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Nationalism and the Transition to Neo-liberalism: An Examination of Social Studies Curriculum in Developing China

Module by: Leif Anderson. E-mail the author

Summary: This study examines social studies curriculum in developing China. Primarily, this study analyzes the role of the social studies in mainland China in indoctrinating the transition to a market-driven, neo-liberal economy while justifying the continued presence of a single-party state with a communist facade. Additionally, this study examines the role of secondary social studies in fostering nationalism throughout the education system. In particular, this study will focus on how the obvious contradiction between a communist political ideology and a neo-liberal economic system is reconciled through social studies education. In terms of the development of nationalism in Chinese education, this study considers the potential consequences of this phenomenon as China becomes further intertwined with the globalized world. Finally, this study considers the prospects of curriculum reform in Chinese social studies and the potential for an ideological shift towards critical thought and inquiry, source-based learning.


In recent years, China’s rapid economic development has come to the forefront of scholarly and media discourse. Countless observers have attempted to examine the processes and effects of this global phenomenon. However, the depth and range of China’s development make the attempt to present a comprehensive examination of China’s social, political, economic, and cultural changes impossible. Thus, this paper will focus on social studies curriculum in Chinese secondary institutions. Ideally, this project will present the reader with an adequate synopsis of the secondary material currently in publication in conjunction with some anecdotal evidence from my own experience and feedback from Chinese students. Like the Western world, Chinese social studies curriculum encompasses the expected subjects of history, geography, and politics. Additionally, China has developed a “moral education” framework into its standard social studies curriculum. The specific aspects of Chinese social studies curriculum which will be discussed are as follows: how the apparent contradiction between traditional socialist rhetoric and indoctrination is reconciled with the market-driven, entrepreneurial reality of contemporary society, the emphasis on nationalism and how it fits into an increasingly globalized society, and the prospects of a social studies curriculum emphasizing critical thought and source-based inquiry. The encompassing theme of this text will be how Chinese social studies curriculum is coping with the seemingly contradictory context that occurs when a highly nationalistic, socialist country is swept up by the forces of globalization and the neo-liberal economic model.

Throughout modern China, clear and highly visible evidence can be seen that the entrepreneurial spirit has encapsulated the country. Widespread market reforms, first put forth by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, have created an environment in which the so-called communist system looks increasingly like the thriving capitalist systems of the Western world and some East Asian nations, such as Japan and South Korea. This contradiction would seem to instill a sense of cognitive dissonance among the Chinese masses. The tremendous rates of economic growth and wealth accumulation have put the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in a position where any attempts to rollback the reforms in an attempt reaffirm its control would be downright absurd. However, the reality of Chinese popular consciousness would have to be that a doctrine of socialist ideology is becoming increasingly inconvenient, or perhaps even obsolete.

Thus, the Chinese central government is in the precarious position of trying to simultaneously legitimize its relevance through socialist indoctrination and, at the same time, justify a continuation of neo-liberal reforms and encouraging entrepreneurialism. This context begs the questions; how is the apparent contradiction in former and current ideologies reconciled in Chinese social studies curriculum and how do pedagogical functions prevent a sense of cognitive dissonance among Chinese youth? Time constraints prevented me from obtaining and translating the specific state-sanctioned textbooks that would answer these questions. Recent scholarly publications have examined this issue, which will have to be used in lieu of primary sourcing from actual textbooks. Instead, qualitative evidence will be drawn from written feedback from some Chinese high school students themselves.

