Resisting Indoctrination: A Teacher’s Account of China’s Education System

Vivian is an elementary school teacher living in Minnesota. Her experience shows how students and teachers alike are forced to participate in the persecution of Falun Gong in an education system structured to reinforce communist party control in China. Here is her story.

I was in middle school during the beginning of the persecution. All forms of media began to broadcast propaganda continuously  to create hatred toward Falun Gong.  My teachers started telling us students that we should be aware of and stay away from Falun Gong because Falun Gong is a cult and people who practice Falun Gong are killers.  They said that Falun Gong kill themselves and kill others and they do crazy things. I told my teacher that Falun Gong is a good practice and it teaches people truthfulness, kindness and tolerance, and that my parents and my primary school math teacher and many of my friends practice Falun Gong and we never killed people and that Falun Gong does not allow any killing.  Because I said these kind of words, my teacher reported me to the principal of my school. Then my classmates isolated me, they refused to talk to me and pushed me to the ground or threw my stuff out of the window when they could. From when I was 13 until I graduated from middle school, half of that time, nobody talked to me. The principal of the school told me that I should stay away from Falun Gong, no matter if it is good or bad because it was a political issue and it was not about whether Falun Gong was a cult or not.  But I kept on telling him that my family did not do anything wrong. 

The police came to harass my school’s headmaster because  my parents went to Tiananmen Square to appeal for Falun Gong.  My mom was caught at Tiananmen Square when she was telling people what Falun Gong really is and she was placed in detention. In China we have a different educational system.  If a student wants to go to high school, they need to participate in the high school entrance test. The middle schools will be evaluated based on the numbers of students who can enter into high school. This number will be a very influential factor for potential students and families to decide whether they will apply for that middle school or not.   Because I was the top student in my grade, the headmaster told the policeman that he would keep me in the school although the policeman wanted him to drive me out. I don’t know how it was all solved, but the police did not come again. I want to thank my headmaster who was the only one who stood up for me during this tough situation. He protected me from the police and also waived my tuition during the last year of middle school when my family could not afford to pay.

Politically Correct Middle Schoolers

In China’s school system, no matter how old you are you will be tested on politics.  There are teachers who teach the standard answers to political questions and those answers are written on the black board and the teacher makes sure that each student writes down every single word in the correct way.  There was always a question and answer about Falun Gong. I refused to write what I was told, and I was reported to the principal again. I was sent to the principal’s office where I was told to sit and think about my situation. I was not allowed to go to any of my other classes. If the problem was not solved and I still did not write what I was told, then the next day it would continue. All my courses were stopped for two days.  I was pressured again and again during that time. So many adults talked to me, “If you refuse to write the correct answer, you cannot do well in the high school entrance test and you will lose your chance to enter high school and then you cannot become a university student and then you will lose everything. Even though you refuse to answer this one single question, you cannot change the policy on Falun Gong, you cannot change the communist party, you cannot save your mom from the detention center. You cannot change how your family or friends are treated and you cannot change anything, you are just a kid.”  The teachers told me that.

At the beginning I really did not want to answer those questions.  It took a lot of time and tears and I felt totally lost because my mom was detained in a detention center and my dad moved from place to place to avoid the police.  Because my middle school was private, we needed to pay a lot of money for my tuition so my dad had to earn the money for that. I lived with my grandma, but my grandma was very sick, so I could hardly talk to any adults about my situation. All of my relatives disliked my family because they felt the pressure from what happened to my parents.  So on the weekends, when I returned home from school and I was hungry, I would go to different relative’s doors, but they refused to feed me because my parents practiced Falun Gong. When I did write on that piece of paper I felt very sad, helpless and depressed because I knew that I was forced to do a thing that I knew was wrong, but I had no choice.  I was 13.

In the high school entrance exam, there were different subjects like  math, Chinese, English and also politics. There was a political question like: “Why, as a young teenager, should you stay away from Falun Gong?”  We were trained to answer these political questions again and again before we took part in the entrance exam. The standard answer was something like: “We should be aware and we should stay away from Falun Gong because it is a cult and according to the communist party’s regulation, we as communist youth group members should stay away from it.”  I did not answer this question and left it blank. I finished the high school entrance test and I got first place in the whole school so I went on to high school.    

