We apologize for the omission.


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