Full Marx for Creativity: Reforming Political Education in China
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2017-07-24 02:59:00

Every year, more than 7 million young people enter colleges across mainland China. Later, nearly 10 percent of them will continue their studies in graduate school. While at university, both undergraduate and graduate students alike must take compulsory classes on political and ideological theory.

In the minds of many Westerners, the very fact that Chinese students take obligatory Marxism classes is tantamount to brainwashing — but that’s a debate for another day. As a professor of Marxism, my primary concern is that the classes are not always interesting to students. In recent years, nearly everything about these courses, from their format to their content, has undergone radical change. Still, reforming the dull, dry, and didactic traditional teaching methods is no easy task.

The courses have undergone numerous changes since 1949. At present, undergraduates are required to take four such classes: Basic Principles of Marxism; Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought and Socialism With Chinese Characteristics; Modern Chinese History; and Ideological and Moral Cultivation and Basics of Law. Master’s students, meanwhile, take a course titled “Socialism With Chinese Characteristics: Theory and Practice,” and doctoral students take one called “Chinese Marxism and the Contemporary World.” In addition, there are several electives available to students seeking a more comprehensive overview of the topic.

At the beginning of this year, the minister of education, Chen Baosheng, admitted that courses in Marxism “aren’t appealing and suffer from a lack of focus.” In his view, the low engagement of political and ideological theory courses comes down to the fact that “the content is not suited to [students’] needs. The formula used in these courses is outdated, their methods are crude, and their packaging isn’t very fashionable.”

My university is trying to challenge the broadly negative perception of political ideology classes. As teachers, we encourage students to discuss, ask questions about, and reflect on hot-button issues related to modern China and the rest of the world. To stimulate debate, we give students questionnaires designed to help us understand the issues they find interesting. We then work to tie these issues back into Marxism and socialism with Chinese characteristics.

While the USSR may have broken up nearly three decades ago, its failure has remained a consistent topic of reflection within Chinese governmental and intellectual circles.

Our teachers are also enthusiastically engaged in educating students in how to respond rationally to sensitive issues, such as slowing economic growth and the quality of China’s economic development, environmental management, Party leadership, and rule of law. Often, our discussions touch on sensitive political issues, such as Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement and even the country’s more tumultuous events since ushering in the reform era in the late 1970s.

Our approach has led to many lively discussions between teachers and students and has fostered a dynamic classroom atmosphere. We hope that through such good-natured interactions, we can lead students to accept official stances on mainstream values, rather than compel them to mechanically recite whatever factoids are needed to pass a test.

Naturally, if we want to reason with our students or move them emotionally, then we teachers must have solid academic backgrounds, expansive worldviews, and a thorough training in oration. To this end, we recruit professors from various fields across the humanities and social sciences, almost all of whom have experience of overseas study or international exchange. Their courses cover more than just Marxist authors, with students and teachers embarking on joint explorations of the works of eclectic philosophers and economists like John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Hannah Arendt, and even modern thinkers like Thomas Piketty.

Many pedagogical changes draw on the lessons China has learned from the collapse — both economic and ideological — of the Soviet Union. While the USSR may have broken up nearly three decades ago, its failure has remained a consistent topic of reflection within Chinese governmental and intellectual circles. The reasons for the Soviet collapse are multifaceted and complex, but one of them was surely its ideological failure.

Soviet ideological education was stiflingly doctrinaire, divorced from reality, out of step with the times, and disconnected from the masses. It turned a blind eye to the challenges, issues, and age-old abuses inherent in real life. This bred aversion to official ideology, especially within the ranks of intellectuals and young students. Instead, the words and ideas of the regime’s opponents were spread privately, winning sympathy and resonating with the common people.

We must adopt an ‘à la carte’ approach when it comes to absorbing the best products from ancient and modern times, as well as from China and abroad.

Importantly, university-level values education is increasingly starting to emphasize the ability to make individual decisions. As Chinese society has become more open, all kinds of ideological trends have rushed in. Chinese universities must train a generation of young students capable of deciding for themselves which of these outside concepts have value, rather than just passively accepting any new idea they run into.

Values education is also increasingly focused on the notion of inclusivity. Given China’s rapid social development, various ideas have room to coexist. Out of this a consensus will emerge, one that will make use of each idea’s strengths. One of Chairman Mao’s most well-known maxims was: “Make the past serve the present and the foreign serve China.” Today, this means adopting an à la carte approach when it comes to absorbing the best products from ancient and modern times, as well as from China and abroad. And when young people hold divergent views, we should use reason to win them over.

Increasingly, our classes are also embodying centrist political attitudes. In guiding the development of a values system, we must neither give up our core principles — specifically, the Communist Party’s leadership and socialism with Chinese characteristics — nor respond to new ideas with suspicion and fear. Yet we must also be on guard against disturbances caused by extremist views, such as an overly close embrace of Western modes of governance or a return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Finally, values education increasingly requires innovation, something the government has consistently emphasized since the beginning of the reform era in 1978. Many Chinese now believe rare development opportunities cannot be allowed to slip through our fingers. In a globalized and interconnected era, values education cannot remain stuck in the past. Whether in the dissemination of ideas, the system of discourse, or the use of technology, we must clear out the old ways to make room for the new. Only then can we make values education something young people actually look forward to.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A portrait of Karl Marx is displayed at an exhibition in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Oct. 15, 2014. Long Wei/VCG)