In a system where ministers are incentivized to report only good news, China’s Minister of Education public censure of failures in ideological and political education (思想政治教育; IPE) at Chinese universities came as a surprise (FRI, March 12). A campaign has been underway to intensify IPE since a December 2016 conference on ideological and political work in China’s universities and colleges. At the conference, Chinese President Xi Jinping strongly reaffirmed the supremacy of Marxism and socialism in Chinese institutions of higher learning, and pressed for strengthening of ideological and political work to indoctrinate the country’s 37 million college students (Xinhua, December 9, 2016). Yet the Minister of Education’s criticisms indicate that IPE is not proving successful.
The Status Quo of IPE
Chinese colleges have a long history of radicalism that stirs fear among Party elites. Whether it was the Red Guard movement, the 1989 student demonstrations, or the recent nationalist protests, the college campus, with its proclivity for freethinking, is a place where the Party cannot afford to let go of the reins. Chinese universities are firmly controlled by the state through finances and appointment of administrative leadership. Even outwardly independent private colleges are falling under the control of newly installed Party secretaries with the clear intention of being the “backbone of ideological and political work (China Wenming Online, January 13).”
According to surveys completed by Chinese researchers, the Party enjoys majority support among college students—with one poll showing that 73.3 percent “support” or “strongly support” the Party’s leadership.  Although we must be aware that China’s political climate deeply influences how interviewees answer a survey, research has shown that the Party does have a healthy level of support among college students.  Nonetheless, student support for IPE, the Party’s signature indoctrination program, is comparatively low.
Mixing Marxism, patriotism, and some traditional Chinese values, IPE aims to rally mass support for the Party, its ideology, and its governance. Taught as a required course, one study shows that 64.4 percent of students are “unsatisfied” with IPE, with another 17.9 percent “very unsatisfied.”  Likewise, 50 percent of respondents in another study find IPE “almost pointless,” but forced themselves to attend due to school rules. Plagiarism and cheating are common due to students’ falling enthusiasm.  Despite interest in Red Culture (红色文化), a set of state sponsored cultural values based on the Chinese Communist Party’s revolutionary experience—a notable minority (28.3 percent) of students find Red Culture events (a component of IPE) boring. Over half (53.2 percent) said they were forced to attend, and 60.5 percent view these events as irrelevant to real life. 
Why is IPE so Unpopular?
Political indoctrination is rarely fun, especially for students living in a relatively open society. While students demand more discussions, debates and field work, IPE teachers can only continue with monotonous lectures because any exercise involving critical analysis will shatter the perfect image of Marxism.  Thus, while Chinese college students loathe IPE for being a “single-voice class” (一言堂) where the teacher dominates the conversation, changes are less likely to come as it could possibly destroy IPE in its entirety. 
IPE is fighting an uphill battle in three areas. The increasing Internet usage by Chinese college students is corroding the hold of official ideology. For example, the officially championed myth of the Chinese Communist Party as the mainstay in expelling Japanese invaders is slowly losing believers, because more and more students are learning the truth from the Internet.  Eighty percent of Chinese college students spend more than two hours a day surfing the Web, 92 percent say they use the Internet as a source of information, and 88.9 percent use Weibo (Chinese equivalent of Twitter) and WeChat (Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp)—two apps that allow students some modicum of privacy when discussing current affairs. 
The arrival of organized religion to Chinese campuses poses another threat to official ideology. Besides offering mental comfort, organized religious groups serve as a social safety net for students, in comparison to communist political organizations that are fraught with corruption and exclusivism. Recent studies show that interest in religion is gaining strength in Chinese colleges, even in the Communist Youth League.  Forty-nine percent of students do not know that Party members must be atheists, and a third (31.4 percent) do not mind campus proselytizing—an act forbidden by the state.  While the growing interest in religion has not openly challenged the Party’s dominance of campuses, one trend might spell trouble in the near future. In one survey of Xinjiang colleges, 5.8 percent of respondents believe one can force a religion on others.  More alarmingly, 8.6 percent agree with the extreme position that spreading one’s religion using violent means is permissible. 
IPE educators face additional difficulties in areas dominated by ethnic and religious minorities, in particular among Tibetans and the Turkic Muslims of Xinjiang. Few of these groups played major roles in the events of the 20th century that conditioned the contemporary Chinese psyche. Compared to Mongols and Hui Muslims that allied with Chinese communists in the fight against Japan, Tibetans and Turkic Muslims played next to no role in the in the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937–1945) which forms the core of the CCP’s national narrative. Moreover, Marxism’s anti-religion doctrine makes IPE difficult when teaching Tibetan college students who hold Lamaism in high regard. Most Tibetans live their entire life according to Buddhism precepts and hold deep reverence for their religious leaders. To teach religion as obsolescent is not only deeply offensive to Tibetans, but also counterproductive to IPE in general.  The same can be said for Xinjiang, where ethnic Turkic Muslims constitute more than half of the province’s population. Although students would pay lip service to the curriculum just so they can graduate, the doctrinaire system of pedagogy is not truly winning over hearts and minds.
