I am really happy to have as part of the very occasional Sinocism book series an excerpt from Lenora Chu’s new book Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve.
Chinese American journalist Lenora Chu spent years chronicling her son’s journey inside China’s state-run school system, alongside that of two Shanghai high school students and a family from Anhui. Altogether, these stories touch upon issues including China’s rural-urban divide, attempts at education reform, systemic corruption and the heavy pressure around study—as well as positive aspects of Chinese education culture including teacher respect and high expectations around math learning.
Little Soldiers has been described as a “must-read,” “revealing, fascinating, and filled with ‘aha’ moments,” and a “particularly transparent window [onto China]” by reviewers including the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post and South China Morning Post.
Below is an excerpt from a chapter about political thought control, a topic that seems increasingly relevant now that we have entered the Xi Era.
“Xi Da Da is a good person”
How keenly do Chinese students understand the Party’s attempts to indoctrinate?
From the back of a Shanghai high school classroom in 2014, I observed Teacher Qiu attempt a lesson on civics, only to detect a tension between ideology and reality.
“You are the future owners of this country,” Teacher Qiu informed her 32 students, parked in pairs at metal desks, which in turn were grouped into three columns. “The future of the motherland, and our hope. If you travel down the wrong path, you all lead our country to nowhere.”
One student let out a chortle, an exhale that dissolved into the chilly, winter air. The students wore heavy red-and-gray coats over their uniforms—the school didn’t have heat—and shivered over their textbooks. I’d always been struck by the inside of the Chinese classroom, which felt more like a barracks than a place of study: daylight glaring through single-paned windows, lone circular fan descending from a high plaster ceiling, green chalkboard wiped clean by students during break, the etchings of the previous day’s instruction still faintly detectable.
“Let’s talk about the civil service exam,” continued Teacher Qiu, a slender woman, black hair fastened in a bun. “Please speak your thoughts. Why do thousands of people try to get onto that boat of civil service jobs?”
“Because civil service jobs are an iron bowl—a secured job,” said one student.
“A gold bowl,” another exclaimed. “A super-secured job.”
“Money!” chimed yet another teenager, a shudder passing through her shoulders.
“Not much money but good stability! Good welfare!” another echoed.
A boy chimed in, his voice low and husky. “They can also embezzle.”
“Embezzlement?” Teacher Qiu repeated, echoing my surprise.
Teacher Qiu looked at the boy, who rephrased. “To put it more mildly, to earn extra money,” he said.
“Don’t babble,” Qiu admonished, nodding toward me, where I sat at the back. “You are embarrassing the teacher who is sitting in the class.” It was a gentle reminder that outsiders sat in the room: Don’t pull back the curtain too far.
The teacher tried to redirect. “Public servants are just like us. Anyone can take the exam and become a public servant, fulfill their obligations, and enjoy the security provided by the state. They are not to be envied.”
To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure who was more skeptical of her statement: the teacher or the students. In a society where students and parents are obsessed with getting ahead, a lecture about serving the state rings hollow.
A different student spoke. “Public servants,” he announced, “become the privileged class, which contradicts their role as people’s servants.” The boy was right to criticize. A financial and ethical morass— assisted by a lack of transparency or due process in government—had cast a shadow on China’s government dealings at nearly every level.
The teacher challenged the student. “Most public servants have no privileges. Most adhere to proper procedure—in proper order. For example, when we get up in the morning, we must first wash our faces and then brush our teeth, and then can we go eat breakfast.”
“But some eat breakfast first,” another student chimed in. I imagined this was his euphemism for officials who embezzle public funds or leverage power inappropriately.
“Sure, some eat breakfast first,” Teacher Qiu said, trying to steer the conversation back on track. “Then they wash their faces and brush their teeth.”
“Your example is not appropriate,” the student countered.
“Do you have other examples?” the teacher asked, glancing my way. “What kind of behaviors require a certain order? For instance, handing in homework?”
