The Prospects for a Liberal Education in China

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Students are crucial drivers of protests against authoritarian injustices. We can think of numerous examples – Iran in 2009, Egypt in 2011, and Russia following the electoral falsifications in 2011-2012. In China, which is the subject of this short essay, there has been a storied history of student discontent, with the May Fourth protests against imperialism in 1919 and the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement serving as the two bookends of impactful student activism. Alas, students have been quiescent since 1989. The reason for this outcome is that the Chinese educational system is not geared around liberal education. Quite the opposite—driven by an understanding that Western ideas are a threat to national security, the Chinese Communist Party has only increased ideological indoctrination in recent years. Although a handful of Western universities operate in China, they cannot have a meaningful impact promoting liberal ideas. Patriotic education is the norm, with corresponding implications for the willingness of students to challenge the primacy of the communist party.


China and the War of Ideas

Ideology formed a fundamental part of the rivalry between democracy and autocracy both during and after the Cold War. As early as 1950, the U.S. National Security Council prepared a brief for President Truman that outlined the “basic conflict between the idea of freedom… and the idea of slavery.”[1] Although the classified memo presented several options for dealing with the communist threat, it concluded that the most effective course of action would involve overt political and psychological warfare aimed at encouraging anti-government unrest. Thus began the fight for hearts and minds, which was waged on the cultural front. This meant that Western cultural products like literature, film, music, fashion, and radio and television programs came to play a role as carriers of the ideas of freedom. It is no coincidence that Francis Fukuyama encapsulated his wildly optimistic views about the triumph of the Western idea as “liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic” or “the ultimate victory of the VCR” (Fukuyama 1992, 108).[2]

With the benefit of hindsight, Fukuyama’s end of history appears to have been a myth. Nevertheless, Chinese concerns about cultural protection intensified in the 1980s and became especially pronounced after the end of the Cold War, when the West replaced Taiwan and the Soviet Union as the main source of threat in the worldview of Chinese policy makers. It was only after Tiananmen that guarding against harmful foreign influences has become a central component of the strategy of stability maintenance. Concerns about cultural security in the 1990s reflected unease about the promotion of universal values after the Soviet dissolution. Internal government documents identified “hostile overseas forces” (jingwai didui shili) as responsible for promoting the strategy of peaceful evolution. China’s entry in the WTO in 2001 exacerbated preexisting fears about the impact of external forces on domestic stability and intensified the ongoing process of securitizing cultural threats. The Color Revolutions sensitized the leadership to the ongoing threat of subversion.

Responding to the West became imperative in the 2010s. In 2012, Document No. 9 resolutely opposed the infiltration of Western values by specifying the “seven don’t mentions” (qi bu jiang): constitutional democracy; universal human rights; civil society; freedom of the press; Neoliberalism; historical nihilism; and questioning the socialist orientation of Reform and Openness. Those issues remain off limits for media discussion in China. In 2014, Xi Jinping included cultural security in his definition of comprehensive state security (zongti guojia anquan guan).[3] In 2015, preventing and resisting the impact of harmful culture was explicitly discussed in Article 23 in the National Security Law. Since then, the concept has been firmly integrated into Chinese notions of comprehensive state (national) security. Since then, cultural security (wenhua anquan) has been used interchangeably with ideological security (yishixingtai anquan) and political security (zhengzhi anquan).


Education as Part of Cultural Security

China has promoted soft strategies like patriotic education, traditional learning (guoxue), resisting linguistic hegemony, and promoting indigenous cultural production as techniques for counteracting Western ideological infiltration by producing cultural confidence (wenhua zixin) and building national pride.[4] In contrast to the defensive measures, which are overseen by the ministries of public and state security, the counteroffensive strategies are deployed by the powerful Chinese Communist Party Propaganda Department, which oversees all bureaucracies in charge of culture, print and publications, and education. The Propaganda Department decides on crucial doctrinal matters like the ideological content of cultural products that are allowed to circulate through analog and digital means.