The Role of Political Counselors
Outside of the classroom, Political Counselors (政治辅导员; PCs) take care of a student’s all-around needs while attending college, and are tasked with shaping his/her ideological and political values. As the “backbone of ideological and political education for college students,” PCs are “the organizer, implementer and mentors of college students in everyday ideological and political education and management” (Ministry of Education, July 23, 2006).
Working closely with selected student cadres, the PCs spread the Party’s message when students are outside of the classroom. Although the law stipulates that there should be one PC to every 200 students, in reality, personnel shortage makes the ratio much higher. One to 300 or 400 is not an unusual number. In extreme cases, it has been reported that a PC have to take care of 1,000 students, making the job impossible. 
Besides being over-encumbered, 56 percent of PCs are unsatisfied with their salary and benefits. To add to the already tense environment, PCs are governed by a dual command regime, where school and department leadership can sometime issue conflicting orders. 
Under these circumstances, it is not a surprise to find that some PCs do not even agree with the Party line themselves. One poll shows that 31.92 percent of PCs do not believe in the Marxist dogma that a communist society is inevitable. Straying from the government narrative, close to half (47.1 percent) of PCs do not believe that the income gap will close in ten years. 
The Role of Protection Divisions
If IPE teachers and PCs are the softer side of political indoctrination, then Protection Divisions (保卫处) are the “stick” that police political behavior. Present in every university bureaucracy, the Protection Division have several functions—public safety, fire prevention, registering visitors and temporary workers—and most importantly, political policing. Underneath each Protection Division there is a Political Protection Section (政保科; PPS). While taking on different names at different colleges, the mission of the PPS remain more or less the same—propagate official ideology and counter any attempts by “hostile forces” in influencing students. Although the PPS do not have law enforcement power, a power reserved for the public security police, it does have the power to investigate.  Political Protection Informants (政保信息员), selected from the student body, serve as the PPS’s “eyes and ears (耳目)” (Xi’an Shiyou University, June 6, 2014).
Given the secrecy surrounding its work, most PPSs do not publicize their duties, but the PPS of the Harbin Institute of Technology, self-referred to as the Political Protection and State Security Office (政保国安办), openly declares its responsibilities as the following:
- Responsible for propaganda and education of the national security concept, enemy awareness, and political stability.
- Responsible for understanding, controlling, tracking, and ideological education of key people that can influence political stability.
- Responsible for carrying out research and information gathering; grasp the ideological trends among faculty and students in a timely and accurate manner to provide the basis for higher-level leadership decision-making.
- Cooperate with public security and state security police in detecting and investigating cases endangering state security.
- Responsible for security of important leaders and foreign dignitaries. Assist relevant agencies in implementing security measures for foreign experts, teachers, exchange students, compatriots from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and visiting foreign staff.
- Assist relevant agencies to prevent and punish infiltration, incitement, and sabotage of schools by domestic and foreign hostile forces, illegal religious forces, and ethnic separatist forces.
- Assist relevant agencies in secure management of the campus’s computer network system and identification of sources of harmful information.
- Assist relevant agencies in confidential work.
- Conduct political review of school staff in accordance with the requirements of relevant agencies.
- Assist relevant agencies in managing student associations.
- Conduct basic business work. Establish and improve the management of various data files.
- Assist other sections and offices in completing tasks. Complete any other mission assigned by the division director (Harbin Institute of Technology).
In essence, PPS is the monitor of campus security and ideological uniformity, in addition to serving as the workhorse of counterintelligence. While IPE staff focus on pedagogy, it is the PPS’s mission to keep out unofficial people and ideas. This repressive regime is likely to receive greater state investment due to the risks associated with liberalizing IPE.
Among Chinese college students, support for the Party and government remain strong—at least on paper. However, most students have shown their dissatisfaction with IPE and their inability to intake additional political coursework void of liberal teaching methods. In the future, the state will likely strengthen IPE in the following ways. Firstly, the state will try to assert greater control of the cyber sphere by clamping down on alternative sources of information popular among students—also by intensifying propaganda and counterpropaganda on Weibo and WeChat. Secondly, more PCs will be trained to alleviate the current personnel shortage. Thirdly, greater attention will be diverted to indoctrination in ethnic areas, especially to the Tibetan and Turkic Muslims most susceptible to what the state calls the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Finally, there will be a renewed pushback against the spread of religion in colleges, a trend, if unchecked, will present significant challenges in winning over China’s brightest young minds.
Zi Yang is an independent researcher and consultant on China affairs. His research centers on Chinese internal security issues. He holds a M.A. from Georgetown University and a B.A. from George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @MrZiYang.
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- Ibid, p. 195.
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