“Assembly lines in a capitalist society,” the student responded, another challenge. Capitalism is a no-no; the official Party line for China’s system is “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
“What kind of assembly line—in what kind of order?” Teacher Qiu posed, working again to redirect.
The student responded with a chant. “Long live Communism, and long live the Communist Party.” He chuckled, and the entire class tittered.
“You shouted out a slogan,” Teacher Qiu said. The student offered another one, the sarcasm drowning his voice. This time, he used the slang for President Xi Jinping.
“Xi Da Da is a good person.”
At the front of most classrooms in China sits a framed flag of the People’s Republic of China. Bright red to signify the Communist revolution, the Chinese flag boasts a large yellow star as stand-in for the Communist Party, and four smaller stars arranged in orbit—the people under its rule. Mounted north of the chalkboard, and hovering over every schoolteacher in China, is this daily visual reminder of the true purpose of Chinese education.
Chinese schools teach math and science, yes, but they are also charged with a singular objective: shaping students into proper citizens of their country.
Much is required of the Chinese mind. He must love country (China), his people (the Chinese), labor (working for China), scientific knowledge (the key to China’s economic future), and socialism (the Chinese market model). These “five loves” are embedded in the national curriculum and appear in textbooks from primary school all the way through college, and they are the pillars of the Party’s campaign to shape the worldview of the people.
It’s patriotism as a governing technique, a practice as old as China’s history itself. Confucius himself believed that government by ideology was “more important and effective than government by law,” wrote moral education scholar Li Maosen. Why use guns or force when leaders instead could cultivate an internal, self-governing compass in every person under your rule? Since imperial times, years of backbreaking study were required to advance into the Emperor’s court. Lots of time devoted to study meant little time to organize rebellions, making exams a handy tool for governing a large mass of land.
The Party’s approach to education today is little different. In 1949, the Communists took the helm of a country ravaged by war, with vast gaps in welfare from village to village and region to region. It inherited a school system that was in tatters. Slotting patriotism into the school curriculum was a neat trick: It brought together a widely divergent population, since the schools the Party was charged with uniting were as disparate as the work-unit schools of Mao’s Communists, the institutions of the departed Kuomintang, and classrooms inside orphanages governed by provinces.
In the early years of Communist rule, schoolteachers were directly responsible for disseminating Party policy. The first primary school textbook created under Mao sang the man’s praises: “Chairman Mao is like the sun; he shines even brighter than the sun . . . we will follow you forever.” A 1950s textbook passage reminded students whom to thank for progress:
My grandpa herded sheep when he was six; my father fled famine when he was six. This year I turn six, and I am in school due to the Communist Party’s help.
The state’s propaganda department was nothing if not opportunistic, and it was bold with its machinations. Depending on the era, it tapped certain themes over others, including Marxism as dominant ideology, China’s humiliation at the hands of Japanese aggressors, or the importance of a socialist market economy. (In 2017, among other changes to strengthen Party ideology in the nation’s textbooks, officials announced that the start of the Japanese war would be officially moved up by six years. By lengthening the Sino-Japanese conflict to fourteen years and pegging its start to imperial Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria, the move was expected to incite patriotism, and even more wariness of the Japanese. Just like that—history was recast).
As China opened up to the world, the Party’s target morphed, as if leaders suddenly realized it couldn’t realistically cultivate one billion Communists. Instead, they reasoned that a strong national identity would instill a loyalty to the homeland as their people scattered across the globe for jobs and education. In this, there should be no limit: People shall be “influenced” and “nurtured by the patriotic thoughts and spirit all times and everywhere in their daily life,” stated the Party’s Central Committee in 1994. It was a grand ambition, and the Party’s hand reached down not only into the schoolroom but also across lm, television, and news media.
