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China Warns Against ‘Western Values’ in Imported Textbooks

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China Warns Against ‘Western Values’ in Imported Textbooks

By Chris Buckley

January 30, 2015 6:16 am January 30, 2015 6:16 am


Students at Renmin University in Beijing. Education officials have warned against teaching materials that might promote Western values.Credit Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times

In law school at Peking University in the late 1970s, Li Keqiang, now China’s premier, was an avid student of English and helped translate texts that gave his generation its first, exhilarating exposure to Western legal ideals after the death of Mao.

Today, however, Mr. Li’s work might be considered dabbling in subversion.

This week, China’s ideological drive against Western liberal ideas broadened to take in a new target: foreign textbooks.

Meeting in Beijing with the leaders of several prominent universities, Education Minister Yuan Guiren laid out new rules restricting the use of Western textbooks and banning those sowing “Western values.”


Premier Li Keqiang, former compiler and translator of Western legal texts.Credit Jason Lee/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Strengthen management of the use of original Western teaching materials,” Mr. Yuan said at a meeting with university officials, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. “By no means allow teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms.”

The strictures on textbooks are the latest of a succession of measures to strengthen the Communist Party’s control of intellectual life and eradicate avenues for spreading ideas about rule of law, liberal democracy and civil society that it regards as dangerous contagions, which could undermine its hold on power.

On Jan. 19, the leadership issued guidelines demanding that universities make a priority of ideological loyalty to the party, Marxism and Mr. Xi’s ideas.

Mr. Yuan’s message this week spelled out how universities should do that.

“Never allow statements that attack and slander party leaders and malign socialism to be heard in classrooms,” he said, according to the Xinhua report. “Never allow teachers to grumble and vent in the classroom, passing on their unhealthy emotions to students.”

Chinese universities must ensure that the ideas of Mr. Xi, the powerful and ardently traditionalist party leader, would “enter teaching materials, enter classrooms and enter minds,” Mr. Yuan said.

The Communist Party has repeatedly sought to reinforce ideological influence over education, especially since 1989, when Deng Xiaoping used armed soldiers to suppress pro-democracy student protests centered on Tiananmen Square. But many liberal intellectuals said Mr. Xi has elevated fear of Western subversion to a new extreme, and the scrutiny of textbooks reflects that fear.

“Higher education has been designated as a major battleground of ideological struggle,” Zhang Xuezhong, a lawyer in Shanghai who was banned from teaching in 2013 because he was deemed to be spreading dangerous ideas, said in a telephone interview.

“This won’t be the final step; there’ll be more to come,” Mr. Zhang added. But he said Chinese society was so diverse and exposed to outside information, even with censorship, that enforcing Marxist purity was nigh impossible.

“As for the effectiveness, and whether every university and college will enforce the demands as required,” Mr. Zhang said, “that’s a totally different matter.”

Just how the Education Ministry’s demands regarding foreign textbooks will play out remains unclear. In many Chinese colleges and universities, English-language textbooks and translations of them have become widely used in the natural sciences, economics, law, journalism and the social sciences. Many students aspiring to study or work abroad believe mastering foreign works is essential to their success.

N. Gregory Mankiw’s popular textbook “Principles of Economics” is widely used in Chinese economics departments, and the authorized Chinese translation is often updated like the English-language original.

The publishing house of Tsinghua University in Beijing has reprinted a series of journalism textbooks in their original English, including “News Reporting and Writing” by Melvin Mencher. The publishing houses of Peking University and Renmin University, also in Beijing, have printed series of foreign textbooks for the humanities, business and law.

“We use foreign textbooks, but when the teacher is lecturing, they’ll add a Chinese spin,” Zhou Jianbo, a professor of economics at Peking University, said in an interview. “If you want to change this, it’ll take a huge amount of effort,” he said. “Much of that literature is from abroad — about foreign problems and how foreigners approach them because the work from abroad is still ahead of us.”

While the party is unlikely to entirely ban such books, its determination to cleanse schools of politically troublesome ideas seems unstoppable. At the same meeting at which Mr. Yuan laid down his demands, university officials lined up to endorse the ideological clampdown.

“Propaganda and ideological work in higher education must make instruction in ideals and convictions its primary task,” Zhu Shanlu, the Communist Party secretary of Peking University, said at the meeting, according to China Education News, a government website. “Thoroughly develop instruction in the beliefs of Marxism and Communism, and in the stance, viewpoint and methods of Marxism.”

A week earlier, Mr. Xi, who is also the Communist Party leader, set an example by leading a Politburo study session on applying Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism to policy. He gave other officials a primer in the philosophy of Marx and Engels.

“We must study and master the precepts that the world is unified as matter and that matter determines consciousness,” Mr. Xi said.

At the education meeting on Thursday, which included officials from Peking and Tsinghua universities, considered among the country’s most prestigious campuses, some officials argued that the renewed demands for loyalty to party doctrine could coexist with a commitment to open inquiry. But academics who have felt Mr. Xi’s ideological tightening said the room for candid debate had shrunk drastically, even compared with the restrictions of past years.

“The trend of tightening control over higher education and universities is very clear,” He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University whose liberal views have made him a target of hard-line criticism, said in telephone interview. “But China’s whole course of modernization over the past century and more has been a process of absorbing Western influences. Marxist theory is also a Western theory.”

Paradoxically, this intellectual offensive is under a generation of party leaders who came to adulthood during the traumatic years of the Cultural Revolution and in the first burst of liberalizing intellectual and political ferment that followed.

As a law student, Mr. Li, the premier, translated “The Due Process of Law,” by Alfred Denning, a famously idiosyncratic and influential English judge. Mr. Li also helped compile Western legal materials used in the Peking University law school when it became permissible to study such ideas and assisted a professor in writing a textbook, “Comparative Constitutional and Administrative Law.”

“In legal studies, in fact, the mainstream of thinking emerges from Western theories and traditions,” Professor He said. “We should convene a conference to study how Premier Li Keqiang disseminated Western legal theories.”

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