A low for Marx in China

Times Staff Writer

IT was like watching a man try to swim up a waterfall.

Professor Tao Xiuao cracked jokes, told stories, projected a Power Point presentation on a large video screen. But his students at Beijing Foreign Studies University didn’t even try to hide their boredom.

Young men spread newspapers out on their desks and pored over the sports news. A couple of students listened to iPods; others sent text messages on their cellphones. One young woman with chic red-framed glasses spent the entire two hours engrossed in “Jane Eyre,” in the original English. Some drifted out of class, ate lunch and returned. Some just lay their heads on their desktops and went to sleep.

It isn’t easy teaching Marxism in China these days.


“It’s a big challenge,” acknowledged Tao, a likable man who demonstrates remarkable patience in the face of students more interested in capitalism than “Das Kapital.” The students say he isn’t the problem.

“It’s not the teacher,” said sophomore Liu Di, a finance major whose shaggy auburn hair hangs, John Lennon-style, along either side of his wire-rim glasses. “No matter who teaches this class, it’s always boring. Philosophy is useful and interesting, but I think that in philosophy education in China, they just teach the boring parts.”

Classes in Marxist philosophy have been compulsory in Chinese schools since not long after the 1949 communist revolution. They remain enshrined in the national education law, Article 3 of which states: “In developing the socialist educational undertakings, the state shall uphold Marxism-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung Thought and the theories of constructing socialism with Chinese characteristics as directives and comply with the basic principles of the Constitution.”

But today’s China is, in some respects, less socialistic than much of Western Europe, with a moth-eaten social safety net and a wild free-market economy. Students in almost any urban Chinese school can look out their classroom windows and see just about everything but socialism being constructed: high-rise office buildings, shopping malls, movie theaters, luxury apartment buildings, fast-food restaurants, hotels, factories -- the whole capitalist panorama.

IT seems an understatement to say that there’s a disconnect between reality and what the students are learning about Marx and Mao, who held that capitalism would inevitably and naturally give way to communism.

“Compared to my normal opinions about the world ... it’s something like fiction,” said Du Zimu, one of Liu’s classmates.

Professor Tao’s lecture on this day was devoted to the arcane study of epistemology, ranging over the beliefs of Bertrand Russell, Charles Darwin and Marx, and building up to Mao’s famous admonition to “seek truth from facts” -- hardly a disagreeable notion, but one that kindled no apparent flicker of interest in the students.

Chinese education officials are acutely aware of the problem, and say they have substantially reformed the country’s ideological education. They haven’t given Marx the heave-ho, but students in up-to-date primary and secondary schools learn more about patriotism and ethical behavior than about class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat.


Students take two classes a week in ideological education from kindergarten through high school, and then must take two more courses in college.

“Before, there was a lot of indoctrination,” said Zhou Mansheng, deputy director of the National Center for Education Development Research, an arm of the Education Ministry. Now, he said, “we stress a lot of traditional virtues, like respecting teachers and respecting the elderly. Especially now, we stress honesty.

“So as far as communist ideology,” he continued, “some students will take it as their belief, but as for the majority, I think it will be enough if they act as legal and qualified citizens.... Not necessarily everyone has to become a Marxist believer.”

There was a time, and Zhou, at 58, knows it well, when such a statement from a Chinese official would have been inconceivable, not to mention extremely dangerous.


Things certainly have changed. Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian who is the first Westerner in the modern era to teach politics at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China’s most elite educational institution, wrote in the spring issue of Dissent magazine of his surprise at how little Marxism is actually discussed in China, even among Communist Party intellectuals.

“The main reason Chinese officials and scholars do not talk about communism is that hardly anybody really believes that Marxism should provide guidelines for thinking about China’s political future,” he wrote. “The ideology has been so discredited by its misuses that it has lost almost all legitimacy in society.... To the extent there’s a need for a moral foundation for political rule in China, it almost certainly won’t come from Karl Marx.”

Still, it isn’t easy to find students who will expressly renounce Marxism.

It may be because they know that to succeed in China, it helps immensely to be a member of the ruling Communist Party. It may be because Marxism and Maoist philosophy are so deeply woven into the fabric of Chinese life that students take them for granted, the way some American students accept a constitutional democracy without thinking too deeply about the alternatives. It may be because they truly believe in Marxism, and see the current period as a necessary stage on the path to true communism.


