China’s President Xi Jinping carries a big stick. He has demanded that China’s leading news media serve the ruling Communist Party with absolute loyalty and “have the party as their family name.” He has launched a merciless attack on lawyers who represented dissidents or victims of human rights abuse; tried to smother freedom of expression on social media; and placed onerous restrictions on foreign nongovernmental organizations attempting to operate in China. Now the campaign for control has put higher education in its sights.
China has long controlled curriculum and speech at universities, having strong memories of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy student protests of 1989. But colleges and universities have also been something of a gray area where Western influences are evident. The party has been making renewed efforts in the past few years to impose tighter control. In 2014, Xi demanded that universities “shoulder the burden of learning and researching the dissemination of Marxism,” and in 2015, universities were ordered to expand classes on Marxism and socialism. China’s education minister vowed to ban textbooks that carried “Western values.”
Xi told a two-day meeting of party and university officials last week in Beijing that the party’s Marxist ideology must guide all of higher education. He exhorted the officials to “build colleges into strongholds that adhere to Party leadership.” Xi’s personal intervention appears to signal a determined crackdown that could reverberate for years, as has been the case in the drive against lawyers and the media.
According to a report in the South China Morning Post, party chiefs at the meeting were eager to comply. One promised that instructors’ political views “would be made central to their performance evaluations” and that party committees on campus would routinely report on the political thoughts of young lecturers. Another party official from the South China Normal University in Guangdong province said it built a database to track the political opinions of more than two million students. “A professor with the Beijing Institute of Technology said that it planned to introduce electronic games to make political education more appealing,” the article reported.
What’s wrong with this picture? Xi is demanding loyalty to an ideology that has been abandoned for some time by most Chinese, who thrive in a system of vigorous if imperfect capitalism. No amount of indoctrination is going to change that. The big bookstores in China are crowded with readers seeking the latest translations of books about entrepreneurship, but the volumes on Marx sit moldering. Moreover, university campuses where students and scholars are free to inquire and innovate without fear are more likely to contribute to a strong and healthy society than a return to the rigidity of the past would. It is telling that Xi and other Chinese leaders have sent their children off to the best U.S. universities, to be schooled in an environment of freedom. At the same time, a number of Western schools have established campuses in China; they must resist any demands for blind loyalty and ideological orthodoxy.