History often repeats itself.
Beijing has recently been tightening its grip on ideology and running checks on western teaching materials used in universities across the mainland.
The campaign is strongly reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s “Pluck out the white flag, raise the red flag” movement between 1958 and 1960 and signifies an extension of the current mini Cultural Revolution.
In his article “China warns against western values in imported textbooks”, published in the New York Times on Jan. 30, Chris Buckley said Beijing is adding new targets to its anti-liberalization movement.
Weeding out imported teaching materials that promote western values and purging professors who advocate liberalization are the main themes of the mini Cultural Revolution in the first quarter of this year.
Let’s call it the Great Purge of Tertiary Institutions.
In this article, I will look into the social background and the familiar political context in which this movement is taking place, as well as the controversy sparked by banning western teaching materials.
During a meeting in December on the Communist Party’s tasks in universities, “Emperor” Xi Jinping instructed the party to “strengthen its control over ideology and firmly secure its leadership in grasping ideological control among tertiary institutions”.
He also ordered the party to “stay the course in running universities along socialist lines, as well as reinforce and improve its political and ideological work”.
Shortly after the meeting, the party’s Central Committee issued a “red letterhead document” — an official decree — on Jan. 19 titled “Suggestions on further strengthening and improving ideological propaganda among tertiary institutions under new circumstances”.
The document stressed that the essence of Xi’s instructions must be carried out thoroughly under the guiding principles of the Marxist, Leninist and Maoist doctrines, so as to demonstrate the party’s absolute faith in its general secretary.
It also called for a reinforcement of ideological propaganda in universities under such basic guidelines as “Not afraid to draw the sword, and take the responsibility of guarding our soil”; “Arm the hearts and minds of teachers and students, and make sure universities are run along socialist lines” and “Turn our universities into a stronghold for learning Marxism”.
Lastly, it said the party must establish among university teachers and students the “Three Confidences” — confidence in socialism with Chinese characteristics, confidence in theories and confidence in the system – and “Three Identities” — theoretical identity, political identity and emotional identity.
After the document was released, Yuan Guiren, the minister of education, suggested the “Two Reinforcements” during a speech on Jan. 29, which were “Reinforce the management of ideology in universities” and “Reinforce the management of the use of western teaching materials”.
He emphasized that teaching materials that advocate western values must not be allowed in university lectures, nor should slanders and smears against party leaders and socialism be tolerated on the campus.
Yuan later published an article in the China Education Post saying young teachers and students are particularly susceptible to infiltration by hostile forces and that the party must stay vigilant against “ideological risks”.
This is the most relentless offensive against the tertiary education sector since the 1990s.
Smears and slanders against party leaders and socialism refers, in fact, to intellectuals who dare to speak up against the one-party dictatorship and the marginalization of the underprivileged, or to those who openly call for constitutional democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
During the propaganda campaign, a minor figure suddenly emerged in the public eye and became a cause for concern among intellectuals.
Only days after the “red letterhead document” was released, an article written by a low-ranking official in the propaganda department of the party’s committee in the city of Ningbo, Zhejiang province, was published on the official website of the Central Propaganda Department.
In his article this official first seized upon a recent incident in which veteran Hong Kong actress Angie Chiu Nga-chi was slammed on the internet when she said she felt proud standing in front of Tiananmen in Beijing.
The official said it appeared that some in China thought it was trendy to smear their own country, and that trend had something to do with how universities educated their students.
He then criticized He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, for his advocacy of constitutional democracy.
Such attacks on individuals have not been seen for years, indicating that the mini Cultural Revolution has already reached the stage of “not afraid to draw the sword”.
The fact that an article written by a nobody could suddenly appear on an official website of the central authorities suggested that someone in power had ordered it to be given prominence.
There were, in fact, problems with the logic of the article.
How could disagreement with an actress’s remarks be classified as “smears against China”?
Professor He asked the Ministry of Education: “How could a reflection on the party’s past and the uncovering of dark secrets be characterized as slanders and smears against party leaders and socialism?”
The liberalization that the authorities see as a threat represents, in fact, the rise of an awareness among the public about social injustice and the one-party dictatorship, and it also represents the public’s aspirations for the freedom of speech, the freedom of thought, the rule of law and democracy.
The ongoing purge reminds people of the great persecution in the wake of the June 4 incident in 1989, during which “Emperor” Jiang Zemin frequently alerted the party to attempts by the West to perpetrate a “peaceful transformation” of China.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 5.
Translation by Alan Lee
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