When I was in high school I didn’t actually talk to my teachers about the situation my family was in because they didn’t seem to care.  There was one time though when my politics teacher and I had a very heated debate in public while she was teaching the politics class. She was saying that Falun Gong is a cult and I stood up in front of all the other students and I said “No!”.  She was pretty mad at me. She again said that Falun Gong is a cult and again I said “No!” She asked me to prove it and I told her that Falun Gong teaches truthfulness, kindness and tolerance. Nobody killed others and nobody killed themselves.  After that she said that she didn’t really care whether Falun Gong killed people or not, only that I should write down that answer because it’s the standard answer. She said to me, “If you have this kind of question, you answer like this, and then you get the score and that’s the end of the story, shut up and sit down.”  I didn’t understand why my teacher was so mad at me until after graduation from the university when I became a school teacher myself.

Groupthink University

Before I left home to go to university I recall thinking that maybe the persecution was mainly in my home town and I was wondering if things would be the same in the university.  I started asking my classmates about their experiences in high school. There were almost 30 students from all over China in my class. They experienced the same thing as me. They also had the same kind of political education and had to answer the same standard questions.  The very first day that I entered the university dorm, I was warned by our class monitor that a recent graduate from our university was sent to a forced labor camp for practicing Falun Gong. The very first day I arrived I was told this. I was so shocked.  

At one point, my class monitor made us sign our signature on his notebook saying that we would stay away from Falun Gong.  At first I refused to sign the paper and he looked at me with disbelief and asked me how it was possible that I entered university. He asked, “You were not trained to answer standardized questions  since you were a middle schooler? What did your teachers tell you”? I didn’t sign the paper at the beginning, but he said that I was no longer registered as a formal student and if I refused to sign, I could pack up all of my stuff and go home right now.   I did not need to stay on campus and would not be allowed to take part in any courses. I started thinking about my dad who borrowed all the money for the tuition fee. Eventually I signed it and after that, I could not sleep. 

The whole 4 years of university experience really didn’t leave me with any good impressions.  I had to do the Falun Dafa exercises and meditation in the bathroom so nobody would see me. Constantly on campus there were very large red banners with white characters printed on them saying things like, “We strictly forbid any cult activity on campus”.  A few steps away from that would be another huge banner saying, “As the young generation, we insist on the communist party’s control, we will follow communism, throughout our lives”, and then: “Cults have no place on campus”, and: “We should say no to all cults”.

On the communist party’s birthday all the students on campus had to sign their signatures on a very large banner that was about 60 meters long and 2 meters wide. On that banner there were words saying, “We stand by the communist party’s decision forbidding Falun Gong”  If students did not sign, we would be in trouble. There were teachers and guards standing nearby watching the students, making sure that they signed the banner. Soon after that, teachers came to the dormitory and asked each student if they signed that banner. If you said you were not there and did not sign the banner, then you were given a notebook and asked to write the sentence from the banner and sign your name on the paper.  They did this kind of thing regularly so that everybody felt that it was part of their routine and people no longer questioned it or had any feeling of disagreement. Everybody felt that this was a normal thing.

When I was at university, I did not talk to my whole class about Falun Gong because I did not have any family or friends near me and I was isolated.  I was terrified and could not sleep. But I had a few friends and I told them what happened to my family and me since I was 13. Only 2 of them still decided to be my friend after hearing what I said.  The others went against me but they didn’t report me. I think that’s the biggest kindness they could do. They just left me alone and stayed away from me. They did not want to be connected to Falun Gong at any level, it would be trouble for them.  They didn’t want to lose everything. In China, if one person practices Falun Gong, all his or her friends, family members, coworkers and managers, are in trouble. They punish you and everybody connected to you. It creates a kind of a terrifying atmosphere that makes everybody shocked and they want to avoid the danger.  So if they heard you practice Falun Gong, they would run away from you to protect themselves.

Chinese students are brainwashed for years and years.  They have different teachers at different levels telling them the same thing. Eventually they could not tell if it was their own minds or an idea from outside.  That is part of the reason why, when I would tell them what Falun Gong really is, they would get mad. It’s part of a plant in their minds, but they think it’s themselves.  It’s from years of propaganda.

