The Classroom as a Tool of Repression in Communist China

When we speak of religious persecution in China, you might think of the medieval forms of torture used in prisons and labor camps, yet there is a subtle and pervasive tool of persecution that is less easily recognized: primary and secondary education.

Contrasted with the educational experience typical in the West, CCP-style education has several key characteristics. What you’ll find is that the Chinese Communist Party is all too willing to intellectually limit its young people in the interest of maintaining its power.

  1. The Party line as fact
    There’s a joke that in the Soviet Union, the future is certain, but the past is always changing. In Chinese textbooks, historical “facts,” when presented, are massaged to glorify the Party, or completely fabricated. What do students know about the Cultural Revolution? That it was merely a minor error in judgement by some leaders in the government, not the largest man-made disaster in history. The Japanese invasion and civil war? That the CCP won the day against the Japanese, whereas the fact is that the Republican (KMT) Chinese forces did most of the defense, despite CCP undermining their efforts. About Tiananmen? Most students born after the massacre won’t have been taught about it at all.

    In all instances, the Party is supposed to have acted in self-defense against some capitalistic foreign conspiracy, emerging as the righteous victor. 
  2. Political correctness is moral correctness
    CCP education conflates political ideology with moral values; what’s right for the Party is what’s right in general.

    This flies in the face of the separation of church and state that we’re used to in the States, where as far as character development goes, that remains the parents’ job; schools are responsible only for academic subjects. Communism is atheistic, and so in China, the Party takes the place of the divine as the object of worship. It becomes the god, and the arbiter of right and wrong. Nothing is above it, including family. In countless cases throughout the CCP’s social campaigns over the last 60 years, people have thrown their own parents or children under the bus to demonstrate their allegiance to the Party—it would have been wrong not to. 
  3. Lack of alternate viewpoints
    Just like State-controlled media are the only ones available throughout the country, the teacher’s voice is the only one heard in the classroom. Students aren’t expected to ask questions; teachers ask quiz-style questions and students are expected to repeat the textbook answer.

    Remember the mock debates that were meant to develop our abilities to form arguments and test logic? Such exercises are non-existent in Chinese classrooms. This is one reason why Western professors of Chinese-born exchange students often remark their lack of critical thinking and creativity. These were not only not encouraged, but actively discouraged during their K-12 education.  
  4. Peer pressure as social control
    Chinese classrooms have several unique roles such as “class monitor,” “study monitor,” “behavior monitor,” and “League secretary,” These students ensure that the other students know that they are being watched. Since most of these positions are stepping stones to Party membership or are liaisons with Party organizations, the Party has eyes and ears inside every classroom.

    If someone is found out to be a member of a persecuted demographic, such as Falun Gong, or have an unsanctioned viewpoint, they are pulled out of school and given a talking-to. Such students are publicly shamed and ostracized just like in the Cultural Revolution. If they do not recant, they are expelled or prohibited from advancing. If a student is friend or family to such an “untouchable,” they are given warnings to distant themselves.

    This applies to the adults in school as well. In some cases, educators are sympathetic to members of persecuted groups, yet have no choice but to teach in the manner they are required. In most situations, the best a teacher or administrator can do is to turn a blind eye to such a student. If an educator’s allegiances are questioned by his coworkers, bosses, or even students, his livelihood would be in jeopardy. 
  5. Ideological exams are pass-fail
    You might be able to fail a math exam with little consequence, but you can’t fail an ideological one. Regurgitate the Party line and pass; deviate and not only would you fail your course, but blight your career success. Because Party affiliation is required not only in school but also in workplaces, a student who refuses to fall in line is almost guaranteed to have no place in society. 
  6. Always politics, but never politics
    While political indoctrination is apparently the point of a CCP education, “talking about politics” is strictly forbidden. Don’t you question the merits of socialism versus democracy, or suggest that there’s more to the story that’s being told on the news. Once you do, you’d be accused of “getting political” or even labeled a seditious element. In essence, agreeing with the Party is not a political act, but disagreeing with it is. That’s why people who have undergone this style of education are often quick to side with the Party at the same time they avoid taking stances on political issues, saying instead that they have no opinion on sensitive subjects. 
  7. Start them young
    When you were 18, you probably wondered who to vote for in your first election. In China, children as young as 6 are made to join the Young Pioneers of China, swearing allegiance to the CCP in the same breath as they swear allegiance to China. Conflating the Party with the nation is an important way the CCP maintains loyalty. This is deliberately done when children are too young to understand what they’re doing. What’s more, this is compulsory. Part of the reason is to swell the number of Communist Party members, but more importantly, such swearing-in ceremonies instill a sense of in-group loyalty among young children—an emotional pattern that is hard to break later in life.

    By the time these kids become adults, they have been thoroughly trained to fear, worship, and follow the Party. Even if they move to free countries, the instinct is to repel new information and defend the CCP. 
  8. Independent schools are virtually non-existent
    If you’re wondering how a concerned Chinese parent might be able to circumvent this system, it’s next to impossible. There’s been a movement to return to traditional schooling with Confucian texts and customs, with students even donning the robes of ancient scholars. It’s called sishu, and there are only about 3,000 such private schools in China, so the movement is not yet a huge concern of the Communist Party. However, traditional doctrines like Confucianism exhort independent thinking and faith in a divine power, so the Ministry of Education is keeping a wary eye on this movement.

    Speaking of Confucius, though, the CCP has established so-called “Confucius Institutes” in many universities around the world. Despite being named after the sage, these language programs teach the Party’s version of culture, not traditional Chinese culture. The CCP also uses faculty of CI to keep tabs on international students. Many Western governments have wised up to the dangers of allowing CI on campus, and schools are beginning to shut them down.