That China has a “forum on improving ideological work in universities and colleges” reveals something about the nature of the relationship between its state and universities.
At the forum in January, Yuan Guiren, the education minister, warned the country’s universities and colleges “to maintain political integrity" and to "never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes,” according to Xinhua, the state news agency.
Earlier that month, the Chinese Communist Party issued “a guideline on the ideological work in colleges, which underscored their role as facilitators on the front line of championing the concepts of Marxism, Chinese Dream, socialist core values and traditional culture,” Xinhua reported.
In December, President Xi Jinping said, “The higher learning institutions shoulder the important tasks of studying, researching and publicizing Marxism, as well as training builders and successors of the socialist cause with Chinese characteristics," according to Xinhua.
Why have senior Communist Party officials apparently stepped up the pressure on universities in recent months?
“The Chinese authorities are surely concerned about the possibility of an escalation and politicization of popular protest as economic growth slows and social problems intensify,” according to Elizabeth Perry, Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government at Harvard University, whose current research focus includes the politics of higher education in contemporary China.
Perry said that, since the suppression of the student-led Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the ensuing “battery of stringent party controls” on universities, “students and professors have been among the few social groups notably absent from the rising tide of popular protest that has swept across China in the last couple of decades,” but added: “That campus compliance cannot be taken for granted was made clear by the recent Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, in which university students played a prominent role.”
Mike Gow, global postdoctoral fellow at N.Y.U. Shanghai, whose Ph.D. thesis examined the relationship between Chinese universities and the state, saw a different motivation. He argued that the Chinese Communist Party views “higher education as being a key institution in which consensus to their overarching view can be negotiated," particularly in relation to Xi’s Chinese Dream discourse.
In Xi’s first address to the nation as president in 2013, he called for an effort to “push forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and strive to achieve the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."
Since then, the Chinese Dream has become the defining slogan of his presidency, while remaining vaguely defined as a concept. Attempts have been made to make it integral to people’s thoughts via billboards, chart-topping songs and textbooks, with universities seen as a key means of promoting the concept. The 12 “core socialist values” linked to the Chinese Dream, as articulated by Xi, include prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony and freedom.
Gow argued that Education Minister Yuan’s comments have been “misinterpreted as a party diktat to reject any and all teaching of Western political concepts. I’m not sure it is.” Rather, he said Xi’s and Yuan’s comments “are aimed at making sure that there is no confusion between the C.C.P. concepts and… more commonly understood [political] terms."
He noted that the term “democracy” is used by the party “not to refer to electoral systems but to refer to the way in which the opening and reform movement has been the net result of China’s population participating in the reform of [the] national economy since 1978."
Gow suggested that recent comments on universities by party figures are “part of a wider push to distinguish [the party’s] concepts from those more closely associated with liberal democracy, to distinguish socialism with Chinese characteristics from Western development models and to encourage widespread ‘correct’ understanding of the China Dream and its constitutive concepts."
“The ‘announcements’ are clearly aimed at the party officials in the universities and colleges charged with overseeing the higher education sector, not necessarily directed at academic staff,” he said.
A Communist Party secretary is the head official in Chinese universities, while the university president is responsible for the day-to-day running of the institution.
Given the prizing of university autonomy in much of the West, does the series of interventions from party figures present a problem for the standing of China’s universities internationally?
Perry said, “On the one hand, there is surely a tension between the tight grip of the Communist Party and the academic freedom that one usually associates with world-class universities.”
But she continued, “The party specifically tailors its policies to the Times Higher Education, and other, rankings,” adding: “Unless these rankings are revised to include credit for autonomy, intellectual freedom and other values that the academy holds dear, the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy for ascending in the global rankings of world-class universities is likely to encounter few obstacles.”