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Xi Jinping’s Ideologization of the Chinese Academy 

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Xi Jinping’s Ideologization of the Chinese Academy 

Several policy measures and guiding documents issued by Beijing have indicated a decisive shift toward political indoctrination and insularity in Chinese universities.

Xi Jinping’s Ideologization of the Chinese Academy 
Credit: Depositphotos

Under Xi Jinping, Beijing has sought to strengthen ideological and political education in universities throughout China. More robust emphasis on ideology in Chinese universities has come hand-in-hand with the development of a higher education system characterized by increasing insularity, exemplified by turns away from global rankings, less emphasis on English-language course instruction, and new regulations that hamper international research collaboration. 

Taken together, they suggest a more autarkic vision for Xi’s China that is increasingly hostile to academic freedom – even as Beijing publicly calls for increased collaboration with universities in the West. 

Several policy measures and guiding documents issued by Beijing have indicated a decisive shift toward political indoctrination in Chinese universities. In 2014, the General Office of the Party Central Committee and the State Council issued opinions on strengthening ideological education in universities. The opinions stressed tightening party control in educational institutions by “forcefully raising the ideological and political quality of higher education teaching teams,” “implementing academic security training systems,” and “fostering a large batch of political cadres among young teachers and students.” Specific measures included strengthening political training sessions for faculty and standardizing textbooks across disciplines, particularly in the social sciences. 

Divisional work plans issued by China’s Ministry of Education (MOE) in 2023 have also discussed initiatives to build an “Ideology and Politics Index” for Chinese universities. Such an index would pit Chinese institutions against each other with the aim of incentivizing them to bolster party-building and ideological activities on campus. 

More emphasis on ideology has also been reflected by trends in research output by Chinese academics. Under Xi Jinping, the number of National Social Science Foundation (NSSF) grants allocated for ideological research topics has increased significantly. Total project grants for “Socialism/Marxism” and “Party History/Party Building” in 2019 doubled and tripled, respectively, compared to 2011. Of the 766 mentions of “ideological and political education” (思想政治教育, or 思政 for short) in People’s Daily since the term first appeared in 1994, 700 of them have come during Xi Jinping’s term. Xi has emphasized ideological and political education as “irreplaceable,” while state-run newspapers such as Guangming Daily have called for seizing the opportunity of diminishing academic burdens on students to enhance the teaching of ideological subjects.

Universities that have not sufficiently implemented ideological education as per the party line have faced admonishment. In September 2021, the Ministry of Education criticized Tsinghua University, one of China’s top universities, for “gaps in ideological work” and lacking adequate “risk prevention” in an official statement. It did the same to Peking University, another elite school, warning it about “insufficient efforts in ideological and political work.” The statement came after the ministry concluded a two-month inspection of 31 higher education institutions in China, during which inspectors visited campuses to search for any “violation of disciplines.” 

Emphasis on bolstering national security education has grown simultaneously. In October 2020, China’s Ministry of Education unveiled guidelines on national security education based on previous opinions published in 2018, which required schools to launch courses oriented around “national interests in various areas.” 

In 2021, China’s Ministry of State Security issued a series of case studies on how university students can establish awareness regarding national security issues. It described a series of cases of potential national security scenarios that directly affect university students. Some, for example, involve “anti-China hostile forces” funding journalism students to write articles that attack the country, or intelligence operatives from Taiwan recruiting university students to carry out espionage operations in mainland China. 

In October 2023, Beijing also passed the Patriotic Education Law, effective January 2024, to boost nationalist sentiment in educational institutions. 

Under Xi, military training programs (军训), which all Chinese students need to participate in to matriculate, have also been taken increasingly seriously. Reforms that were introduced in 2017 emphasized changes to curriculum design and promoted training in areas other than marching. This was done in order to bolster “students’ admiration for military force and martial power.” New guiding syllabi for military training was introduced in April 2019. Compared to the last syllabus in 2017, the new one emphasizes specific credit requirements and the importance of tracking student records in courses on military strategy.

Chinese universities, furthermore, have been compelled to turn increasingly inward. This has been particularly apparent in the university admissions process. Delegates in the National People’s Congress have pushed for English to be given less weight in China’s college entrance examination, or gaokao. The gaokao itself has instead placed more emphasis on phrases and quotes attributed to Xi Jinping. In 2023’s gaokao, for example, test-takers were asked to consider Xi’s phrase “a flower blooming alone is not spring, but a hundred flowers blooming together makes the garden full of spring.” China’s National Education Examinations Authority stated that such a move was necessary to “understand the power of truth and master the right way of thinking.”

Other moves exemplify such an insular turn. In 2022, leading Chinese universities such as Renmin University, Nanjing University, and others, including Lanzhou University, formally withdrew from global rankings after a speech Xi delivered at Renmin. During his speech, Xi called for Chinese universities to “blaze a new path” instead of “blindly following others or simply copying foreign standards and models.” Universities such as Xi’an Jiaotong University removed English tests as a graduation requirement in 2023. 

Chinese academics have also faced increasingly tough constraints on freely pursuing their own research agendas and interacting with foreign counterparts. Data privacy laws issued in 2023 have severely restricted the flow of academic data from Chinese institutions and consequently hampered international research collaboration. Moreover, for the first time in January 2024, the Ministry of State Security explicitly outlined ten actions that could lead to “an invitation to tea” –  a colloquialism for questioning by Chinese authorities. Such warnings have deterred the pursuit of teaching and research agendas perceived as malicious by Beijing. 

Chinese universities, forced to adhere to directives from the top, have seen increasing ideologization and often caved to pressures to self-isolate. This is not to say, however, that Western efforts to engage Chinese institutions of higher education should be discontinued. Efforts to engage universities in China, the majority of which embrace global values on academic freedom and are proud of their history of engagement with foreign counterparts, are instead more important than ever.  

Courageous Chinese university leaders and academics have sought to safeguard academic freedom where and when possible. They must be empowered by their colleagues in the West, not isolated further.