Globalization and the Educational Security State

The cliché definition of globalization is regarded as the increased economic inter-dependence of nation-states throughout the world and the subsequent mobilization of capital, production, technology, finance, culture, and humans themselves. Throughout the world, the widespread decentralization of public services and deregulatory measures have transferred significant economic and, invariably, political power from the traditional nation-state to global capital and transnational corporations (TNCs). On the newfound influence of TNCs, Cohen and Kennedy have noted, “they are the carriers of a global political ideology that stresses such notions as a diminished role for the state, free trade, privatization, and individualism and consumerism” (Cohen and Kennedy, quoted from Rizvi and Lingard, 2009, p. 28). While globalization is often simply regarded as an economic or financial phenomenon, the effects that globalization will have, or is having, on culture should not be overlooked. Studies of culture and globalization have produced profound new perspectives, particularly in the context of a perceived end to the “cultural imperialism” thesis, which highlighted the era of American dominance. New cultural theories, emphasizing a notion of cultural “hybridity”, cultural “insiderism”, and especially, the widely read and debated “Clash of Civilizations” theory of Samuel Huntington, have emerged (Kraidy, 2009 & Huntington, 2003). The changes in cultural interaction brought forth by globalization are likely to have powerful effects on international relations, with emerging powers like China being at the forefront.

Clearly, China has become one of the epicenters of this global phenomenon due to its exponential economic growth. Thus, the emergence of Chinese nationalism and its role in the country’s current and future global interaction are in need of examination. For the purpose of this study, the subject of nationalism and globalization will be examined through the lens of social studies curriculum. However, before examining specifics, it is essential to begin at the theoretical level. China, with its long history and largely homogenous ethnicity, has long been regarded by many as a highly nationalistic culture. A harsh critic of Chinese culture might use such terms as ethnocentric or xenophobic. But one should remember, and any scholar of modern Chinese history can affirm, that any Chinese disdain for the outside world does exist in a historical context. A record of foreign invasion and subjugation has made many Chinese apprehensive in its dealings with non-Chinese entities. Periodically, China has sought to isolate itself from the outside world, most recently during the period from the 1949 Communist Revolution until Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening-Up Policy in 1979. In the current context, China’s economic, social, and cultural interactions with the proverbial Other has put it in consistent contact with former rivals and enemies, such as Japan and the United States. In the context of China’s homogeneity and vivid historical memory, there is a reasonable probability that China may find itself embracing the cultural “insiderism” thesis critiqued by Kraidy, in which “the various forms of ethic essentialism and nationalism that expound ethnicity and identity as immutable categories set against markers of Otherness in binary opposition as black versus white” (et al.p.58). The notion of a country embracing the neo-liberal model of international economic inter-dependence while simultaneously maintaining a closed, nationalistic consciousness may seem illogical, but nevertheless is quite apparent in contemporary Chinese society.

So, how do the contradictory notions of a concurrently globalizing and nationalizing China develop? And, most importantly for the purpose of this study, how is it manifested in education policy? Obviously, the foundation of such a national philosophy into the educational framework is largely manifested in the curriculum and pedagogical methods of social studies and the humanities. But first, an exploration of the macro-political, educational framework in which cultural “insiderism” develops is needed. While globalization attempts to implement a sense of “inter-dependence”, the premise is based on capitalism, which places competition at the base of its ideology. Thus, “inter-dependence” is a mere illusion and, despite the perceived weakening of the nation-state, international rivalry is still prevalent even in the era of multi-national corporations. In the era of globalization, Joel Spring (2006) has asserted that an “educational security state” has developed in which the global integration of capital and technology actually creates a hyper-competitive inter-state rivalry where nationalism continues to thrive and is manifested in the educational objectives of the nation-state. Integration of educational systems is paramount to a “know your enemy” concept. The educational security state, “places science and math along with the teaching of…ideologies at the center of the school curriculum because of their importance for industrialization, militarization, national patriotism, and cultural cohesion” (Spring, et al., p.3). In terms of nationalism and potential xenophobia, Spring writes, “fear of the ‘other’ has often prompted fears of military and economic defeat…fear of the ‘other’ created global competition between the educational ideas of socialist, communist, and capitalist nations…it has contributed to the globalizing of educational ideas” (et al., p.7). Thus, contrary to theories of cultural globalization or hybridity, the notion of an educational security state actual continues to accentuate cultural and national divides, even in a globalized world. In the case of China, where a rapidly developing free-market economy exists alongside a communist government, the educational security state serves as an effective means to justify the seemingly obvious contradiction. At its core, the concept of an educational security state states that the embrace of the educational ideals of a nation’s political and economic rivals is necessary for national strength and unity. To expand on Spring’s concept, I would argue that the Communist government of China has used a similar framework to justify the adoption of the free-market, neo-liberal economic principles of its rivals, such as the U.S. By embracing the economic ideals of the ‘other’, the CCP can argue that it, and the educational security state, is vital to the overall strength and cohesion of the nation. To convince, or perhaps indoctrinate, citizens to accept that a socialist government without any socialism is both reasonable and necessary, education becomes practical means to transmit this ideology to the masses. Since this effort requires the development of political and economic ideology, social studies courses would be the obvious vehicle for this transmission. Thus, in my perception of an educational security state in China, the government uses nationalism to justify the application of an economic model which runs contrary to the stated principles of the regime and a second application of “educational security” is actually the use of its education systems to “secure” the state from its own citizenry, who might be inclined to point out the hypocrisy.

