Xi Jinping is one of the few Chinese leaders whose name appears alongside his own doctrine in China’s constitution. But supremacy in the legislative and political spheres is only the beginning of Xi’s influence. His government is poised to shape many areas of society. Giant billboards, once the domain of businesses vying for the attention of a spirited middle class, are now commonly found propagating Xi’s slogans. They are a ubiquitous symbol of the growing entrenchment of the state in Chinese daily life.
Xi is now determined to bring China’s academic establishment under the ideological control of his government. In 2016, Xi vowed to turn university campuses into “strongholds of the Party’s leadership,” and he has made progress on that promise. The Xi government is also leveraging the ivory tower as a tool for developing sophisticated propaganda techniques with which to indoctrinate the public.
On October 25, 2017, the day following the congressional resolution to enshrine Xi Jinping Thought into China’s constitution, Renmin University established the first official research center for Xi Thought under the guidance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). By early 2018, the Central Committee of the CCP had officially recognized 10 research centers for the study of Xi Jinping Thought. According to a statement from Xinhua News Agency, the purpose of these centers is to “deepen the research and interpretation of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for in the New Era.”
Each research center on Xi Thought has an area of specialization. For example, the center at Peking University specializes in connecting Marxist doctrine with Xi Thought and develops relevant propaganda. The center in Shanghai, on the other hand, focuses on developing sophisticated methods of disseminating Xi Thought in today’s complex technological environment. According to the People’s Daily, this center works on “the development of scientific content in the propaganda of Xi Thought, the diversification of propaganda forms, the modernization of propaganda methodologies, the popularization of propaganda objects and the internationalization of the propaganda vision.”
Despite their infancy, the impact of these centers is already being felt in Chinese society. A number of popular books such as Xi Jinping’s 7 Years as an Educated Urban Youth and Xi Jinping in Zhengding, as well as the educational podcast “The 19th Congress Spirits with 19 Lecturers” are all products of these centers’ research on propaganda innovation.
But the CCP’s effort to influence academia is not limited to the establishment of a few elite research institutes. The central government candidly states that China’s academic institutions will be comprehensively reshaped to enhance their “ideological performance.” This will dramatically affect both teaching and research at all universities. In a January 2018 interview, China’s Minister of Education Chen Baosheng addressed upcoming changes to the university system, saying, “In the coming year, the Ministry of Education plans to bring in a new curriculum, new assessment criteria and better qualified teachers who will be specially trained in ideological education.”
The Ministry of Education (MOE) is reconstructing the incentive structure of universities in order to increase research and teaching on the CCP’s ideology, particularly Xi Thought. The MOE published a guide for universities on December 4, 2017 detailing the attention that universities must now give to CCP ideology. It stated that “ideological and political performance” will be the single most heavily weighted criterion in the evaluation of university teachers. More importantly, ideological performance will be the most important factor in determining the career prospects of university faculty, according to the guide. Additionally, the government will increase its supervision of universities in order to enforce compliance. Government officials will frequently visit universities to evaluate teachers’ ideological performance. This guide applies to all Chinese universities and provides no indication that certain fields of study (such as STEM fields) will be exempt from ideological performance requirements.
While comprehensive government control over universities grew palpably this year, this trend has been underway for several years. By the end of 2017, it was already apparent that scores of Chinese academics throughout the university system had begun taking government cues on ideological promotion, making Xi Thought a major part of their careers. For example, of the 10 “hottest research topics” of 2017, four were related to ideas in Xi Thought. The number one research topic is “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics in the New Era.” Each of these four topics comes from seminal speeches given by Xi Jinping.
Xi Thought is not only treated as a legitimate field of research but also as a topic ready to be extensively taught, despite having only been researched in depth for a relatively short period of time. Yunnan Minzu University established a Master’s degree in “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics in the New Era.” The first students of the program will begin courses in September this year.
While many academics are highly responsive to the CCP’s dictates, others are less happy with the impact on the quality of China’s university system. Political commentator and historian Zhang Lifan holds that Chinese universities are experiencing an epidemic of degeneration and have become little more than pawns in the government’s ideological promotion campaign. Zhang said, “This is an ideological performance project. From the top, its goal is certainly to create a God for people to worship. The universities have won funds for this. Some scholars who have no academic achievements will be opportunists on political speculation. Now top academic institutions have fallen to this, and there is no more university spirit, as everything has been completely ‘Party-ized.’”
Similarly, He Weifang, a renowned law professor at Peking University, believes that the rush among universities to reshape themselves according to the ideological priorities of the CCP is detrimental to their academic integrity and dignity. Until recently, He was an outspoken critic of the CCP’s growing restrictions on intellectual freedom. He said, “In the last 40 years, freedom of speech for intellectuals has never been constricted as severely as it is now.”
A closer look at China’s research funding mechanisms lends credence to Zhang and He’s scathing critiques. In order for China’s social scientists to receive funding from the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science, their projects must focus on a list of pre-approved topics, the lion’s share of which are on CCP ideology or the design of propaganda. Similarly, for fine arts funding from the same government body, the project must focus on the following ideological principle: “hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and comprehensively implement the spirit of the 19th Party congress.”
The CCP’s intellectual colonization of universities may ultimately prove to be a costly project. This push to repurpose academia for the promotion of ideology deals fundamentally with two scarce resources: government funds and academics’ efforts. China will have to contend with the opportunity costs of the decision to allocate these resources toward a political and propaganda project. The government’s financial resources might otherwise go toward achieving the kind of scholarly breakthroughs that would raise the international standing of China’s universities. Chinese academics will increasingly build their careers around a sanctioned political ideology rather than areas of scholarship where they believe they have the most to contribute.
Although “ideological performance” is of value to Xi’s government, the global academic community is unlikely to have much affinity for its totalitarian priorities. While doing little to enhance the global standing of Chinese universities, the ideological push may do significant harm to their credibility, particularly if the erosion of academic freedom detracts from non-ideological work.
Xi nonetheless recognizes the importance of high-quality universities in the development of a knowledge-based economy. It remains to be seen how he can improve the quality and global standing of China’s university system without granting academic freedom to scholars.
These transformative changes in Chinese academia are occurring against a backdrop of greater state control in a wide variety of areas, including business, media, the arts, family life, and the Internet. Echoing the desire to strengthen Party leadership at universities, the government is setting up communist Party cells within businesses to increase oversight and calibrate state management of the economy. The coming decade will provide a clearer picture of the political and economic costs that the Chinese government faces for turning to totalitarianism to strengthen its leadership.
Nick Taber is a writer and consultant on policy and business in China. He received his Master’s from the London School of Economics in 2016, where he researched the economics of state-capitalism and trade in China and Vietnam. Follow him on Twitter: @TaberTooth