National Security

Inside China’s Propaganda Program For High Schools

Textbooks teach students to embrace communist party, reject Western values

Chinese students listen to a teacher in the preparation for the annual National College Entrance Examination at a school in Shanghai, China
Chinese students listen to a teacher in the preparation for the annual National College Entrance Examination at a school in Shanghai, China / AP

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) textbook propaganda program has been strikingly successful at persuading high school students to trust their government and eschew Western values, according to a recent research paper and writings by human rights activists.

The high school political science curriculum was first implemented in 2004 to affect students’ ideology. Both the Chinese State Council—the government’s highest administrative body—and the Ministry of Education set goals of teaching students that Chinese institutions are democratic and adhere to the rule of law.

Chang Ping, a Chinese commentator and critic of the party who was forced to leave China, wrote on Thursday that the recent research "destroyed many people’s illusions" about whether the government was still brainwashing its citizens.

"The research makes clear that the students who used the new teaching materials believed even more strongly that China was a ‘democratic country,’ and had even more faith in China’s Central government and local governments, as well as the national institutions such as the public security agencies and the courts," Ping wrote on the website ChinaChange.org. "Moreover, these students even more strongly trusted China’s policies toward ethnic groups."

The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) first published a working paper in May featuring a survey of almost 2,000 undergraduate students at Peking University. "The new curriculum was often successful in changing students’ preferences and beliefs regarding important issues," the paper said, such as instilling more trust in government officials and more skepticism toward free markets.

"We find quantitatively large persuasion rates: Around 20 percent of students who would not have held the government’s desired views in the absence of exposure to the new curriculum are estimated to change their views," wrote the authors of the study.

Students using the new textbook Political Life, as well as those who took the revised college entrance exams known as gaokao, were more likely to be aware that people elect their village leaders and local representatives to the National People’s Congress (NPC). They said they believed China was more democratic as a result, even though the Communist Party still largely controls all of the country’s affairs and governance.

The textbook urges citizens to "continue improving themselves in participating in democratic elections" in order to "better manage China’s national and social affairs" and its "economic and cultural matters."

Students exposed to the curriculum were also more likely to trust government institutions, including the central and local governments, courts, armed forces, and police. The textbook says the Chinese government establishes its authority by operating as a "government under the rule of law" that "protects people’s fundamental rights and benefits."

However, Chinese president and party head Xi Jinping has been widely condemned by human rights groups for his broad crackdown against pro-democracy dissidents and activists.

Additionally, significantly more students said they did not believe a market economy was the best economic system. The textbook calls state-owned enterprises (SOEs) the "backbone of China’s domestic economy" despite evidence that they harm competition and growth. It also says markets can lead to "economic fluctuations and chaos, unfair redistribution, widening income gaps, and even cause severe polarization."

One lead author of the politics textbook admitted in July 2009 that it was designed to push back against Western ideas. While the official wrote in an essay that "the overall situation of China’s ideological theory field is good," he added that it "is not peaceful."

"There exist noises: ideological struggles and competition; foreign hostile forces’ attempts to westernize or separate China," wrote Tian Xinming, chairman of the committee tasked with writing the new textbook. "This would be reflected in the textbook writing process."

The NBER paper also found that students in the majority Han Chinese ethnic group were somewhat more likely to view minorities as similar to their heritage. Minority students said they had a significantly stronger sense of Chinese identity.

Tibetans and Uighurs, China’s two main minority groups, have both assailed Jinping’s government for what they call suppression of their rights and cultural identities.

Ping, the exiled Chinese columnist, said the research indicated that educational content has a much larger impact on students’ ideology than news stories. Some Western commentators have conversely suggested that more online media would be able to counteract any party indoctrination.

Ping said two changes in ideological education have occurred since Chinese authorities brutally suppressed pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Officials now admit that the CCP is not perfect and that all nations’ political parties have flaws—just as "all crows are black." The CCP also says citizens should focus on China’s own special conditions and that any Western criticisms are a pretense for unwarranted intervention.

The West has also been deceived by Chinese propaganda, Ping said.

"No one is willing to admit that they are stupid, especially the Westerners who have dominated the modern civilization over the last few centuries," he said. "It is very difficult for them to accept this fact: not only are the Chinese the victims of the Chinese Communists’ brainwashing, but also all of mankind."