Nationalism, Morality, and the Neo-Liberal Model

“The State conducts education among educates in patriotism, collectivism, socialism as well as in the importance of ideals, ethics, discipline, the legal system, national development and national unity” –Article 6, Education Law of the People’s Republic of China (quoted from Spring, 2006, p.205)

Chinese education has traditionally been primarily concerned with pedagogy of rote memorization. In nearly all subjects, students are expected to memorize and duplicate entire historical and literary texts, mathematical equations, and scientific theories. Assessment is largely based on the ability of the student to simply regurgitate information verbatim during their all too critical examinations. With the reimplementation of the National College Entrance Examination during the first wave of reforms in 1978, the method of rote memorization once again became the established pedagogy in Chinese education. Perhaps one may argue this method has seen some successes, most notably in the much publicized high math and science scores among Chinese students. However, this system is not without some faults. Western education professionals who interact with Chinese students routinely note the inability of many Chinese to think critically or problem-solve (Huang, 2008). As this study focuses on social studies in Chinese education, an analysis of whether China’s reforms and development have moved social studies pedagogy away from rote memorization to one of social inquiry, critical thinking, problem solving, and research methodology is necessary. This section will examine the prospects for a ‘skills-based’ pedagogy in China. In addition, it will include an analysis of the process in which Chinese high school textbooks “sell” the reform and development model in order to apply its own educational security state.

Western models of social studies education readily acknowledge the problems of a given society, ask students to critically examine and pursue solutions for such problems, and encourage further inquiry into new or existing social problems. By contrast, Chinese social studies education has largely discouraged active inquiry into contemporary social issues, likely due to the student protests of 1989 and subsequent fear of a politically and socially active, critically thinking student population. This, combined with the power of traditional thinking on social education, has made social studies education in China a stagnant and passive process. In 1999, a policy of curriculum reform was announced with the intention of improving overall education quality in China. In regard to social studies education, the reform called for the use of more source-based material and critical thought, an adoption of Western education principles which can be linked to the educational security state. In 2007, a group of researchers comparing the social studies education systems of South Korea, China, and the United States offered this assessment of the curriculum reform effort: “inquiry activities suggested in the standards sound great, but teachers find it difficult to put them into practice because of the prominent pressure of entrance examinations for high school and college…most who grow up in lecture-centered classrooms are not used to participation in classroom discussions and expression of personal thoughts about social science issues in public.” (Zhao, Hoge, & Choi, 2007, p.112) While the rhetoric of a policy document may include some optimistic language, the actual implementation of such change to highly traditional and politically sensitive environment remains difficult.