Patriotic Education and Traditional Learning

Though it emerged in the 1980s as part of the campaign against bourgeois liberalization, patriotic education persists to the current day. Students at all levels are exposed to a curriculum that stresses history, politics, and ideology. Elementary schools teach a compulsory subject called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” University entrance exams feature political questions. And university students are subjected to a heavy ideological curriculum. The results are consistent with the CCP’s intended purpose: an experimental study reveals that higher levels of trust for government officials and distrust of Western-style democracy among Peking University students are associated with exposure to the more ideological high-school politics curriculum introduced in 2004-2010. Patriotic education seems to be delivering what the party wants.

A related strategy was the promotion of traditional learning (guoxue), which is alternatively translated as national learning, and is used interchangeably in the Chinese-language literature with terms like China studies (Zhongguo xue) or Sinology (hanxue). Although the history of the concept of traditional learning goes back at least to the tiyongdebates of the Self-Strengthening Movement at the end of the Qing Dynasty (zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong – Chinese learning for the essence, Western learning for application), its contemporary relevance is a result of the culture fever (wenhua re) of the 1980s. In the 1990s and the 2000s, a number of universities established national learning research institutes, and undergraduate political education curricula were reorganized to include more content on Chinese classics, history, and philosophy. Scholars began to write about a “national learning fever” (guoxue re). The CCP promoted traditional learning as an antidote to Western culture. The ultimate goal is to foster cultural awareness and build national cultural identity (minzu wenhua rentong), at least among the Han Chinese — it remains unclear how restive minorities like the Tibetans and the Uyghurs can embrace concepts like guoxue and patriotic education.


Resisting Linguistic Hegemony

Foreign ideas are transmitted through language. The study of English in particular has been widespread in China, thus presenting a potential vector for cultural infiltration should enough citizens master it to a sufficiently high level. Thus, scholars have argued that safeguarding cultural security requires counteracting linguistic hegemony (yuyan baquan), which reflects the global cultural dominance of English. Resisting linguistic hegemony has involved steps undertaken in the 2010s to reduce the weighting of the English component of the university entrance exams (gaokao) and to encourage students to be tested in languages other than English. Other measures for opposing Western cultural hegemony (xifang wenhua baquan) center around elevating the status of Mandarin by increasing Chinese-language content on the Internet and sponsoring the establishment of Confucius institutes around the world. Having more Mandarin speakers can enable the successful promotion of both traditional Confucian culture and of ideological tropes like Chinese conceptions of democracy. In short, the CCP is fully cognizant of the soft power associated with language and aims to dislodge English from its global leadership in this sphere.


Fostering National Pride, Promoting Cultural Confidence, and Building Soft Power

In late 2012 and throughout 2013, Xi Jinping made a series of statements about the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Initially, these concepts were somewhat vague, but a speech in March 2014 clarified Xi’s vision that culture was essential for realizing the Chinese dream. Xi argued that China had had cultural pride (wenhua zihaogan) prior to the Opium Wars, but the ensuing century of national humiliation had greatly diminished its cultural confidence (wenhua zixin). The Chinese dream therefore was a dream of national cultural rejuvenation. Those arguments were built on earlier investigations of how cultural awareness (wenhua zijue) could foster national pride through grandiose spectacles like the hosting of the Olympics. Ultimately, the goal was to build cultural soft power, as would be appropriate for a country that has reemerged as a great power.

What are the implications of the foregoing arguments for the future of liberal education in China? As the Chinese Communist Party sees it, Western values are incompatible with national pride and promoting cultural confidence. This has meant that students at all levels of the educational system (and especially in universities) are exposed to a heavy dose of ideological indoctrination. The few Western educational outposts (like NYU Shanghai and Duke Kunshan) cannot have a meaningful impact and promote the liberal educational ideal. At this current juncture, it is difficult to be optimistic about students serving again as the motor of a pro-democracy movement, as they did during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.



[1] A Report to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on United States Objectives and Programs for National Security (NSC 68) (Washington, DC: National Security Council, 1950), p. 7.

[2] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989), 3-18, at p. 8; Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992), p. 108.

[3] Xi Jinping, “Jianchi zongti guojia anquanguan zou Zhongguo tese guojia anquan daolu.”

[4] (accessed July 4, 2021).

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