Of course, China isn’t the first or even the most fervent nation to try to cultivate a population of patriots. Many American students sing the national anthem each day, and the Fourth of July holiday celebrating US independence from England is a national holiday of parades, barbecues, and flag-bearing patriots. In India, people must stand for the national anthem before watching a movie; many cinemas in Thailand will show a video of their king prior to the main feature and require the audience to stand. Russian high school students must endure military training each year, much like the People’s Liberation Army–run equivalent that is required of Chinese schoolchildren of every stripe.
Mused the academic Joel Westheimer:
If you stepped into a school at a moment of patriotic expression, how could you tell whether you were in a totalitarian nation or a democratic one? Both the totalitarian nation and the democratic one might have students sing a national anthem. You might hear a hip-hip-hooray kind of cheer for our land emanating from the assembly hall of either school. Flags and symbols of national pride might be front and center in each school. And the students of each school might observe a moment of silence for members of their country’s armed forces who had been killed in combat.
Here’s the distinction: China is singularly unapologetic—and unabashed—in deploying its education system as a governing technique. An agenda of persevering patriotism begins in primary school and continues through college. China is one of the few countries in the world to deliver a political curriculum inside higher education, with content dictated by the Communist Party.
Yet, all this heavy-handedness seemed a bit out of touch with reality, if not counterintuitive. In particular, I wondered how China’s leaders could cultivate critical thinking in education— one of many ongoing reform attempts—while also pushing a patriotic agenda? I turned to Beijing academic Xie Xiaoqing. “Might the students begin to question certain elements of their education if they’re encouraged to think too freely? Wouldn’t the leadership consider this dangerous?” I asked him.
Xie insisted on speaking English, and he became loose-lipped while grandstanding in his second language. “The top leaders hope to develop the students’ critical thinking in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology and so on,” he admitted, “but not in the fields of politics, ethics, and religion.”
Not in the fields of politics, ethics, and religion.
That classroom flag defines the parameters for society: Change is fine, as long as those four yellow stars—the Chinese people—are always fixed in orbit around the large yellow star.
Darcy, my young high school friend in Shanghai, planned to join the Party by his eighteenth birthday. At seventeen, Darcy was already one of the chosen ones. “I am a jijifenzi—and my plan is working,” he told me, using a term that means “zealot” or “enthusiast,” and is also a status designated by the Party. By his junior year in high school, teachers in his grade had vouched for him, and he was chosen to start the process: He’d already been given initiation rites, attended special classes, and written reports praising the Party. It was an invitation bestowed upon only three of four hundred students in his grade level.
He showed me a letter he’d penned as part of his application. The title was “Walking on the Red Road”:
They are brave, regardless of war or disaster. They always run ahead to shed blood. They are wise, with farsighted leadership of a new China.
They are walking on the red road, they are Communists!
Darcy’s list of accomplishments revealed a distinguished Young Pioneer with the right kind of grooming to serve in the league— disciplinary board member, discipline inspector, vice squad leader— and the boy concluded that he would work to secure the long future of the Communist Party: “I set foot on the red road, in front of the older generation of revolutionaries, and we will try to catch up, take the stick in their hands, overcome all obstacles, so that the red road is wider and longer!”
I gazed at the baby-faced teen who sipped coffee before me. He wore an Adidas tracksuit and Nike cross trainers, apparently the costume of today’s budding Communist leader. “Do you believe everything you wrote here?” I asked, fingering the paper.
Darcy paused. “Yes, I believe,” he said, and nodded, wall of bangs moving with his head.
As we became better acquainted, Darcy’s conviction crumbled under scrutiny. Much of what I’ve written is official guanfang—gobbledygook, Darcy told me once, in a whisper. “Just stuff I have to do,” he said. “It’s what you need to do to get ahead.” His ultimate goal was outside the reach of the Party and off the trail of the red road: graduate school at the University of Michigan.
“You want to study abroad?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he nodded, as a worrisome thought suddenly entered his brain.
“If I want to study in America, will they care if I’m a Communist?” he asked me, head bowed but eyes fixed on mine, waiting for an answer.
