The paradox at the heart of China’s quest to rid universities of Western values



Chinese universities are gripped in a debate about whether students should be exposed to “Western values”. A campaign was ignited in late January by Yuan Guiren, China’s minister of education, who sought to ban the use of textbooks promoting what he termed “Western values” in university campuses and classrooms.

Despite the lack of a clear definition or explanation of what is meant by “Western values” and why such values are not suitable for Chinese students, the authorities have made it clear that the campaign aims to enhance propaganda and teaching of Marxism and Chinese socialism to indoctrinate students and ensure such values “get into the students\’ heads”.

For many observers, both inside and outside China, the campaign is strange, unjustified and unnecessary as there is no clear distinction between Western and Eastern values – or “socialism core values”, to use the Chinese Communist Party’s term. This is despite the fact that socialism core values originated and transferred from the West via the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The ideas shaping future leaders

The campaign has sparked a large amount of online debate among Chinese commentators. Many are concerned about the values, beliefs and social responsibility held by Chinese students. Given that they are seen as the leaders of the future, the ideas they are shaped by will determine the future of Chinese society.

The current debate reminds us about the “dismissed ideology” of Chairman Mao three decades ago. He requested university students be “both red and expert” – both politically sound with loyalty to the Communist Party and professionally competent. From this point of the view, the current campaign can be viewed as an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to recover, partly if not totally, its orthodox vision of Chinese universities.

The urgency to rethink the mission of Chinese universities could be linked to the challenges of serious economic and social inequality in China. The reform of Chinese universities since the late 20th century has been driven by a neo-liberal approach that has emphasised the nature of individual ownership, private investment in the access to higher education and economic return from human capital development. Such an approach, which views higher education as a part of the economic sector rather than a shared public good, has left universities with few mechanisms to help cope with the challenges facing Chinese society, besides financial support for students from poor families.

As a result of opposition to the direction universities have taken, there is an increasing call for research and policy debates about higher education and social justice in China. From this viewpoint, it is misleading to stress a straight-up dichotomy between “Eastern” and “Western” values on Chinese campuses.

State control tightens

As part of the new campaign away from “Western values”, senior managers in Chinese universities have been advised to enhance their political control and administrative intervention to ensure that university teachers follow the line and discipline defined by the Communist Party. They have also been urged to increase resource allocation for teaching and to persuade students to accept “socialism core values”. While it remains to be seen whether such a campaign could be successful in Chinese universities, such politically driven teaching has existed on campuses for decades and is not an effective way of attracting students or even the teachers who deliver it.

Top-down intervention could result in an enhancement of “bureaucratisation”, in which key resources could be further centralised to administrative departments and non-academic staff, accompanied by a further erosion of the autonomy of professors and university teachers. For example, university teachers with administrative titles could have more chance to access and control research funding than their colleagues who have the same rank but no administrative title.

Many advocates of the campaign against “Western values” in China have questioned the validity of social scientific theories originating in Western societies, such as economic analysis on shareholder stock markets in China, in interpreting the reality of Chinese society. They have also pointed out the limits of knowledge and understanding among Chinese scholars who have had an educational background or degree from a Western universities and have now become a dominant group among university teachers.

For instance, most professors in Chinese universities are requested to have experience in studying abroad. For key national universities, it is increasingly difficult for a graduate without a doctoral degree from an international recognised university to get a teaching post.

Given the complexity of Chinese society, new repatriates from Western universities should be aware of the limitation of their knowledge or expertise in the current climate. Equally important is the need to teach in a neutral way so as to bring a diversity of viewpoints, theories, experience and lessons of China’s reform and development. This could minimise over-simplification and academic bias.

But questions over professional standards and robust scientific methodology shouldn’t be different between Chinese and non-Chinese scholars. Rather than limiting the campaign as simply a dichotomy between “Eastern” and “Western” values, it is time to rethink the mission and core values of Chinese universities so that social justice and professional standards can be put at the centre.

Author Bio: Bin Wu is Senior Research Fellow, China Policy Institute, and Centre for Chinese Migration Studies, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at University of Nottingham