Why is “national education” scary?

In a post yesterday to our Anti-Social List, we shared a deleted Weibo from Chow Po Chung (周保松), a professor in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Chow’s deleted post included an essay in text-as-image form that is purported to have been written by a mainland student reflecting back on 16 years of “patriotic education.”

In his deleted post, Professor Chow encouraged Weibo users to read the essay quickly, before it was removed by internet censors. However, while many posts including the essay have indeed been removed — particularly from scholars and journalists with a strong following on Weibo — it is still being shared on Chinese social media. It was still available here, and here, for example, at the time of this post.


[ABOVE: Protestors in Hong Kong voice opposition to a proposed "national education" curriculum many call "brainwashing". The protest banner reads: "My mommy teaches me kindheartedness and justice. The Chinese Communist Party teaches me to bury my conscience." Photo by Ansel Ma, available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

A partial translation of the essay, and interesting addition to the ongoing debate over a proposed “national education” curriculum in Hong Kong, follows:

Why do I oppose national education? This question is perhaps not a real question, but it nevertheless prompted me to consider it at some length. As an ordinary person without power or money, my parents had no opportunity to send me to an international school or pack me off overseas. Therefore, from primary school all the way to university, like the vast majority of ordinary Chinese students, I spent 16 years in a public school.

National education was a shadow that followed me throughout those 16 years. Nevertheless, it had no affect on me or on my fellows. Among my classmates, not a single person cares about the Chinese Communist Party, not a single person believes that the Chinese Communist Party is supremely great or correct. It seems our 16 years of national education were an utter failure. Well then, is there any real need to oppose national education? The following is my attempt to offer my thoughts on this question from the standpoint of someone who spent 16 years alongside a “great, glorious and correct Party,” educated with the idea of loving the Party and loving the country.

When I was in primary school, we had a class called “Ideas and Morals” (思想道德), about what it meant to be a person with idea and morals, which naturally meant loving the Party, loving the country and loving the people. The language they used was very ambiguous, not like the education materials for national education in Hong Kong right now, but aside from this on every important Party occasion there would be various writing contests, or speech contests, and you were forced to take part. You also you had to extoll and praise the the assessments made by other students of the great achievements of the Party.

In a benighted state we were subjected to “national education” in those days, hearing about the great strategic move that was the Long March (only after studying history at university did I realize that actually this was retreat made after being encircled and suppressed by the Kuomintang); about the glorious exploits of our Party in the anti-Japanese war (again, it was only at university that I learned that it was only the Kuomintang, who had been branded traitors, that had directly engaged the Japanese, and the Party was only back in the rear experimenting with land reform).

Even bombarded again and again with these things, distinguished and obedient young students and cadres though we were, it was only about learning things that had to be on your tongue, and nothing ever entered into our hearts. Why? Because these things were so remote from our lives compared to the other work we had, and in our actual lives we never felt any sense of the new China and the new lives that was being drummed into us [in these classes]. As for our parents, they paid a lot of attention to our Chinese language and mathematics work, but they were noncommittal or even cold about this ostensibly important coursework in patriotic education.

In middle school these classes on ideas and morals became classes on ideas and politics, but the content differed only slightly.

We now had a class director who would often hold on to us for a while after class was dismissed and carry out various forms of ideological education. But for rebellious middle school students these things only elicited greater annoyance, whether over stuff we had to memorize or the babbling nonsense of “Old Woman Marxism-Leninism” (马列老太). Because we, who were just beginning to understand the adult world, were very clear that the class director detained us and forced us to listen to this patriotic education stuff not because she really believed the things she insisted were so important, but because if we did well her credits as a class director would result in a better assessment from the principal, and if the principal had more excellent class directors he could earn political credits with the local educational authorities, and naturally he could then advance as an official and make more money, and then someone in the local education office could then . . . [the pause implies that everyone on up the chain of command benefits] . . . So all the things we were being inculcated with were really about nothing more than our teachers enabling themselves to earn points.

When it came to university, we no longer just had education in ideology and politics — we now had education in situations and policy, serial blasts of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory. But within the university the teachers we most looked down on were the ones who taught these courses. We skipped class, or giggled and chattered all the way through. We ate snack food and watched movies [on our mobiles], or just napped. And when it came to discussion time, when certain students earnestly answer [the teacher's] questions, we heckled them. But there was nothing these teachers could do, because long before they had lost their dignity as teachers they had lost the students’ respect. We knew only too well that only those with no academic ability would be called upon to teach such things, and their only way was to kiss ass and massage their connections so they could earn such a place in the university.

Having said all this, do I think national education it successful? It could be called a failure, because it even after 16 years . . . not a single person will believe any of it. But it could also be said to be a great success as rarely seen on this earth, because even though everyone knows it’s all a bunch of lies from head to tail, it has managed to persist all these years, repeated from generation to generation.

Is national education something to fear? Actually, all that language written out so clear isn’t really scary, fundamentally speaking. The more extreme they get in propagating it, the funnier it seems. But it is also frightening in another way, because the whole nation is willing to lap up all of these lies. How many students, knowing their fates could be decided on this basis, have answered the topics earnestly, numbly writing all of those pretty words they don’t mean, knowing full well it is all a lie? And how many teachers, knowing these are all lies, have had to teach this as the truth, and even us it to assess students ideologically and morally?

This is the most frightful thing about national education!

Its most frightful aspect isn’t about the words themselves, or about the praising of the Communist Party, rather it’s that it has drummed lying into the very nature of our students, our teachers and our entire educational sphere!

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