Last weekend, as 185 million schoolchildren in China prepared for the first day of school, they had to complete an unusual task: watching TV. Since 2008, CCTV’s the “First Class of School” has been required watching for primary and secondary school students, and the Global Times (a media organization associated with the Chinese government) reported Sunday that the hashtag associated with this year’s show had been viewed nearly 2 billion times. It is part of a broader push for patriotic education, including the “Study the Great Nation” app, expanded military training, and increased deportations of foreign teachers.
However, the production of mandatory content does not necessarily guarantee its consumption. Even as the New York Times reported that some employers require daily submissions of screenshots from the app — taking the gamification of nationalism to the real world — developers created code that will play the app for you, raking up points without requiring the actual consumption of content.
Consumption of “First Class of School” seems equally uneven. One primary school student said that this will be only his second year watching the show, despite having been “required” to watch the program for at least the last four years: “I didn’t have time,” he explained. The show, which is roughly an hour and a half long, faced heavy criticism last year for beginning with more than 15 minutes of commercials. When asked what would happen if he did not watch the program, the student said that his teacher had no way of knowing if he watched it or not.
While some teachers require students to submit their reflections on the show, posts by parents on Zhihu (a Chinese website similar to Quora) suggest that the authors of these essays are often parents rather than the students. One of the most liked comments criticizes the late hour of the show and the requirement for such reflections, closing with the remark that “this ought to be an educational program, but it has become a source of pain for parents and students.”
For those students who do watch, an hour and a half long presentation of the history of the “five star Chinese flag” awaits them. In contrast to last year’s show, which opened with an animation sequence and a speech from Jackie Chan, this year’s show opened with video of the Chinese flag being raised across the country. After an intervening year that saw the months-long disappearance of Chinese actress Fan Bingbing by the Chinese government, cultural celebrities were mostly absent. Last year’s TED talk-style lectures about the power of education and entrepreneurship to achieve individual dreams gave way to lectures about the role that startling achievements played in raising the Chinese flag around the world: “wherever Chinese citizens are, there is the flag,” remarked host Dong Qing, who traveled to the U.S. to have her child in 2014.
Speakers included a former deputy political commissar on Haikou, a DDG-171 destroyer that in 2017 dispersed suspected pirate boats while escorting cargo ships in the Gulf of Aden; the friend of Jiang Xueqin, who served as a model for the protagonist of the well-known patriotic novel Red Crag; and Xia Boyu, who summited Mount Everest last year, 44 years after losing his lower legs to frostbite in a previous attempt. Last year was the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up; this year is the 70th anniversary of the flag.
However, as the program celebrates those who raise the flag, others are notably absent. Footage of the Chinese flag being raised, taken in roughly half of China’s 26 provinces, does not include Xinjiang, where, by one estimate, more than 1 million people are currently being held in “re-education” camps, some with “orphanages” located adjacent to these centers for children whose parents are in the camps. Footage of Tibet is also missing, although a Tibetan singer does provide a wordless introduction to a musical performance. While the program celebrates the importance of science and technology, each of the groups related to STEM has only a single female member. Although the Chinese government claims that women found 55 percent of new Internet businesses, other research indicates that women are underrepresented in the realm of emerging technology and face gender-based discrimination in the recruiting process.
Also absent, but not unaddressed, is Hong Kong. The show features four children from Macau, China’s other special autonomous region. While Hong Kong’s attempt to pass an extradition agreement with China set off ongoing protests in the city, Macau’s Article 23 prohibits “treason, secession, and subversion” against the central government. In Macau, the presenter says, children have a tradition of writing to someone important to them on Children’s Day. They wrote to President Xi Jinping, who despite his central role in Chinese government and political thought, was not mentioned until this point, over an hour into the program. The letter, which addresses Xi as “Grandpa Xi,” thanks him for his care for Macau, especially following a recent typhoon. They explained how they came to understand the phrase “my country, my mother”: Just like a mother, the country can comfort and protect them when they encounter difficulty. (In June, Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam compared the protesters to naughty children.) At the close of their segment, Dong Qing tells the children: “We need to work hard to make our shared homeland be constructed more perfectly, stronger and more prosperous. Children, jia you!”
Jia You, a Chinese phrase that originated in Hong Kong and directly translated means “add oil,” is typically used to encourage someone to keep going and is used as a cheer at sporting events. The phrase has been used frequently in the Hong Kong protests. The program then transitioned to a song that is part of the “Song of the Seven Sons”: A patriotic song composed in the 1930s about seven places (including Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) longing to return to China. Frequently liked comments on Weibo recommend that Hong Kong watch the program.
Although most Hong Kong residents are unlikely to follow this advice, top comments on the program suggest that those who did watch the program were appreciative of the patriotic shift: “I’ve been watching this program with my child for three years,” one comment reads, “but only this year my child was deeply moved… This is the real positivity to spread.” The concluding element of the program, which also stressed the importance of technology, was a celebration of 5G as several groups of students joined in singing “Ode to the Motherland” via video link.
Kendra Brock holds an MA in International Relations and Diplomacy from Seton Hall University. She taught at Wuhan Polytechnic University in Wuhan, China for three years.