A Chance to Advance, With Strings Attached

In Universities in China,  students are evaluated and every year one or several of the best students  are given a chance to become a communist party member. It’s seen as a benefit. It’s kind of a weird thing, but we were trained to feel that the highest goal is to become a communist party member.  So one day the class monitor talked to me and told me that I should fill out a communist party application form to become a member because there was a spot available for me. Out of a 100 students, they picked me.  After hearing this I immediately said “No” to him and he was very shocked. He said ‘Why? You say no? Did I hear you wrong? You don’t want to join the communist party?” I said “Yes, I don’t want to join.” He said “Why? Tell me the reason.”  He used very a very weird tone that made me feel that all my hair stood up on end and I felt that danger was approaching. He wanted me to feel that I should want to correct my mistakes by myself. That is the communist party way. They terrify you so that you will self-correct.  If you do not self-correct by their warning, you are in trouble. They can do anything they want. We were just teenagers far away from home. We were not trained to be independent or to think by ourselves, We were trained to follow and obey. 

He asked me to join him in his office to explain myself because I was the first student since he began his work on campus to say “no” to becoming a communist party member.  I told him “no” from my heart, it was just like a reflex. I did not evaluate anything, I just said “no” directly. So when he called me to his office, he asked me to explain all my reasons.  Everything was running through my brain. I was thinking, “Will I be suspended from school? Can I still graduate? How about the tuition? My parents borrowed so much money. Will I experience the same as my parents? If I lose everything, what will my family be? So all of us are prisoners, everybody loses everything.”  I felt guilty because my parents suffered so many tears and persecution and torture and my dad borrowed a huge amount of money to send me to university. If I did not graduate with a degree, I would lose everything and how could they live afterwards? In China, going to university is a chance for poor families to change their lives.  They may not have a second chance. That’s why everybody studies so hard.

So when I entered his office, I told him that I had a very close friend,  Mrs Liu, who practiced Falun Gong and that she was tortured to death because of the communist party and that she was my primary school math teacher.  I then told him about another close friend and about her family and friends and how her mom spent several years in prison. I told him all that my close friend had experienced since she was 13 and I explained that for all these reasons I did not want to become a member of the communist party. I thanked him for the chance, but I did not want to join.  I was not actually talking about a close friend, but was telling him about my own life and the things my own family had experienced. After hearing this, he told me that he had to make a phone call. When he told me this sentence, he watched my eyes. I think he was trying to see if the story I was telling him was about a close friend, or if I was telling him about myself.

He made the call right in front of me.  He told me to just sit in the chair while he made the call.  He called several times, but nobody answered the phone. It was just one or two minutes, but I felt like it was one or two years, like it was even longer than the university entrance test.  I did not know who he was calling. Again my mind was racing: “Is he calling the principal? Is he calling the communist party? Is he calling the police? Is he calling the guards? What should I do?  I haven’t even packed my belongings. My papers still haven’t been handed in. Do I still need to take part in the final test? Will I fail? How long will this take, I have not had my lunch, I am starving, will they allow me to eat first and then question me?  How long will it take? Will I be sent to the brain washing center afterwards? How do I let my parents know what happened? I didn’t even tell others what my dad’s phone number was in case something bad happened. If I die somebody would have to call my dad and tell him that his daughter is dead on campus.” All kinds of crazy thoughts were going through my mind.

When no one answered the phone, I felt relieved.  Then he told me, “You stand up now, I’ll walk you to the principal’s office directly.”  I wanted to run away, but my feet felt like they were frozen. From the time we enter school as kindergartners we were taught to obey everything.  So when he told me to sit, I did not have any thought to stand up. When he told me to walk, my feet just walked without any feeling. I didn’t even have an idea to choose a different direction to run away from him, I just followed him.  I do not know why I followed, but I just followed. So he walked me to the principal’s office. As I was walking up the stairs, every step felt like I was walking closer to death. It was so quiet. I could hear each of my steps. When we got to the office, he knocked.  We were actually standing outside the office for about twenty minutes. He knocked at least five or six times, but nobody answered the door. I didn’t know why he knocked so many times and asked me to wait there. I guess he just wanted to make sure that his mission was accomplished by handing the big trouble over to his superiors.

He asked me directly, “Everything you told me, do you swear that you never told a second person on campus?  Do you swear that you never mentioned this to any other teachers? Who have you told this to?” He became very suspicious and was asking me if I told my classmates in the dormitory, or if I told anyone in my class.  He wanted to know how many potential people that I told my story to. I think he wanted to make sure that there was no other person that would report me before his report. He wanted to be the first one to report. If others reported me before him, since he was my class monitor, it would mean that he was not doing his job. And he would be punished for that. 

