Students Praise, Protest CCTV’s Back-to-School Gala
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2017-09-05 15:03:55

For China’s schoolchildren, the new academic year kicked off last week with a master class on national pride.

“First Class of New Semester,” an annual program co-organized by the Ministry of Education and state broadcaster China Central Television, was viewed a record 400 million times across multiple online video platforms on Friday, the first day of fall semester classes.

But there’s a very good reason for the astronomical number of views. In a notice dated Aug. 24, the ministry asked every primary and middle school to organize students to watch the show, either with their classmates at school or with their parents at home.

“The show aims to help students develop a sense of confidence in China and a love for the Party, the country, and the people, as well as greater confidence in the nation’s culture and values,” read the notice.

In a studio set up to look like a classroom, dozens of primary school students sat straight in their chairs, their hands clasped on their desks. With the theme of “China Pride,” this year’s hour-and-a-half program consisted of five parts: Chinese characters, martial arts, classic literature, the board game Go, and the Silk Road — each featuring games and musical performances by Chinese pop stars.

While past broadcasts have featured appearances from internationally renowned actors like Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi, and Jet Li, this year’s viewers were welcomed by acclaimed pianist Lang Lang and champion Go player Ke Jie.

This year, CCTV also invited foreigners with a deep interest in Chinese culture to give speeches: Richard Sears, an American known as “Uncle Hanzi” because of his love for Chinese characters, told his story of studying Chinese, and a teacher from Pakistan talked about how Chinese language education has fostered good will along the Silk Road.

The Ministry of Education had asked schools not only to make sure students watch the broadcast, but also to give follow-up assignments to ensure that its message gets through. One such assignment — a report of up to 800 characters — has triggered particularly strong complaints from students.

“You’re all watching this because of that report, right?” read one highly upvoted comment that scrolled across the screen on Tencent’s video platform. Another viewer suggested students complete their assignments by simply transcribing the hosts’ speeches word for word.

Despite the backlash from students, however, the ministry’s notice was effective. On microblog platform Weibo, a school in eastern China’s Anhui province posted photos of students watching the program at home with their parents, along with handwritten notes extolling the show’s virtues. “I benefitted a lot from ‘First Class of New Semester,’” read one student’s note. “I am really proud of Chinese characters.”

“After watching the show, my heart was all aflutter for some time,” read a note from another student. “I must study hard and contribute to my country.”

When it debuted in 2008 after the disastrous earthquake in Sichuan province, “First Class of New Semester” instructed students what to do during a natural disaster. In years that followed, the show began focusing more on political ideology, social values, and cultural confidence, as the country celebrated events like the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

Qiao Mu, a media analyst in Beijing, told Sixth Tone that while there’s nothing wrong with organizing students to participate in educational activities, the government should put more thought into making the show feel less like a chore. “If students are forced to learn something, they will react negatively,” said Qiao.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: A still frame from the CCTV program ‘First Class of New Semester’ shows a presenter holding a piece of paper with Chinese hieroglyphics on it, August 2017. From the show’s Weibo account)