Or perhaps it may simply be because they’re afraid.

“The students I know generally don’t accept Marx as the best ideological foundation for modern China,” said one student at a prestigious Chinese university. “Marx in China is only a flag used by different kinds of persons. Then, what is the ideological foundation for modern China? I think no one can give a satisfied answer.”

Added the student: “You’d better not use my name.”

ON a recent morning when a light spring rain glistened the walkways and gardens of the Foreign Studies University, a group of students from Tao’s class, all finance majors, gathered in a cafe on campus. Sitting around a long table, they talked -- guardedly at times, openly at others -- about their ideological education.


Zhao Fan, who uses the English name Nathan while he’s studying the language, was the most conservative, arguing that Marxist education, if somewhat boring, was essential for any Chinese student.

“I think it’s very important to learn these principles,” he said. “Sometimes it’s boring, but it’s really useful.”

Nathan saw no contradiction between Marxist beliefs and his career goals: He wants to go into marketing, ideally for one of China’s largest corporations, get an MBA from a foreign university and go into management.

Gao Pan was on the other side of the ideological spectrum. Dressed in a black T-shirt, he was the rebel of the group, complaining about the lack of academic freedom in China. Referring to Marxism, he said, “If a theory proves to be wrong, you ought to be able to challenge it.” That you can’t, he said, “is a problem in China.”


The one statement that everyone agreed with came from Liu, who had grumbled about China teaching “the boring parts” of philosophy.

“In our real life,” he said, “most students complain a lot about these kinds of lessons. Nearly everyone. I think it’s because we have learned all these things from the very beginning ... even since kindergarten, so it’s become so routine that everyone’s bored. I think all of these lessons are very important and useful. But we shouldn’t learn them every year.”

That is where Chinese educators say reform will make a difference.

To demonstrate, they invited a reporter to a model junior high school in Beijing, not far from the iconic Temple of Heaven, one of China’s greatest religious and architectural shrines. At the school, students are participating in a pilot program to learn the fundamentals of environmentalism, as part of a “values” class that used to contain a strong dose of Marxist ideology.


Tian Qing, a professor of environmental education at Beijing Normal University, said this was one of 30 schools in Beijing, and a larger number scattered around the country, using an environmental curriculum developed in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund and the British oil giant BP.

“Good afternoon!” the seventh-graders shouted in unison as teacher Song Xuefeng entered the room.

Song is a young man of boundless enthusiasm, and he led the class through a sometimes raucous, sometimes serious, always riveting hour of discussion about what the pupils can do to save Earth.

It was a sweltering day outside, temperatures well into the 90s.


“It’s really hot,” Song said to the students. “But we don’t feel that hot now because we have air conditioning.” This, in itself, is a rarity in a Chinese school. Song asked the students how low they should set the thermostat. One girl’s hand streaked into the air. The air conditioner, she declared confidently, shouldn’t be set higher than 26 degrees Celsius -- 79 Fahrenheit.

The whole class corrected her, shouting as one: “It can’t be LOWER than 26 degrees!”

LATER, Song had them write all the ways their families waste energy or water, and selected students to read their answers to the class. Everybody cracked up when one boy said his family might be wasting water because they have a fish tank with just one fish in it. “Maybe we should get another fish,” he said with a smirk.

There wasn’t a moment when interest flagged. The students peppered an American visitor with questions about U.S. environmental law and what families in the United States do to save water and power. The class, one education official added, adheres to the motto “Think globally, act locally” and is involved in trying to conserve a nearby canal.


“We do like it,” 13-year-old Yu Yang said after class, “because it’s relevant to our lives.” Not, he said, like some classes -- history, for instance.

A lot of American students would say the same thing, so it’s not fair to blame Marx for Yang’s distaste for history. Still, what’s happening at schools like his, not to mention what’s happening outside their doors, suggests that Marx’s hold on China may be slipping.

Talking over tea at the Education Ministry’s modern offices in central Beijing, education official Zhou laughed a bit about today’s students.

“They don’t believe in God or communism,” he said. “They’re practical. They only worship the money.”