An issue worth examining here is whether globalization forces have made any changes in social studies pedagogy, perhaps moving towards an active environment where critical thinking and problem solving strategies are increasingly built into curriculum. Sensitive political issues, such as Taiwan, Tibet, and the always tense relationship with Japan, make the transition to an active pedagogy difficult to implement. As noted by Vickers (2002), in an analysis of history education issues in East Asia, “political constraints on curriculum developers in the region suggest that prospects of implementing a ‘skills-based’ approach to pedagogy that encourages a critical approach to the past are likely to remain poor” (p. 643). In the context of China, school textbooks are still primarily produced by the same publisher, the People’s Education Press (PEP), a highly centralized entity still very much in close cooperation with Party officials. On the link between the state and history education policy in China, Alisa Jones has stated that it has, “been fundamental to the transmission of the state-authorized memories on which state-authorized identities may be constructed, and the suppression or control of alternative ethnic, regional, or political identities perceived as threatening the integrity of the Chinese state and the legitimacy of the ruling regime” (Jones, 2002, p. 546). Despite this context, movements focused on the need for “quality education” have begun, “increasing exposure to foreign ideas and growing belief in education as the firmest foundation for economic success, have led to calls for more reforms, for a de-emphasis on the exam-centered curriculum”, but nevertheless, curriculum remains, “restricted both directly by government control mechanisms and indirectly by self-censorship” (et al., p.561-562). Therefore, while China’s educational security state has somewhat acknowledged the need for curriculum change in social studies, political complications remain.

I have stated earlier that Chinese Communist Party’s educational security state serves not only to embrace globalization as a means to economic growth and national strength, but also to legitimize its continued existence. So, how does the CCP specifically use social studies education to prolong its legitimacy in a context where it is increasing ideologically irrelevant and no longer adheres to any practical application of socialism? Additionally, if nationalism is used to deter domestic criticism and ratchet up antagonism towards the foreign nations it is now integrated with, what are the potential long-term consequences for international relations and diplomacy? Finally, if the educational security state calls for the embrace of the educational principles of its rivals, what do Chinese students actually know about the nations they believe to be locked in a struggle with?

In the educational security state, the development of national strength is one of the primary goals of education. While this certainly includes science and math as a practical means for national strength and economic development, social studies is a particularly useful tool for this goal, in addition to instilling nationalistic pride. Vickers’ (2009) analysis of China’s “Thought and Politics” (sixiang zhengzhi) texts revealed, “this emphasis is premised upon the imperative of securing China’s position within an international order seen as governed in Darwinian laws of competition” (p.524). By invoking notions of international economic “natural selection”, readers are both brought into the competitive mindset of capitalism and inspired by patriotism. By invoking these two themes, students are not compelled to inquire about the dogmatic communist ideology in which their government is supposedly derived from. The senior level “Thought and Politics” texts are divided into four primary texts:

  • Economic Life (jingji shenghuo)
  • Political Life (zhengzhi shenghuo)
  • Cultural Life (wenhu shenghuo)
  • Life and Philosophy (shenghuo yu zhexue)

In the first volume, Economic Life, the key theme here is the manner in which the neo-liberal development model is justified in a so-called socialist nation. In his examination of this text, Vickers notes that it, “is striking for its brazen, though still implicit, abandonment of socialism in favor of an open embrace of the market,” although it does, “warn against the moral and social consequences of excessive materialism” (et al., p. 527). By equating the socialist rhetoric of excessive materialism to that of morality, a philosophy rather than policy, the embrace of globalization and the neo-liberal model is justified on the grounds that socialism is now a philosophy, rather than ideology. Thus so there is no hypocrisy, or cognitive dissonance, between the development model and the state.

Chinese educational philosophy has long attempted to encapsulate the essence of morals and their importance in character formation. Indeed, “this moralizing thrust…has long been a perennial feature of the Chinese educational scene” (Vickers, et al., p.525). As a contemporary use, the teaching of morality and ethics are subjects in which the CCP and its socialist rhetoric can attach itself to without having any obligation to political, social, or economic applications. As morality is an abstract notion which cannot be governed by any social or political institution, at least not in a secular state, socialist ideology can be simply applied as a philosophical aspect one “should” adhere to, rather than a ideological one that “must” be followed.

By transitioning the humanistic aspect of socialism to the abstractions of morality and ethics in social studies education, primarily in the “Life and Philosophy” texts of the high school curriculum, the CCP absolves itself from any political or social obligation for implementing any actual socialist programs or infrastructure. This, combined with nationalism, is used to, “justify a labor-repressive model of rapid industrialization and modernization, leaving considerations of social equity very much on the back burner” (Vickers, et al., p.525). A recent proposal for implementing moral and values education into curriculum reform was developed by the Research Institute of Moral Education at Nanjing Normal University. The research proposed that the curriculum for humanities education focus on such values as equality, justice, equity, sympathy, and respect. (Zhu, 2006) Any socialist pamphlet or policy directive of the last century would surely have highlighted these virtues. While the university proposal was simply that, a proposal, moralizing education is most certainly already being applied in social studies education, likely using the same virtuous terminology.

