Engineering the soul of China

Xi’s revolution in values and education is a tool for totalitarianism


Reform and repression, change and challenge are words we often associate with China. With fanfare, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Xi Jinping has launched reform of the economy, the law and the military. He has embraced big data and artificial intelligence; he has lauded Chinese globalisation with CCP characteristics (also known by the euphemism “Belt and Road Initiative”); he has encouraged decoupling from the US. Yet the least-known revolution, but the one that will be potentially of the greatest moment in the long term, is the one in values and education.

This revolution did not start with Xi but he is taking it to new extremes. The communique from the 6th Party Plenum in 2011 and the “Outline of Patriotism Education in the New Era” from November 2019 are arguably the two most important Party documents of the last decade.  They bracket Xi’s determination to engineer the soul of China—building on Stalin, Xi refers to teachers as “engineers of the soul”.  The first document makes clear the aim of redefining culture further in the Party’s image and controlling it; the second is Xi’s manifesto for totalitarianism—and education is the main tool for achieving it.

Culture and education in democracies are, to simplify, about personal development. They are not political, at least not in the sense that the state directs their content and aims. When artists write, draw or compose political works, it is because they have chosen to do so. Teachers are not told to adopt a political stance.

In contrast, in China, culture and education are not personal, but collective, ideological and political. Read any Party document on culture and you will read mainly about ideology (now known as 21st-century Marxism aka “Xi Jinping Thought”), about “core socialist values”, about patriotism. All three are defined by and inseparable from the Party.

The same applies to education. In the West, pupils are given the basic tools but are expected to develop their own views. Creativity is encouraged. Not so for the CCP. Its approach is encapsulated in this excerpt from the clunkily named “Opinions on Deepening the Reform and Innovation of the Ideological and Political Theory Courses in Schools in the New Era” of June 2019 (“opinions”, incidentally, are documents which are to be studied and obeyed):

Primary school: . . . guiding students to form feelings of loving the party, patriotism, loving socialism, loving the people, and loving the collective.

Junior high school: laying a solid foundation for thinking, guiding students to put the party, the motherland, and the people in their hearts, and strengthening the ideology of socialist builders and successors.

High school: improving political literacy and guiding students to sincerely support the partys leadership and Chinas socialist system and form a political identity as a socialist builder and successor.

University: guiding students to listen to the party, and strive to be a socialist qualified builder and a reliable successor.

Education starts with “grasping the baby” (2019, “Outline of Patriotism Education”) and “youth as the top priority of patriotism education”. Teaching students how to ask the right questions might be dangerous; instead they must learn the right answers, those which “promote the Socialist structure with Chinese characteristics, to enter textbooks, enter classrooms and enter minds”. This unquestioning foie gras cramming aims to inculcate sufficient ideology and politics to last a lifetime of quiescence and acquiescence.

Universities are the main target. Yet the CCP aim is not just to prevent a 1989-style, student-led uprising, to stay in power.  It is far broader. As Xi says, educating youth is a part of “national rejuvenation”, of “cultural confidence” (an important concept, part of which is opposition to “Western hostile values”, which were excoriated in the secret April 2013 “Document No 9”) and of the inevitable rise of China under the CCP. “New China Man” will help build the “community of shared future for mankind”, a world with China at centre stage and accommodating Chinese—i.e. CCP—interests.

Since 2012 Xi has attended many meetings on culture and education.  The flow of instructions and documents has been relentless and accelerating.  I have counted over 20, some on culture and core socialist values, the majority on aspects of education: from primary to tertiary; from propaganda and ideology to studying Xi Jinping Thought; from textbooks to training; from strengthening Party cells in colleges to reinforcing control over administrators, counsellors, teachers and students.

To “turn universities into CCP strongholds”—another Xi phrase—the documents show a breath-taking breadth of control.

Party organisations within schools and colleges must be strengthened (also in primary and secondary schools, private schools and, since April 2016, foreign-run schools, which must set up Party cells and run approved politics courses). In May 2018 the Ministry of Education (MoE) launched the “double leader” (i.e. Party and academic) approach to reinforce Party writ amongst university administrators.

Teachers and counsellors must be controlled. The focus is on younger teachers (defined as under 45 according to Shanghai’s famous Fudan university). A central document of 2013 called for “a regular survey and analysis system of young teachers’ ideological status”.  Its use was shown in a MoE document of 2017, which said that “ideological and political performance” would be the single most heavily weighted criterion in the evaluation of university teachers, and the most important factor in determining career prospects. Deterrence is exercised by cameras in classrooms and a system of student informers. The now sacked Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun confronted one such, who admitted being given the title “Information Officer”, paid a monthly stipend and promised a place in a research program. Some universities post recruitment advertisements and are aiming for one nark per classroom. Recalcitrant academics receive reduced remuneration, cannot publish, become demoted to librarians, and are eventually fired.

Students must be moulded. Whereas ideology and politics classes used to be opportunities to catch up on sleep or social media (one 2011 survey recorded only 8 per cent of students paying attention in classes), now the subject is important for entry into all level courses, for student evaluation, as well as a criterion for Party membership, these days almost a qualification for success in life.

