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China’s Western Values Debate Heats Up Online

FILE - Children study in small rural primary school in the Chang ling Xia Cou village, north of Beijing, China.
FILE - Children study in small rural primary school in the Chang ling Xia Cou village, north of Beijing, China.

It is not every day that a country’s education minister talks about banning textbooks and the threat of Western values. But in China, such talk is becoming increasingly common.

Recently, China's Minister of Education Yuan Guiren stirred up a fierce online debate by calling to ban textbooks containing what he described as harmful Western values. He has also written about hostile forces infiltrating the country's centers of higher learning and threats the Internet poses to the entire country.

In Their Own Words

In Their Own Words: Yuan Guiren, Education Minister

- “Never allow statements that attack and slander party leaders and malign socialism to be heard in classrooms.” - Xinhua

- “By no means allow teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms.” - Xinhua

- “Young students and teachers are a key target that hostile forces are seeking to infiltrate and create divisions among.” - Qiushi

Such comments, analysts say, highlight growing concerns among Communist Party leaders about stability and support among the country’s younger generation.

But the push to exert more control over classrooms began as early as 2013 with the release of Document No. 9, says Willy Lam, a political analyst in Hong Kong. That document instructed teachers not to talk about freedom of the press, civil society, the independence of the judiciary and other topics.

“The leadership is very paranoid about some kind of a color revolution taking place in China,” Lam said. “That means the infiltration of Western political values and so forth, instigating intellectuals and young students to oppose the communist regime.”

Online backlash

But this time, when Yuan decided talk about the threat of Western values, banning textbooks and criticism of party leaders, as well as socialism in the classroom, there was a strong backlash online.

On, a website that captures censored social media posts, the education minister has been a top trending topic for days, with some calling for his resignation. Others were quick to note that Yuan was the same minister who just several years ago said China needn't fear Western values.

Others say the reason Yuan ascended to the post of education minister is not because he understands education, but because he understands politics. In one post, a user named Water Lay argued that if Yuan had any accountability, he would step down, noting that during his tenure China has seen a host of problems including the physical abuse of students, repeated bus accidents and teacher strikes over compensation.

In another censored post, legal scholar He Weifang argued that, based on Yuan’s logic and concerns about Western values, China should consider banning all overseas education for Chinese students.

He Weifang — a well-known social critic who was exiled to Xinjiang from his Peking University post after voicing support for imprisoned Nobel Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo — knows all too well the cost that China's teachers can pay for speaking out.

Liu is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence on subversion charges after co-authoring Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms in China.

Censorship in action

While many readers posted negatives responses to the education minister's comments, they didn't linger: Internet censors have been working quickly to remove critical posts, replacing them with supportive ones.

One post by a user named RighteousTeacher166 praised him for pointing out the weaknesses and risks higher institutions now face. The post also added that the minister was helping to keep schools from encouraging students to follow in the footsteps of Hong Kong's student protesters.

Another said: "One only needs to look at Ukraine today to understand Western forces conspiring against China. We need to speak up and keep them from influencing our children."

Lam, the Hong Kong-based analyst, says the recent student protests are having an impact.

“What happened in Hong Kong, which has been classified as an example of a color revolution, has convinced the communist leadership that [they] have to do more to control the classroom and I think the Internet,” he said, adding that Chinese authorities fear the Internet could help spread what they consider dangerous Western values and grow support for Western democratic ideals.

Contrasting worldviews

In Their Own Words: Shen Kui, Law Professor, Peking University

In Their Own Words: Shen Kui, Law Professor, Peking University

- "There are many examples of Western learning traveling east. So, I ask you Minister Yuan, could you clearly say what the line is between "Western values" and "Chinese values"?"

- "Minister Yuan: Could you clearly tell us what the standard is for distinguishing between an attack and reflecting, or the difference between slandering and exposing dark secrets?"

- "If you casually talk about what can be done and what can't be done, the slightest mistake could actually be a violation of the Constitution or the law."

Zhang Lifan, a Chinese historian and social commentator, says the backlash and public nature of the debate highlights the gap that exists between the party’s ideals and the realities on the ground, particularly the wide range of social problems the country is facing.

“The party really has no other way to approach such challenges and they still use such a traditional way of preaching to the public,” he said. “But that type of approach is so outdated.”

The biggest shot across the bow, perhaps, came from Shen Kui, a professor and former vice dean of the Peking University Law School, who openly asked the education minister three questions online. Shen asked the minister to explain the difference between what is Chinese and Western in a global world? How one can tell the difference between attacking the party and exposing its dirty secrets? And whether the minister's comments go against China’s constitution and the rule of law.

In response, some such as well known anti-Western scholar Zhu Jidong suggested that all who criticized the minister should be severely punished.

In Their Own Words: Zhu Jidong, Maoist Scholar

In Their Own Words: Zhu Jidong, Maoist Scholar

- “While the attacks are directed at Yuan Guiren’s remarks, in reality it is a backlash and protest against the controls the central government has implemented at universities.”

- “The most important thing is to strike hard and remove those nails who have dared to speak out in opposition to the government.”

Interestingly, both Zhu and Chinese state media have taken note of how rapidly the comments circulated online. In Zhu’s rebuttal to Shen Kui and others who openly challenged the minister's position, he noted a large number of journalists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs.

Earlier this week, the education minister’s second salvo came in the form an article published in the Communist Party journal Qiushi, which menas Seeking Truth. In it, Yuan furthered his argument, calling for respect of those advocating Communist Party ideals such as Marxism and referring to schools as the front lines of China’s ideological battle.

Yuan warned that other countries see China’s development as a threat and have been infiltrating the countries student and teacher population to create divisions. He also said the Internet is the greatest threat that China’s Communist Party faces, adding that many ideological problems arise from the World Wide Web and that China’s youth were the biggest users of the platform.

“The ruling party’s greatest threat is to lose support of the youth," he wrote in the magazine. "To win the future, we must win over China’s youth.”

Historian Zhang says that is clear that officials in China do not understand youth who have grown up in the Internet age.

“The youth of today in China are unlike older Chinese who grew up watching CCTV’s Xinwen Lianbo, [state television’s evening news program] and were brainwashed by it," he said. “Unlike those who are older, the youth of today and their thinking is much more diverse, much freer and whimsical.”

Because of that, he added, they have broken the traditional frame the party seeks to keep around them and will pay no attention to its ideological evangelizing.

And while the push is likely to continue, because officials feel they can use their power to stamp out dissent, it is unlikely to have any lasting impact, he said.