Shanghai: new history, old politics

About the author
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper. In 2006 he was the recipient of a Lettre Ulysses award for reportage on his experience at Bingdian

The seventeenth congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opens on 15 October 2007. Ahead of this major, five-day event, and in line with China's media regulations, strict controls are already in place to limit the number of "negative" stories in the news. Under orders from the party's central propaganda department, chief editors of media outlets are busily "creating favourable public opinion".

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's articles in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point" (12 September 2006)

"China: a ‘great nation'?" (10 January 2007)

"What China's new property law means" (21 March 2007)

"China's veteran voices of reform" (16 May 2007)

"China's unlearning: a potent anniversary" (13 June 2007)

"The root of slave labour in China" (26 June 2007)

"Hong Kong's one-legged return" (11 July 2007)

"Beijing baozi and public trust" (25 July 2007)

"The next land revolution?" (8 August 2007)


"China's media change: talking with Angela Merkel" (6 September 2007)

The phrase, like many in the establishment lexicon, is revealing. Propaganda officials seem to believe that "creating" public opinion is as simple as whitewashing the buildings on Beijing's Chang'an Avenue in advance of the Olympics. The degree of stupidity here makes it difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

But some commands emanating from on high still retain the capacity to shock. A recent case involves a new set of history textbooks used in Shanghai for one academic year, and which had been enthusiastically praised by liberal academics. These books have now been banned. What is going on?

The last link

China's ministry of education is the most important link in the party's system of ideological training. From primary school to university, students are obliged to use textbooks that are crammed full of official ideology. This is most evident in politics lessons - which are nothing more than naked propaganda - but it is also true for classes in Chinese history and literature.

History is a prime vehicle of propaganda, from the textbooks which recycle the myth that "class struggle is the driving force of historical progress" to the classes which exaggerate China's suffering at the hands of imperialism in order to foment among the young a desire for revenge against foreign countries. Students are also taught lies about how "great, glorious and correct" the communist party is, and how history "chose" the party to rule China.

In the study of Chinese literature and language too, many of the set texts praise the party; some are even written by party leaders themselves. The students are asked to judge literature on whether or not it is "healthy", and to write essays which contain politically-correct lies. The psychic consequence is that students gradually develop split personalities, learning to parrot the official version in public while preserving their truer individual thoughts for private expression.

The background to this system of indoctrination is that throughout thirty years of Chinese reform, only two institutions have managed to survive unchanged: the propaganda and education departments. The reason these departments are so impervious to change is doubtless that they are vital ideological pillars in maintaining the central power-structure.

The next wave

The hegemony of the propaganda and education departments has not been uncontested. In the early 1990s, some of the more visionary Chinese academics and intellectuals began to criticise Chinese-literature textbooks. They were joined by elements of the media, and gradually changes started to occur.

A group of university professors got together and put forward their own suggestions for a new literature course, from primary school right through to university. This was a breath of fresh air. The revised textbooks rejected most of the out-of-date sermonising and praise for the authorities; some of the texts introduced instead - from abroad as well as from within China - were of genuine quality. The fact that literature can retain a certain distance from politics helped to avoid serious resistance from the educational authorities to these innovations.

The academics responsible then turned to the reform of history textbooks as their next task. After eight years of hard work, a group of over 100 scholars and middle-school teachers (led by Su Zhiliang, a professor from Shanghai Normal University), produced a course of nine textbooks for middle-school students. These books were introduced into schools in Shanghai from September 2006. The new books examined history from an entirely new perspective, explaining events through the lens of the progress of civilisation. Su said that the authors hoped that by narrating the history of civilisation from ancient times to the present the books would convey humanity's struggle for survival and development.

However, the most significant aspect of this initiative was not so much the books' content as the way the new course broke with the system of "one text, one author, one curriculum". Under this long-standing system, students across China studied under a uniform system with no variation in the materials, methods or mentality of learning. Such a system represents a dictatorship of thought. The Shanghai academics' project represented by contrast a pluralistic view of history - which both reflected and could become the seed of greater freedom of thought.

The iron trap

If the progress made with the new Shanghai textbooks had been allowed to continue, the effect would surely have been positive. Unfortunately, a sensitive report in the New York Times on 1 September 2006 changed matters. That day, a story entitled "Where's Mao? Chinese Revise History Textbooks" - written by the paper's China correspondent, Joseph Kahn - commented on the academics' work:

"The new text focuses on...economic growth, innovation, foreign trade, political stability, respect for diverse cultures and social harmony. J.P. Morgan, Bill Gates, the New York Stock Exchange, the U.S. space shuttles and Japan's bullet train are all highlighted in the new textbooks...The French and October Revolutions, once seen as pivotal turning points in world history, now get far less attention. Mao, the Long March, colonial oppression and the Nanjing massacre are now taught only in a compressed history curriculum in junior high."

Any media report will always reflect areas emphasised by the journalist responsible. The initial problem with this particular article is that the question of "where's Mao?" remains a highly sensitive issue in China. It is little surprise that the report was immediately circulated by the Chinese media, and caused fierce debate on the internet. (Someone even offered the provocative comment that "this is the beginning of an orange revolution".) From there, the New York Times report attracted the attention of China's ideological hatchet-men.

Also in openDemocracy on China, textbooks and history

Isabel Hilton, "China and Japan: a textbook argument" (20 April 2005)

Christopher R Hughes, "Chinese nationalism in the global era" (18 April 2006)

Edward Denison, "Restoring history in China" (9 August 2007)

As the agencies of the state become involved, the river starts to flow upstream. A report in one Chinese newspaper on the weekend of 8-9 September 2007 states that the education department's "research centre for sociological development in higher education" has published an article entitled "Well-known historians discuss the new Shanghai textbooks". In the article, seven Beijing-based historians - including Li Wenhai, Sha Jiansun and Zhang Haipeng - air their criticisms of the new course.

They say: "The editors' thinking is confused, and the text is divorced from both the reality of contemporary Chinese social development, and the reality of developments in Chinese historiography. Examples of ‘dilution of ideology' and ‘lack of ideology' are abundant." They add that "The Shanghai textbooks depart from Marxist historical materialism, and simply narrate events, rather than explain their nature. There are serious mistakes in political direction, theoretical direction, and academic direction."

The historians conclude by demanding that the textbooks should cease to be used in Shanghai. Someone close to events in Beijing, who wished to remain anonymous, said that as well as publishing the notes from their own discussions, the Beijing-based historians also called a meeting in the name of the Association of Chinese Historians and reported their findings to the relevant departments.

The historians in question are all on the left of Chinese politics. One of them, Zhang Haipeng, was involved in the Freezing Point incident of 2006 when he wrote an open letter criticising Yuan Weishi (see Lung Ying-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao", 15 February 2006). Their modus operandi is to work behind the scenes, spreading tales, and giving a political twist to events in order to attract the attention of the authorities. They are not brave enough to engage in open academic debate.

They may be secretive, but (on this occasion) their way of working appears to have been successful: the new textbooks have been banned after only one year in use, despite the efforts and explanations of the Shanghai education department and Su Zhiliang himself. Joseph Kahn, who heads the New York Times's Beijing bureau, said on 9 September: "I'm very surprised that an article I wrote had such a huge effect in China. I feel sorry that the chief editor had to resign and the books were banned".

He does not need to feel sorry - this is the fate that often befalls new things in China. But as the ancient poet Bai Juyi said of blades of grass on the open plains:

"Wildfire never quite consumes them / In the spring wind they are tall once more."