Friday, December 9, 2016

Tom Phillips: China's universities must become Communist party 'strongholds', says Xi Jinping

Chinese authorities must intensify ideological controls on academia and turn universities into Communist party “strongholds”, President Xi Jinping has declared in a major address. “Higher education ... must adhere to correct political orientation,” Xi said in a high-profile speech to top party leaders and university chiefs that was delivered at a two-day congress on “ideological and political work” in Beijing. Universities must be transformed into “strongholds that adhere to party leadership” and political education should be made “more appealing”, the president ordered, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency. Experts have described it as the latest phase of Beijing’s bid to rein in opposition to its rule.

Read about the scholars and intellectuals expelled from the USSR in 1922

Xi, a populist strongman who recently reaffirmed his political authority by being declared the party’s “core leader”, said teachers needed to be both “disseminators of advanced ideology” and “staunch supporters of [party] governance”. Echoing a 1932 speech by Joseph Stalin the Chinese president told his audience teachers were engineers of the human soul” whose “sacred mission” was to help students “improve in ideological quality, political awareness, moral characteristics and humanistic quality”. “Party authorities should increase their contact with intellectuals in colleges, befriend them and sincerely listen to their opinions,” Xi added, pointing out that the party’s education policies “must be fully carried out”.

Carl Minzner, an expert in Chinese law and politics from Fordham University in New York, said Xi’s speech appeared to signal the next phase of a decade-long campaign to wrest back control of areas it feared were “getting out of control” such as the media, public interest law and academia. “What you are seeing is a reassertion of ideological control because they feel that colleges and schools are the hotbeds for ideas that potentially could be problematic; ideas of constitutionalism, ideas of liberalism. This is an effort to figure out, ‘How do we get a tighter control over that?’ and it looks like this is definitely going to be rolling through all of China’s colleges over the next couple of years. This is a big deal.”

Universities have been coming under increasing pressure since 2014, when a party-run newspaper sent its reporters into classrooms and accused Chinese academics of not giving enough support to the country’s political system.  “The atmosphere in higher education has been getting progressively colder over the last couple of years … I think people have already begun getting the message: ‘You need to watch yourself,’” said Minzner. “[But] this is a signal that things are about to go to the next level.” The American scholar predicted the brunt of Xi’s ideological offensive would be felt by social science departments. The result would be growing self-censorship, the avoidance of politically sensitive research topics and a proliferation of academic studies into the speeches and policies of Xi, who became China’s top leader in November 2012. But the moves could also affect international schools in China, which have been facing growing scrutiny as part of a push to counter the propagation of western ideas, and the flow of Chinese students to higher education institutions in countries such as the US and Britain.

“I think that you might start to see Chinese officials begin to think that this is not such a good thing, and begin to decide that it is less desirable and to begin to discourage that in certain ways,” Minzner said. “There is a fundamental contradiction between [the expansion of international education] and the current direction in which the party is going.”

Qiao Mu, an outspoken professor from Beijing Foreign Studies University, questioned whether Xi’s commands would have a “real impact” on campus life but said they were likely to influence Communist party officials working in universities. Qiao, one of the victims of the crackdown on academia, said Chinese students had long had “socialist values” drilled into them by teachers. “They’re already used to it.” These days, however, the greatest influence on China’s youth was not socialism but social media, the scholar added.


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