Courses must be revamped. Money is going towards setting up new Marxism and Xi Jinping Thought research institutes (to produce more of the mind-numbing documents students—and we China-watchers—must read).  The MoE boasted that by the end of 2018 fully 85.2 per cent of China’s higher education institutes had set up institutions to conduct research on ideological and political education.

Textbooks must be rewritten and cleansed. A new body has been set up to control their content from primary to university level. Apart from a bigger diet of Xi Thought, a major requirement, as the minister of education said in 2015, is to keep from the classroom textbooks which promote Western values.  Three years later, as the MoE mandated inspections of all textbooks used in elementary and middle schools across the country to remove foreign content, his successor wrote that, “Schools are the prime targets for the infiltration of hostile forces”—perhaps a paranoid example of mirror imaging.

But the tightening is not limited just to teaching: discipline in general must be strengthened. The Party’s Spanish Inquisition, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, was sent into universities to help achieve this. In January 2016 a discipline team from the MoE increased its supervision of the implementation of political discipline, including the “key issue” of “the dissemination of improper remarks by some teachers”. In fairness it has to be said that corruption in colleges was rampant, particularly in bribes for entry. My favourite example comes from the Beijing music conservatoire. Candidates performed behind curtains so that judges, including foreigners, could not see their identities and thus could not give places to those whose parents had paid the most . . . except that the accompanists were bribed to play a wrong note at a certain bar to distinguish good payers from good players.

And, as ever in Xi’s China, new technology, big data and artificial intelligence are being pressed into service.  Surveillance on campus is ubiquitous—if not iniquitous.  But more worrying is the MoE’s expression of future enthusiasm for collating data from library records, surveys, social media posts, students’ social connections, essays and more, in order to build profiles and files of their political sentiments and ideology. It is hard to imagine that files will not feature in applications for jobs in government, state-owned enterprises, or academia.

Where will all this lead?  Is pessimism justified? In all spheres, one of the most pronounced (not least by Xi) problems is that of implementation. And there is active opposition. For every professor who openly and bravely laments the death of the “public intellectual”, there must be a hundred sighing in sympathy. Students do still protest. Or sleep through lectures.

Yet the tools available for control and the evident determination of Xi and his officials over the last eight years are increasingly impressive—if perhaps self-defeating.  Can Xi build “world class universities” and can China become “a world education power by 2050”, if critical thinking, creativity, contrariness are crushed?  The 2013 “Opinions on Higher Education” were to be applied not just to social sciences, but also to “physics, accountancy and medicine”, according to the Party tabloid, the Global Times. Xi has declared innovation essential to China’s future well-being, but also its Achilles heel. For many, the extraordinary renaissance in Europe and the industrial advances sustained over centuries are explained by the free flow of information and ideas. At the least, Xi is taking a big risk in damming these.

Academic decoupling from liberal democracies is also dangerous. Chinese thinkers are increasingly limited in opportunities to travel and exchange ideas. Inviting foreign academics to China is now a fraught process.  If alternative ideas are dangerous, if subjects are banned, if books are being torn from libraries (and in one infamous case burnt), if the many foreign schools or university branches set up in China become untenable, then the dangers of non-understanding and misunderstanding rise.

What incentives will remain for young foreigners to devote long years to the study of Chinese and China, if open exchange is restricted, if there is a risk that candid views lead to the drying up of invitations, research opportunities or visas? What policy miscalculations will foreign and Chinese governments make if mutual understanding is diminished?

We should fear the export of the effects of Xi’s clampdown. In 2019 students at Fudan protested at the removal from its charter of the words “academic independence, freedom of thought”.  But CCP directed or encouraged interference and self-censorship are on the increase in Western universities, who feel themselves financially dependent on the perhaps two million Chinese studying with them (the MoE declared 1.7 million in 2014, and since then increasing wealth has brought the middle classes a greater ability to fulfil their “Chinese Dream”: overseas education and hopefully settlement).

The enduring trade on the Silk Road was not in silk or pots but in ideas. Early in his 2017 speech to the amusingly acronymed BARF (Belt and Road Forum), Xi emphasised “mutual learning”. As he said, religions, astronomy, medicine, technology flowed eastwards, and China’s four great inventions (papermaking, printing, gunpowder and the compass) westwards.

Yet, as ever, a gap yawns between Xi’s rhetoric and his reality.  There is no new Cold War, but there is a Values War. Xi declared it in “Document no. 9”, which proscribed seven Western values; and reinforced it in 2014 with “Document no. 30”, which demanded the removal of Western inspired liberal ideas from universities. This decoupling of minds is the most frightening form of decoupling.  Its extremes are apparent in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Our defence in a Values War is to adopt a concept out of Xi Jinping’s book: to the “Three Confidences” in the CCP’s ideological canon he added “Cultural Confidence”. We need that too. 


Proscribed by ‘Document no. 9’:

1. Promoting Western Constitutional Democracy: An attempt to undermine the current leadership and socialism with Chinese characteristics system of governance.

2. Promoting “universal values” in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party’s leadership.

3. Promoting civil society in an attempt to dismantle the ruling party’s social foundation.

4. Promoting Neoliberalism, attempting to change China’s Basic Economic System.

5. Promoting the West’s idea of journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline.

6. Promoting historical nihilism, trying to undermine the history of the CCP and of New China.

7. Questioning Reform and Opening and the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.