Because nobody came to the door and he had to attend a meeting, he told me to stay there and to wait by myself, and then he left.  So I stood there for about 2 or 3 minutes until he disappeared and then I ran away.

I think he reported me to the higher level.  He could not stop because he already knew the story.  If he kept silent, he would be the one that would be punished.  So he had no choice. He told me to report to the principal’s office several times by myself, so I went.  I would walk up to the door, but I wouldn’t knock on the door. He didn’t tell me to knock on the door, he just told me to go there so I did. It was like a cat and mouse game.  The next day he asked me why I didn’t show up for the meeting. I told him that I went there. And he asked if I talked to the principal and I told him that nobody opened the door.  But I never actually knocked. I guess he supposed that I knocked on the door and that nobody answered, since this is what happened to him. 

Eventually he asked me again if I would swear to never tell what I had told him to any other person.  He said that he did not want to lose everything and that he had just gotten married and he bought a new house and had to pay a lot every month and he needed the job to pay for his house.  He told me very detailed and personal information. He told me to just keep low key. He said that he did not actually want to do this, but that he had to. He said that I needed to graduate and that he needed a job. And that if we just did the right things it would be ok. I think that if not for the Falun Gong issue he was a nice person, he was very kind and patient, but when it comes to politics or Falun Gong, he changed to a different personality and became very aggressive.

The View from the Front of the Classroom

I graduated from university and got a job teaching English in a foreign language school.  As a teacher in China, you feel a huge amount of pressure on how to train your students to give the standardized answer from the communist party.  If one of your students stands out, you are in huge trouble, you will lose your job. So teachers are trained weekly to reinforce what kind of questions we need to pay attention to and how to train our students to answer.  As teachers, we were taught how to react and to make sure that everybody got the correct answer no matter what. We had these kind of meetings weekly, sometimes two or three times a week. It depended on the time of year. If there an important date like the communist party’s birthday, July 1st,  for one month before that, we would start this kind of brainwashing every day for the entire month. As teachers we had to tell our students this kind of thing again and again, no matter if they are listening or not, no matter if they are having lunch, no matter if they were in their independent study time. Students would be made to repeat the sentence until it was memorized.

I made every effort to avoid teaching like this but once when the headmaster was standing outside of my class door watching me, I told my students that as a communist youth organization member, we need to follow the communist Party’s direction and obey the communist party.  If I didn’t do this I would have been in huge trouble, or maybe thrown into forced labor camp like my mom and my dad. I felt so sad for my students. I knew that I was lying, but I could not tell them I was lying. After a period of time I told my students that what I said was not the truth.  I told them that everything they learn in the politics class is false, it’s not really the way the world evaluates things. 

I also told my class the truth about Falun Gong and my students raised many questions. They wondered why everybody was saying that Falun Gong is a cult and why on television, day after day, there is propaganda about Falun Gong. I explained to my class in detail what was happening. They were teenagers and they wanted to know the world. This was a big step for me and it took a lot of courage to say these things because I was taking the risk of losing everything, including my life. My friend Mrs. Liu was persecuted to death when I was in high school. I have no memories of my mom from the age of 13 to 17 because she was in prison. My grandma passed away when I was a junior because she could not bear seeing the persecution of my family. My dad was detained multiple times and beaten black and blue. I saw a lot of things. Eventually I had to leave my school because the police came looking for me. I left work in the middle of the day and did not return.

When looking back, I feel sad about the lies I was forced to tell and I feel especially guilty about my students who didn’t have a chance to hear the truth about Falun Gong from me before I had to leave my job. I have been living in the U.S. for six years now. The memories of those times come back to me from time to time at night, or even when I see police cars in the street. It has taken me 6 years to learn how to cope with seeing police and hearing sirens. And even though there was a lot of pressure on me and everyone at school or many members of my family told me to stop practicing Falun Gong and to stop telling people that Falun Gong is good, I tried my best to be true to my belief. My parents and my teacher Mrs. Liu showed me what courage is. It is my right to follow the principles of truthfulness, kindness and tolerance, which Falun Gong teaches me. I will do my best to follow those principles. Today I have peace with my past because I know the darkness will end and justice will win.