Yes, I know – that’s a very disjointed, dichotomous title, and this post is quite disjointed as well. But bear with me a moment.
I read with fascination this morning an article on China’s attempts to increase its global soft power by constitutional scholar Zhang Boshu, a former member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I strongly recommend you read it all. This stood out for me (and apologies for a very long snip):
From the perspective of liberal constitutionalism, the continuous sixty years of one party rule by the Chinese Communist Party is a type of autocracy—an unreasonable system of government. It is extremely predictable that such a country would be criticized by democratic nations’ mass media. In saying that the international media “unfairly sees China and the Chinese people,” Mr. Zhao Qizheng is obviously intentionally trying to confuse public opinion. That is because criticizing the ruling Party is not equivalent to criticizing China; it is also not equivalent to criticizing the Chinese people. It has absolutely nothing to do with “hegemony.” I have personally been interviewed many times by the international media and feel that the vast majority of foreign journalists are friendly towards China. They have a serious attitude towards reporting; even when reporting on weaknesses within our society, they hope that China will improve quickly. On the contrary, it is actually our rulers who are accustomed to using a mindset of enmity; they see all critics as enemies with hidden intentions.
In the final analysis, it is China’s current political system that is definitely outside the global tide of democratization. It is this environment that produces government-hired scholars who play up their [theories] which are at odds with logic.
So what is the substance of this “soft power with Chinese characteristics” that is being so strongly advocated by government officials and “scholars”? There are two clear main types [of soft power with Chinese characteristics]. One type is related to “persisting in the leadership of the Communist Party.” It aims at protecting the ideological “products” of the existing regime—whether it be the increasingly individualistic and commercialized literature, art, television, movie, and animation “products”, or whether it be the increasingly rigid media and education “products.” For example, beginning in 2004, the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party and the Ministry of Education jointly organized a massive program called “Researching and Building Upon Marxist Theories.” As part of this program, at universities and colleges the “public politics class” curriculum and the humanity majors’ core curriculum was required to be revamped so as to include the “the latest findings” [in the field of] “the sinification of Marxism” or “Marxism’s adaptation to China.” As far as propaganda directed outside [of China], this kind of thing was naturally at the very core, but it was packaged more carefully as being different from the “West” and as being a form of “democratic government” with “Chinese characteristics,” or as being “harmonious” or as being part of “a great nation’s rise”—the ultimate purpose was to establish “[China’s] own ideological voice.”
The other type [of soft power with Chinese characteristics] is “traditional culture” and its interpretations which are officially approved. Confucius is no longer criticized. This is obviously a good thing. However, reflecting on the rationality of traditional culture has at the same time been suppressed. That is because the current leaders are not especially concerned about the complicated historical relationship between modern China’s transformation and pre-modern China’s cultural heritage, and are more concerned with the role that can be played today by China’s ancient heritage and ancient historical figures acting as a sort of cultural symbol. [This cultural symbol] could be used to prove the legitimacy of a culture that is different from the “West” which it seems would then indirectly prove the legitimacy of a political structure that is different from the “West.” Along these lines, today in China one can see everywhere vigorous signs of “ancient worship”—not just in a cultural context but also in an ideological context. This same logic can explain why the government so strongly supports the construction of “Confucius Institutes” in many places overseas.
Nevertheless, the ultimate goal in all this effort is to whitewash the reality of existing one party rule; to provide a defense for a backward system. This is phony soft power; even though it appears in the name of a people’s nation and even though it appears in the form of the modern heir to a great culture.
The bottom line is that I tend to agree with Zhang’s conclusions. But the main reason I’m posting this is that it reminded me of a shocking news story in today’s NY Times that at first glance seems hopelessly unrelated, namely the rewriting of American textbooks to
brainwash teach American children the glories of the US capitalist system, to minimize any reference to the Enlightenment, to lionize conservative freaks like Phyllis Schlafly and right-wing propaganda machines like the Heritage Foundation, and to generally turn our textbooks into vehicles for the distribution of GOP talking points.
One of my favorite bloggers offers a blunt description of this inexcusable revisionism.
The intent is two-fold:
1. To render a public school education all but worthless by teaching blatant lies and distortions, thereby advancing the long-desired rightwing meme is, in fact, worthless and should be eliminated.
2. As long as there must be a public education system, indoctrinate children to in the lie that rightwing/christianist authoritorianism is a core American value and not, in fact, the very antithesis of the Americanism the Founders intended.
Textbook procurement protocols must be changed to eliminate the influence of these ignorant, malicious lunatics from the national discourse. Otherwise, we deserve everything that’s coming to us.
Amen to that.
Over the years one of the most heated topics here has been US vs. Chinese education and which system is more guilty of “brainwashing” its students.
All education is going to have a propaganda element to it. I remember a high school textbook from the Cold War in which all the photos of Moscow and East Germany were taken on gray, rainy days, with people walking with their faces turned down against the wind. However, I also remember being taught to question the government, to understand the importance of checks and balances over a system that could easily be corrupted, and to remember the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow and, yes, the massacre of Native Americans.
And then I remember the descriptions in River Town of all the political slogans built into the Chinese curriculum, of the extolling of the one-party system, of the deification of Chairman Mao, etc. This is a radically different approach from the US system, and we see its manifestation in the writings of Hong XIng and Math and others who seem incapable of a nuanced discussion that doesn’t paint the US as inherently evil and China as inherently great. I’ve had no choice but to conclude that while the US educational system is deeply imperfect, it’s way lower on the brainwashing scale than China’s.
And then I read today about the aforementioned rape of US textbooks by the Texas Board of Education and I have to conclude that if they really pull this off my argument will be greatly weakened. This is nothing less than pure propaganda, complete with racism (see the part of the article on writing Latinos out of the textbooks) and an endorsement of Americans’ Manifest Destiny. And these changes were initiated by a hopelessly ignorant dentist with no background in history. Something is so wrong with America at the moment. The neanderthal beliefs of the right-wing fringe, dripping with prejudice and hate and ignorance, have become mainstream and are about to be taught to our children as Truth.
Can we criticize China when crimes like this are being committed in the US? Sure; but this certainly gives more power to those who retort with the “America does it too” meme. And maybe they have a fair point.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.