College teachers must be more “positive”

Now one of the hottest discussions on social media, the following article, printed in the November 13 edition of Liaoning Daily, the official Party newspaper of Liaoning province, is framed as an “open letter” to university teachers across China, and accuses them of being too “negative” about the country.

The Liaoning Daily claims that it dispatched reporters across the country for an “investigation” of Chinese classrooms, visiting “20 schools in five cities.” The paper found that many instructors in university settings were politically insensitive and overly critical, it said, of Chinese society and the “theoretical innovations” of the Chinese Communist Party. They were sometimes (tisk, tisk) over-complimentary of Western ideas such as “separation of powers,” or sanquan fenli (三权分立).

liaoning daily letter

Many commentators on social media have found the tone and ideas in the Liaoning Daily piece worrisome, and a dangerous encroachment on academic freedoms that have already been under serious threat in China.

This rebuttal to the Liaoning Daily piece by Renmin University professor and former CMP fellow Zhang Ming (张鸣) is well worth a read. Time permitting, we’ll summarise Zhang’s points in the coming days.

File this one away in Xi Jinping’s “positive energy” folder.

Teacher, Please Don’t Talk Like That About China: An Open Letter to Teachers of Philosophy and Social Science
Liaoning Daily
November 13, 2014

Beloved teachers, it is with hearts filled with reverence that we write this letter.

The position of university teacher is a position of honor, a very unique one. The university is a place where we are taught to be people, and it is at the university that our emotional backgrounds, our wats of thinking and even the principle values with which we view life are formed.

Comrade [Deng] Xiaoping once said that education faced in the direction of modernisation, faced the world and faced the future. University education is about seeking and examining the methods and paths by which China can modernise, about building a system of culture that it suited to the world’s most advanced trends. It is about bearing up the future of the Chinese people through the transfer of knowledge.

Because of the special nature of their profession, teachers are no longer ordinary, nor can they be ordinary. You are not those [gossipers] who pass judgment in the park. And you are certainly not those who like to stir up the water online by throwing bricks.

The content of two-hour lectures in the classroom can’t be likened to discussion about money over the bar table. Nor is it the same [errant] thing as a WeChat post. The university classroom is a place where questions are answered. You are people who are to transmit knowledge. What we want are people who teach.

When it comes to the question of raising problems, our pen slows, our hearts feel troubled.

This plan originated with a post made by a web user. In October this year, the Central Committee sent down its “Opinion Concerning the Further Strengthening and Reforming of Propaganda and Ideological Work at Universities Under the New Circumstances” (关于进一步加强和改进新形势下高校宣传思想工作的意见), which raised the issue of energetically raising the ideological and political character of teaching teams in higher education.

On October 21, the official WeChat account of Liaoning Daily started gathering submissions on the topic of, “How should China be in the university classroom?” More than 300 micro-stories (微故事) were received. A message from a university student named Kiko caught our attention. She said: “I don’t know when it started, when talking bad things about China and cursing our society became the rage. One teacher of ours who when he lectures can’t stop talking about ‘look at how it is overseas.’ When he uses case studies to teach, all of the negative examples are China.

If China is truly as dark as our teachers make it out to be, with what sort of attitude are we to face this society once we’ve graduated? Who will give us the confidence and strength to build this society of ours?”

What an important and realistic question!

For China to have become the classic case study for all things negative — is this an isolated instance, or something more widespread? We used new media to conduct a survey and found that 80 percent of university students said they had encountered teachers who were ‘fond of airing complaints’, and this “blackening” (描黑) of our country and society left students upset. This was especially noted in law, administrative management, economics and other areas of philosophy and the social sciences.

We felt we had to write this open letter so that our teachers could better consider questions like these: How should China be taught objectively and accurately in the classroom? How can students be taught all at once with expert knowledge and a bright attitude (光明的心态)? How, when answering major social issues, can we raise effective methods for solving these problems?

To research teachers’ problems, we decided to honestly serve as students for a time. Reporters from Liaoning Daily went off in all directions, entering more than 20 schools in five cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Shenyang. Over a period of two weeks, they listened to nearly one hundred expert classes.

Everyone was moved by the profound expert knowledge, serious scholarly attitude and sense of responsibility shown by the teachers. At the same time, however, the phenomenon of “being scornful of China” (呲必中国) existed to a definite degree, and in some cases this was quite excessive — deserving the attention and concern of the education world.

Organizing the close to 130,000 words of class notes we compiled, these include essentially three issues with “China in our university classrooms” (大学课堂上的中国).

The first issue is a lack of theoretical recognition [of CCP history and ideology]. Some teachers use mocking means to teach ideological theory courses, mentioning so-called Marx-Engels notions of “privacy”; making inappropriate comparisons between Mao Zedong and ancient dynasties, deconstructing history and making wanton evaluations; dismissing the theoretical innovations of the Chinese Communist Party, at every turn boiling the concrete problems of experience down into theoretical failure.

The second issue is a lack of political recognition (政治认同). Some teachers are wont to share their superficial “impressions from overseas study,” praising Western “separation of powers” and believing that China should take the Western path. Openly, they question the major policy decisions of the CCP’s Central Committee, or even speak directly against them. They one-sidedly exaggerate problems of corruption, social inequality, social management and other areas. They view problems occurring in the midst of development as deficiencies in our political DNA (政治基因缺陷).

The third issue is a lack of identification on an emotional level (情感认同). Some teachers turn their personal disappointments into complaints in the classroom, allowing the students to become unwitting “tribunals”; they use the remark, “I won’t enter the Party,” to show up their own supposed “backbone”; they accept doggerel and dark online stories as the final word and frighten students about their “sinister society,” inducing students to “blacken themselves for protection.”

When we approached teachers for their thoughts about this the general response — whether they were advisors, professors, lecturers or teaching assistants — was a clear: this is unacceptable! But some teachers responded like this:

“As for how I teach in the classroom, can you really intrude on my academic freedom?”

“Would I still have a class if we avoided talking about real problems? If we can’t face up to complaints, won’t our society be too weak?”

“The Party and government should hear the complaints of the masses . . . Otherwise, how can social pressures be relieved?”

Sure, ordinary folk can beg such questions. But, dear teachers, because your profession demands something higher of you, and because of the solemnity and particularity of the university classroom, please do not speak this way about China!

China in the university classroom should clear antecedents. Historical development is continuous, and no period is an isolated scene. Contemporary China’s political forms, social organisations, habitual concepts, all have been influenced by thousands of years of cultural tradition — and so, of necessity, it is imprinted with definite “Chinese characteristics.”

In assessing China, we can’t look just at the surface, but must look even more at the lines of its history.

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