While “Economic Life” justifies the current economic model and “Life and Philosophy” absolves the Party of any obligations of social equity or any real notion of socialism, “Political Life” and “Cultural Life” lay the foundation of nationalism. It is in these texts that “patriotic themes come more explicitly to the force…an intensification of international competition in the contemporary world is invoked to underline the importance of national strength” (Vickers, 2009, p.527). In order to propel nationalistic tendencies and avoid any questioning of the development model and lack of socialism, the Party now focuses on China’s history as a whole, rather than just the post-1949 history. This process has involved, “the progressive peeling away of layers of Communist veneer, exposing what is essentially a nationalist narrative of ‘5,000 years’ of glorious Chinese achievement” (et al., 2009, p.644). By restoring China’ s role as one of the world’s great civilizations, the educational security state begins to assert itself in the international order. While the content of the texts gives particular focus to development of science and technology for national strength, it simultaneously invokes the historical memory of past transgressions of foreign entities against the great nation. Additionally, the texts make vague reference to the international criticism of China’s internal problems, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, social stratification, the environment, and government corruption. By linking these issues to nationalism and suggesting some global conspiracy to undermine China’s inevitable ascendance to global power, any opportunity to critically examine these issues is silenced by patriotic hysteria. Additionally, the moralizing theme and historical chauvinism in social studies curriculum also justifies the leadership role of the majority Han ethnicity over minority groups and the growing social stratification by suggesting that marginalized groups in modern Chinese society simply lack the moral fiber to compete in the modern economy and are to blame for their own woes, further devolving social responsibility from the Party. (Vickers, 2009) While inspiring patriotic feelings and the desire to engage in the competition of the global economy, this trend of nationalism is worth further examination. Since the development of the Nazi regime and the Japanese Empire were premised on rapid industrial growth and rampant nationalism, two conditions currently prevalent in modern China, the depth of this nationalism and potential ramifications are worth close monitoring.

Potential Implications of Chinese Nationalism

“National identity is both dependent upon interactions with other nations, and constituted in part by the stories we tell about our national pasts. Like all forms of identity, national identity does not rise in isolation, but develops and changes in encounters with other groups. Thus, Chinese nationalism cannot be comprehended in isolation; instead, it must be understood as constantly evolving as Chinese interact with other nationalities. In particular, because of the stature of the United States and Japan, Sino-American and Sino-Japanese relations are central to the evolution of Chinese nationalism today” (Gries 2005, p.135).

Scholars have noted the prevalence of a Chinese nationalism trend predicated on the notion of victimization at the hands of foreign entities. Prior to 1989, Chinese patriotism emphasized the Communist revolutionary period in which the people stood to foreign aggression. However, after 1989, a paradigm shift occurred in which nationalism was no longer a source of pride, but one of hostility and vengeful desires (Gries, 2005). This trend was actively encouraged by the central government and implemented as an educational policy, in part as a means to reestablish patriotism and national cohesion in the aftermath of the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In 1990, the Party convened at a National Morality Conference to develop an education policy in which would, “inoculate the nation’s youth against future subversion” (Vickers, 2009, p.526). What followed was a program dubbed the “Patriotic Education Campaign”, developed with the intention of installing a curriculum focused on indoctrinating national unity. In order to distract the public from the internal problems which inspired the 1989 incident, the victimization narrative was crucial as a means for the masses to direct their discontent at outside entities like Japan or the U.S., rather than the Party. Thus, if everything is the ‘foreigner’s’ fault, the domestic regime has no blame. As Zakaria notes, “for China, a domestic problem gets in the way. Having abandoned communism, the Communist Party has been using nationalism as the glue that keeps China together, and modern Chinese nationalism in defined in large part by its hostility towards Japan.” (Zakaria, 2009, p. 122) With a nationalistic criterion relishing a sense of victimization by foreigners put forth in education policy, how does social studies curriculum maintain this ethos while concurrently internationalizing social studies curriculum to socialize Chinese youth to the global economy?

