China builds ever-higher walls against West and its 'values'

'Never let textbooks promoting Western values enter into our classes,' says China's education minister. Meanwhile, Chinese officials are immobilizing VPN's that allow ordinary citizens access to an uncensored Internet.

Ng Han Guan/AP/file
A computer displays a message from the Chinese police on the proper use of the Internet at an Internet cafe in Beijing. China is blocking VPN services that let users skirt online censorship of popular websites such as Google and Facebook amid a wider crackdown on online information.

Beijing’s leaders continue to build defenses against the spread of Western ideas in ways that partly echo China’s self-imposed isolation of the 1960s, while also pushing a new mix of traditional Chinese and communist ideas. 

Education Minister Yuan Guiren announced Thursday new restrictions on college textbooks that promote Western values, and said college students should not participate in critical debates on China’s leaders, politics, or history. The move is part of a broader crackdown on access to Western culture in China, including access to the the Internet. 

“Never let textbooks promoting Western values enter into our classes,” Mr. Yuan said at a forum in Beijing, according to the Financial Times. “Any views that attack or defame the leadership of the party or smear socialism must never be allowed to appear in our universities.”

College students must receive "positive guidance through intensified work," and professors must "stand firm and hold the 'political, legal and moral bottom line,'" according to China's state-run news agency, Xinhua. The forum was attended by senior officials from many of China's elite universities. 

Meanwhile, locals and foreigners in China are finding it harder to log onto virtual private networks, or VPNs, a common workaround to evade China's online censorship. This follows recent blocks on Google's email service, The New York Times reports, adding that what had been a kind of wink and nod acceptance of VPN’s – widely useful for business people, scientists, students, and foreigners to connect with the world – has been shut down with “unprecedented sophistication.”

The move is part of a two-year cultural and ideological offensive by President Xi Jinping to restrict the kind of free thought and behavior that underpins much of the civil society and democracy concept in the West – and that Beijing fears could undermine the authority of the Communist Party. Yuan, the education minister, said Thursday that the speeches and writings of Mr. Xi would be part of universities' curricula. 

The problem facing such a campaign, say China watchers, is that so-called Western ideas and technology, sometimes called "universal," are already embedded into China, in contrast to the isolationist 1960s when many Chinese leaders came of age. Today, Chinese parents, students, and real estate speculators are busy moving abroad, going to school, buying investment houses, doing business, and becoming accomplished professionals.

Agence France Presse reports that some Chinese bloggers are likening Yuan’s proclamations on restricting content and speech in college as “brainwashing” akin to the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when Mao Zedong banned all foreign ideas and then pitted society against itself.

“I guess these commands are more strict than those during the Cultural Revolution,” said a blogger on Weibo, a closely-monitored social media service in China. 

Alternative guidepost and corruption probes

Since taking over in 2012, Xi has consolidated his power through an anti-corruption campaign that has seen the arrest of both Xi’s enemies and many unsavory officials whom party stalwarts accuse of taking a free ride off of China’s new wealth. 

While Marx's lure has faded, even within the ruling party, Xi’s compatriots have turned to the ancient figure of Confucius as an alternative guidepost for the people, with limited success. 

One Western-based academic quoted Mao in a response to the new university strictures: 

Students and intellectuals should study hard. They must make progress both ideologically and politically, which means that they should study Marxism, current events and politics. Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul.

Apart from the anti-Western values campaign, which has hit against artists, writers, intellectuals, Christians, as well as civil society groups right down to local libraries where gatherings might take place, China’s current moves against Internet access to the outside world could have the greatest impact.

Students and businesspeople alike have come to rely on VPNs to sidestep China's firewall and connect with all manner of websites, from Facebook and scholarly journals to the latest fine-grained economic news. 

In a place like China, which greatly values both secrecy and commerce, it's unclear how a decision to restrict VPNs has been weighed. However, the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, James Zimmerman, told the Times that:

One unfortunate result of excessive control over email and Internet traffic is the slowing down of legitimate commerce, and that is not in China best interest ... In order to attract and promote world-class commercial enterprises, the government needs to encourage the use of the Internet as a crucial medium for the sharing of information and ideas to promote economic growth and development.

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