I realized that the face my friend presented to the world flipped and flopped depending on the audience and the purpose at hand. But one thing was clear: As an ambitious child of migrants, Darcy would join the Party because it ensured a brighter future inside Chinese borders. Membership opened up a new world of perks: eligibility for scholarships, the networks to find good jobs, positions at state-owned enterprises. Party membership is required for promotion in many government and university jobs.
Darcy was among China’s best and brightest, and these were things he simply had to do. As I pondered the futures of my two Chinese student friends, I realized they were set for sharply divergent paths.
Whereas Amanda’s year abroad would pave the way for college overseas, Darcy must navigate Chinese society the best he can.
When I thought about Darcy’s situation, I realized most Chinese present public faces that are very different from their private thoughts. To me, this state of affairs seemed particularly problematic for China’s youngest generation, and I wasn’t the only one who worried: A handful of brave Chinese scholars criticized China’s moral education curriculum for this very reason, assigning the Party’s heavy hand a losing proposition and a failing letter grade.
A huge gap exists between what kids are taught in school (government provides for you) and what they see happening in real life (government officials taking privileges for themselves). There’s an immense gulf between what people say they believe (“Long Live the Communists”) and what desires they harbor in their personal lives (“Capitalism affords me opportunity, and a decent pair of Nikes”).
China’s speeding economic change has shaken the socialist values upon which the Party was founded. Capitalism abounds, and spending hours in the classroom trying to convince students otherwise has become “unconvincing and unreliable in many respects,” writes the moral education scholar Li Maosen. The Party’s attempts at moral education have simply become a “means of political indoctrination for the purpose of ruling the people rather than for the development of the individual person.” The public intellectual Ran Yunfei derides a society “where the educational materials are all about loving the Party—of course it leads to a spiritual crisis,” he told the New York Review of Books.
China is growing a nation of patriots who worship the Party in public but cultivate alternative thoughts in private.
Take the models that the Communists put forth as heroes. Darcy and Amanda, having gone through nearly two decades of a public Chinese education, could rattle off their names and stories without pause: Lai Ning was a fourteen-year-old student who perished while assisting firefighters in tackling a blaze in Sichuan province. He was re- membered as a standoffish yet studious schoolboy, but after his death, the state declared him a selfless, national hero. Huang Jiguang used his own body to block enemy bullets while struggling bravely for the Chinese during the Korean War. Soldier Dong Cunrui fought for the Communists in 1948, and he detonated explosives to clear a bunker. “For a new China!” he yelled, as the story goes, just before sacrificing himself with the act. Disseminated through the curriculum and presented in class, these models are almost always People’s Liberation Army soldiers or devotees who exhibited extraordinary devotion to Mao Zedong, Party elders, or the greater good.
Many Chinese today believe their stories are out of touch with reality. And, it’s no surprise that any tale encouraging a generation of precious, only children to self-sacrifice might not sit well with parents.
In private, families have their own interpretations. A girlfriend put her two girls in public school in Guangdong. One week the young students were told the story of a man who carried a Chinese flag with pride but who was also slowly starving to death in the hot sun. One day he encountered a potential savior: a passerby with a loaf of bread.
“I’ll trade you this loaf of bread for that flag,” the passerby said.
“No,” replied the starving flag-bearer, despite the hunger in his stomach and the weakness in his limbs.
“How about ten loaves for the flag?”
“Still, no,” said the flag-bearer.
As the story goes, the man died of starvation, holding the flag upright as long as he could bear it. The teacher would then echo the moral of the story: “How brave the man was!”
My friend was horrified. “I try to combat the brainwashing at home,” she told me. “I teach my kids to take the bread! Right, girls?” she said, looking over at them during brunch at our home. “What do we choose instead of the flag?”
“The bread!” both girls, ages six and nine, answered in unison.
You can buy Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School and the Global Race to Achieve on Amazon.
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