In what is being seen as a potential challenge to the supremacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its top-down method of autocratic functioning, higher education levels of Chinese citizens in the post-market era are making them question the objective of Chinese citizenship education that teaches them nothing but devotion and obedience to the party leadership.

It is said the party leadership is looking to the scale of the problem and could be toying with the idea of re-inventing the citizenship education curriculum so that even if citizens become aware of their rights, they would not cross a line to challenge the leadership.

The issue has surfaced in China after the Covid-19 outbreak devastated the economy, nearly made the leadership solely responsible for the outbreak, caused massive unemployment and rising prices, and generally contributed to people’s visible unrest. The leadership did attempt to put the economy back on the rails, but in the process realised the threat an intelligent, socially aware, politically informed and economically suffering populace can pose.

Even if this challenge is overcome, it is expected to raise its head yet again as, to quote a new academic study, “as China grows out of the middle-income trap”. It will then “inevitably require more educated workers” and “this will present an increased challenge to a state-led conception of citizenship”.

The study, titled ‘The Construction and Performance of Citizenship in Contemporary China’, authored by researchers Carolyn L. Hsu et al, appeared in the Journal of Contemporary China on January 30, this year.

It sums up the history of Chinese citizenship education over the decades and how the people’s reception to it has changed in recent times: “Since its inception, Chinese citizenship education has primarily taught a state-led conception of citizenship, whereby the relationship between citizen and state is one of devotion and obedience. Yet over the decades, the curriculum has adapted to include additional messages in response to changing national and global circumstances. The vision of the ideal Chinese citizen has shifted somewhat from the enthusiastic, but submissive worker to the patriotic professional.”

On the basis of an extensive survey, the study tries to capture the current level of mental churning Chinese citizens, especially students, are experiencing: “This study reveals that students in China who receive citizenship education do not absorb it wholesale, but have the critical thinking skills and information necessary to select the definition of good citizenship that allows them to see themselves as good citizens. For those with university degrees, this means focusing on the ways that those with more education serve the nation in a more active conception, as opposed to the state-led version mandating obedience and loyalty.”

The study makes some critical observations. One, in sum, “citizenship education in China teaches a more state-centered form of socialist citizenship, where citizens follow the lead of the Communist Party, and this has only strengthened under Xi Jinping”.

Two, the government promotes the concept of “socialist citizenship” among its citizens and “expects that citizens give the state, or more specifically the Communist Party, their loyalty and obedience in exchange for its paternalistic care”.

Three, the implication of such education is now visible for all to see: “The bargain does imply that citizens could criticize the state if it fails to meet its responsibilities to them. After all, students learn that the downfall of the regimes that preceded the CPC was due to their failure to protect and care for the Chinese people. Yet the curriculum never explicitly acknowledges the possibility of CPC failure. Instead, it expects citizenship to be passive. Although citizens should actively develop themselves as capitalist competitors in the economic realm, in the realm of politics, they should be passive and submissive.”

Four, the CPC uses the citizenship education to reiterate the “connection between patriotism and loyalty to the Party”, last done in 2019 when the Central Committee of the CPC declared: “The essence of patriotism is to love the country, to love the Party, and also to love socialism … The only guaranteed way to realize the country’s prosperity and power is to uphold the Party’s leadership and adhere to the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics with strong faith and sincere emotions.”

It notes that since 2012, under President Xi Jinping’s rule, the connection between “good citizenship and loyalty/obedience to the Communist Party of China has only been strengthened”. It says unlike his predecessors, President Xi “has more tightly controlled this curriculum to sustain Party leadership”. His idea of citizenship education is to to help students strengthen their fundamental understanding of China and “resist ideological infiltration”. 

Citizenship education became an explicit part of the Chinese universal education system in 1957, when Mao Zedong declared: ‘Our educational policy must enable everyone who receives an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically and become a worker with both socialist consciousness and culture’.  In 2004, the State Council proclaimed: “School is the primary channel for transmitting ideological and moral education to young people.”

For decades, therefore, citizens were taught that they should subsume their individual goals to the collective, socialist good, “which means following the CPC’s leadership”.  The curriculum used in Chinese citizenship education has carried different names over the years, including ‘moral education’, ‘moral character education’, ‘patriotic education’, and ‘citizenship education.  The study notes: “Chinese citizenship education has always taught a passive form of socialist citizenship, where good citizenship is equated loyalty and obedience to the Chinese Communist Party.”

How is this systematised education process coming undone? There is no response from the government, but the new study comes up with an explanation. It says, the autocrat’s logic for taking up citizenship education is for “creating ‘ideal citizens’ encourages citizens to act in similar ways that legitimate and support the autocrat’s rule”.

However, greater awareness of the citizens over the years, thanks to higher education, foreign travel, increased interaction with people from various countries, and access to social media has expanded their knowledge about rights and freedoms and different types of governments.

“The study finds that citizenship education is effective at lower educational levels, but at higher levels, this education is less effective and fails to deter more active conceptions of citizenship. studies from other authoritarian states reveal that citizens at high education levels have more exposure to indoctrination; but also tools to resist, such as critical thinking skills or access to alternative information.”

The clinching evidence of the study is a survey conducted in 2018 to find any link between higher education levels and passive obedience to the State. The study found that “on an average, 38.1% of respondents with a high-school education or less selected that good citizens ‘support the Party’ as their first option, while only 26.0% of those with university education or higher did”.

However, citizens with university education reacted differently. They were much less submissive than the high-school respondents. “…our results suggest that the more years of citizenship education a person receives, the less likely they were to agree with this state-led version of citizenship: 28.0% of those with higher education selected this as their last option out of six choices.”

In practical terms, the weakening influence of citizenship education as the citizens become more aware of their surroundings politically and socially, is best illustrated by the Hong Kong example. The study finds that the intention and the ability to question the state and the party leadership is more among the citizens of Hong Kong than mainland China. That, perhaps, explains the growing pro-democracy voices on the island. The reaction of the Chinese government that came down heavily against the protesters by clamping a draconian national security law and limiting democratic rights and freedoms only proves the point. 

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