Chinese education policy both abhors the acts against the nation by foreign culture and then welcome the implementation of foreign history and culture as a standard course in social studies curriculum. So, what are the broader implications for the future of China’s international interactions when operating in the context of this curriculum policy? While Zakaria states that nationalism is a desperate ploy by the Party to maintain control, Gries (2005) asserts that “awareness of the ways Chinese nationalism engages with other nations and the ways in narrates the past reveals how it is shaped it is shaped by the passions of the Chinese people. Thus, awareness of these factors forces a revision of the mainstream view that Chinese nationalism is a tool of the elite.” (p.136) Thus, while it may be comforting to believe that Chinese nationalism is merely a state-led directive and not a representation of the population as a whole, the possibility that it indeed is a manifestation of the people’s inner feeling is a legitimate cause for concern. Despite a policy emphasis of demonizing such countries as the U.S. and Japan, Chinese students do seem to have a profound understanding of the history of culture of their “enemies.” A recent study of Chinese students’ knowledge of the United States revealed a nuanced understanding of the political, economic, social, and historical dynamics of America. (Zhan, Zhou, & Huang, 2008) While this might suggest that there is potential for mutual understanding and peaceful cooperation between the two rivals, the study also showed that the students were also quite conscious of the deep-seeded social and political problems of China itself. If a clear consciousness of China’s internal problems is not enough to shake the citizenry out of inaction and political apathy, then a fairly nuances intellectual understanding of the “other” would not be enough to re-evaluate nationalistic hostility.

To move beyond the hypothetical “what if” scenarios, some anecdotal evidence does exist to suggest the potential catastrophic consequences of Chinese nationalism. In his recent book, Zakaria (2009) describes an encounter with a young Chinese executive at an Internet café in Shanghai. Initially, he is impressed with the young man’s charisma and global outlook. However, when the conversation turned to Taiwan, Japan, and the United States:

“…his responses were filled with bile. He explained in furious tones that were Taiwan to dare declare independence, China should instantly invade it. He said that Japan was an aggressor nation that could never be trusted. He was sure that the United States deliberately bombed the Chinese embassy during the Kosovo war in 1999, to terrify the Chinese people with its military might. And so on. I felt as if I were in Berlin in 1910, speaking to a young Germany professional, who in those days would have been both thoroughly modern and thoroughly nationalistic.” (Zakaria, p.32)

While Zakaria’s linkage of modern Chinese nationalism to that of the German nationalism which would eventually lead to the Nazi regime, a comparison with the nationalism which propelled the Japanese empire during the same period may be more accurate. Japanese imperialism was premised on a homogenous society with roots in Confucian culture, rampant nationalism, and accelerated economic growth. One could argue that these same variables are prevalent in modern Chinese society. In a November 2003 international meeting of China and other Asian nations at Hainan Island, a senior Party official presented a vision of the region “rising together.” According to Fishman, the “language struck some other countries as plainly offensive, reverberant of the similar but hypocritical claims once made by Japanese imperialists in Asia and later by the first generation of Chinese Communist ideologues.” (Fishman, 2006, p.289-290) Despite the Chinese government’s repeated claims of “peaceful development”, the depth of Chinese nationalism and the implications for world stability should be closely observed.

So far, we have examined the role of China’s social studies curriculum in legitimizing the current regime, indoctrinating the student body to the neo-liberal model, instilling nationalism, and using moral education to absolve the state of any responsibility of providing an actual socialist structure. Chinese policy initiatives regarding social studies curriculum seem to be seeking a delicate balance of embracing globalization forces while concurrently many of globalization’s elements. However, at some point, the struggle between internationalized pedagogical and curriculum standards and the Chinese protective measures are likely to swing in favor of globalization. The powers of globalization are simply too strong for China to continually be able to pick and choose the “safe” aspects of the globalized education. As Rizvi and Lingard (2009) assert, “a key challenge is couched in terms of the role of…preparing students for participation in a global economy, thus enhancing national competitiveness. This has implications for reimagining the nation, and the role of…transforming identity and citizenship” (p.94). Thus, for the sake of China’s “educational security state”, a re-evaluation of the role of nationalism in the global society will be necessary for China’s continued advanced onto the world stage. Given the number of Chinese students choosing to study abroad and the increased exposure to foreign perspectives and education methods, this shift will, hopefully, occur in the not-too-distant future.

