By Erilia Wu
In the late 1970s, shortly after Mao Zedong’s death, a young student at Peking University Law School helped translate texts from the west and introduced Western legal concepts to Chinese society. That student would likely have been shocked to find that today’s China punishes such behavior. Today, Li Keqiang serves as China’s Premier.
Two weeks ago, China’s Education Minister Yuan Guiren publicly announced, “By no means, [are we to] allow teaching materials that disseminate Western values in our classrooms, nor are we going to allow attacks on Communist Party’s leadership and socialism…”
Yuan may be suffering from memory loss because less than four years ago he proclaimed his desire to bring in foreign resources to push forward China’s education reform. “We study foreign experiences; no matter [whether] they are from a socialist or capitalist country, as long as they benefit us.”
Whether Yuan whole-heartedly agrees with what he says now, it is nevertheless a little too late to ban Western values in China. Here’s why.
To begin with, Western culture has already integrated itself into Chinese society. For the past five years, the number of coffee shops in China increased at 99.9% per year, while teahouses grew at an almost invisible 4%. Walking along the streets in major cities like Shanghai, Starbucks are everywhere—whereas finding a teahouse is virtually impossible.
Moreover, today’s students at all levels have English language lessons in their curricula. Every year, millions of Chinese students fight their way to college through the Gaokao (the Chinese version of the SAT), within which English is a mandatory exams. Most children today begin to learn English even before elementary school because, from the point of view of parents, children cannot afford to fall behind. But what do those kids learn in English classes? Marxism certainly is not a student-friendly topic.
As a result of the English-language fever, the number of Chinese students going to foreign universities hits a record high on a yearly basis. In 2013, over 410,000 students received schooling outside of the country, and the average age of those students continues to drop. When a student receives longer and longer portions of his/her education from Western academies—from high school all the way to master’s degrees—there comes to be little benefit from banning Western values.
The funny thing is, even the “big bosses” know what is best for their children. President Xi’s daughter allegedly enrolled in Harvard in 2010. Former Politburo member Bo Xilai’s son has received degrees from Oxford and Harvard, and is currently a student at Columbia Law. There is a joke circulating that if all American schools request a PTA meeting at the same time, the National People’s Congress of PRC would have to be put on hold.
With that said, let us imagine for a second that tomorrow, a ban on Western textbooks is indeed enforced. Will it actually stop Chinese people from getting their hands on them? Most certainly not!
Since they blocked Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in 2008, authorities may have appeared to set up an impenetrable firewall between the outside world and their “subjects.” But they have never truly stopped the flow of foreign information. Setting aside the fact that computer geeks have figured out innumerable ways to get around the “Great Firewall” for free, numerous companies offer workarounds to their employees, entirely within the bounds of the law.
If even tight internet censorship cannot block everything, how could a ban on Western textbooks ever be effective?
Feasible or not, Yuan’s comments have certainly provoked massive reaction on the Internet. Supporters believe it is time to rid classrooms of liberal values and reinstate traditional Chinese beliefs, and opponents mock because, well, Marxism and Leninism came from Germany and Russia and those two countries are, by China’s definition, very much Western countries.
To put a ban on something in the current age of information will not be extremely difficult way, if possible at all. However, the more important reality is that if Yuan’s (and his boss’) goal is to restrict liberal values from getting into China, it is too late. As Yuan knows from personal experience, the door officially opened 35 years ago. And it’s not going to close any time soon.