Prospects for Change

Prior to the widespread reforms under Deng Xiaoping, all economic and social institutions were strictly administered by the central government. In order to ensure social cohesion and maintain centralized control, social studies curriculum was closely monitored with all textbooks requiring state approval. Since the reforms, China has been undergoing a gradual process of decentralization of most major institutions, including education. (Guthrie, 2009) With more administrative control being granted to provisional or local authorities and the processes of globalization perhaps creating a more open society, the possibility exists that greater curriculum flexibility may increasingly be available and granted permission for use in Chinese social studies classes. Granted, the communist regime still periodically reasserts its control to maintain legitimacy and is clearly still apprehensive about the notion of free-thinking, inquiring minds throughout the education system. This portion of the study will seek to gain some sense of how the current state of affairs is affecting Chinese high school students. Based on the secondary research which has comprised the bulk of this essay, the outlook would appear rather bleak, however a primary aspect is needed to gauge the validity of the claims presented.

The primary themes of this project focus focused on how Chinese social studies curriculum is attempting to reconcile the numerous divergent trends and rapid changes in both Chinese education, and the society as a whole. Also, since the future leaders of China are currently experiencing the impact of contemporary social studies education, some sense of China’s future educational progress is such areas as critical thinking, social inquiry, social consciousness, intellectual and political freedom, and international relations can be gained by gauging the perspectives of the students themselves. As a basic qualitative study, a group of my students were given one of this essay’s secondary sources, “Conclusion: Deformed Relationships-Identity Politics and History Education in East Asia” by Vickers, and asked to write a critical response. The article was chosen for its particular cynical and critical perspective of contemporary Chinese history education. The theme was highly pessimistic of China’s curriculum and pedagogical reform process and highlighted the growing nationalism as a dangerous trend. In fact, the piece stopped just short of asserting modern Chinese history education as being premised on ethnocentric and racism themes. Thus, the article was chosen with the expectation of getting a highly emotional and defensive response from an audience thought to be, based on the secondary readings at least, highly nationalistic and incapable of a logical critical analysis. The students were part of a university preparation program for students intending to study abroad in the United States. The program puts high school students through a year of Western-style coursework with a foreign teacher so that they are accustomed to foreign teaching methods and academic expectations before going abroad. Since they were nearing the end of the program, they had the reading comprehension and academic writing level to complete such an assignment. Since the sample size of the group (ten students) was quite small and had been working with a foreign teacher (myself) who had been emphasizing logic and critical thought for the past year, the results of the written responses are hardly objective or conclusive of Chinese students as whole. Nevertheless, they were enough for me to re-evaluate the cynicism I developed in the course of my secondary research. Admittedly, I caught myself in the midst of a mindset where I clearly had a confirmation bias.

In short, the written responses asked of students for my qualitative portion revealed that Chinese high schools students are quite aware of their country’s educational shortcomings and have not been easily indoctrinated into the nationalization efforts. Also, they displayed a clear consciousness of events such as the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen square and the Cultural Revolution, two events that don’t’ “exist” in history curriculum. I would like to share some excerpts from their responses, do excuse the minor grammar errors as they were writing in a second language:

“China always describes history with bias on the Communists, as if it is the embodiment of justice”

“History books always contain something which makes students into nationalists…basic history education in China instills nationalism into the people”

“Students should have access to the facts in each aspect, and the text should be in a neutral way—any emotional terms should be excluded…history books always defines the Communist Party as “our” party, although many of us are not members. History teaching in China works as a government tool that tries to persuade people to thank and obey the communists”

“History is not how much we lost in the past, but what we may lose in the future. We learn history to learn experience, and apply what we learn to reality. It is a tragedy if we only feel proud of our splendid culture and sigh for lost things. I believe it is not the purpose of history education.”

“In 1966-1976, a number of scholars were killed. And now, in the age of information, what we can get is also limited, we have to recite what they write in the schoolbooks, we are not supposed to read articles with ‘sensitive words’…it seems what George Orwell described in Nineteen Eighty-Four is real: BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”

“As a student who has gone through about ten years of Chinese ‘quality education’…we were reciting texts all the time…especially the history books, they taught us how events happened, how China has been wonderful for five thousand years, what we should feel…all the answers have a basic framework: we love our country, we are proud of her, we should work hard for our country, most importantly, we should always support the Communist Party”

“…the books always teach us we have to remember this history and oppose Japan in all ways, like do not buy Japanese goods. That is childish, isn’t it?”

“Almost every student in China has lost this ability: critical thinking. There is always only one answer to one question, no what is in your mind, once it does not belong to the answer, it is wrong…the government, after all, can do the thinking for us and our sense of civic duty to engage in public debate and critical thinking is lost except unfortunately for issues that affect our pockets. Eventually, we become cold-blooded, selfish, and fainthearted.”

“People have begun to regard the Maoist age as a paradise even though people were starving at that time.”

“The current situation in China is a terrible reality, a corrupted society and a loss of morality.”

“As far as I am concerned, quality education is just another name of the old style, nothing changed but the name; actually, students are still learning the same texts and the same way to criticize.”

“An American student may know much more about communism than an official communist in China.”

“It is clear that the huge territory of China is the result of invasion and ‘peaceful evolution.’”

“Chinese, in fact, has a potential aspiration to control the whole world. Many students like to talk about how they hope to ‘give an end to’ Japan, Korea, and America. The philosophy of some Chinese is, ‘I can bully you, but you can’t bully me.’ So, if China is invaded, he or she will be angry, but if China can invade other countries, he or she will be happy.”

“Nationalism, in fact, is a collection of many excuses due to the abortion of benefits In the homeland and towards other countries. The government fosters this psychological factor to get support…sometimes…they have no choice but to suppress the truth. For instance, Chinese know know many innocent people were killed by Japanese armies, but were not any innocent people in Vietnam killed by Chinese armies?”

“Chinese education system…just gives knowledge to students, but does not teach them to think deeply. As a result, students will lose many abilities.” (quoted from a collection of response essays written by Chinese high school students)

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that nationalism and the lack of critical thinking is indeed present in modern Chinese social studies education, the previous examples ought to give analysts of Chinese education policy cause for optimism. At the government level, curriculum reforms have taken place on paper, but have yet to effectively implement into actual classrooms. While the Chinese educational security state and efforts to demonize the foreign ‘other’ with nationalism may be a hindrance to China’s transition onto the global stage and perhaps even be a disaster for international peace should the efforts get out of hand, there seems to be a generation of Chinese students who have grown wise to the Party’s game. Whether this skepticism is linked to the growth of Chinese access to information via the network society or interaction with foreign ideas via the international convergence of globalization is an aspect that must be reserved for further study. Regardless, despite the cynical pessimism of much of the secondary work concerning the topic, there appears to be preliminary evidence of the potential for real change.

Concluding Remarks

This paper has examined the role of social studies curriculum in Chinese secondary education. By exploring the notion of an “education security state”, the strategic goals of social studies education in China became evident. The analysis showed how curriculum policy is used to legitimize both the neo-liberal development strategy and the continued role of the Party. An examination of the role of nationalism in curriculum and its potential implications revealed some dangerous possibilities. However, a simple qualitative research model designed to gauge the effectiveness of indoctrination efforts and the depth of nationalism among Chinese students revealed cautious optimism for China’s transition into a world power. The information age and the advent of technology has given Chinese students access to multiple perspectives and linked them with the rest of the world, despite efforts of censorship. The effects of China’s development on the future of the world remain a contested notion. Regardless of the outcome, the path of China’s education, and overall, strategy seem destined to reverberate throughout the globalized world.


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