The easy joke to make, upon learning that China’s authoritarian rulers are trying to ban Western ideas (other than Communism, of course) from college campuses, is to say that they are only trying to accomplish what American universities already did forty years ago.
The New York Times article on China’s ideological crusade is actually a fascinating look at just how contagious those Western ideas are, in the estimation of both liberty-loving advocates and totalitarian critics.
The point man for China’s exercise in campus ideological purity is education minister Yuan Guiren, and he appears to be running into about as much pushback as could be expected against an iron-fisted authoritarian State, with his critics noting that he seems to have changed his tune about the challenge posed by Western thought quite a bit in a short period of time.
“Young teachers and students are key targets of infiltration by enemy forces,” Yuan wrote on in February in a state journal, describing the impetus for the new censorship. He accused other nations, without naming names, of having “stepped up infiltration in more discreet and diverse ways.” The Times notes, however, that he had previously claimed in public that China was not under the threat of any ideological infiltration. “We even sent so many people abroad and they weren’t affected in the nest of capitalism, so why fear they would be affected here?” he asked.
This led to a bit of jeering from Yuan’s critics, including Chinese college students, who felt the minister’s posture indicated a lack of backbone. Others wondered if this welding shut of the Chinese mind could signal the beginning of another “Cultural Revolution,” which was noted for its aggressive efforts to bury both foreign ideals and a large number of Chinese citizens.
The still-employed Chinese academics who provided critical quotes to the New York Times preferred to remain anonymous. The Times reports that “Party ideologues have counterattacked” critics through State-run media in recent days, “demanding harsh punishment for would-be liberal enemies, including prominent entrepreneurs, lawyers, artists, and professors.”
The depressing thing about this debate is that Yuan Guiren had it right the first time: exposure to Western ideas, deposited in the ears of Chinese students studying both at home and abroad, haven’t done much to weaken the Communists’ grip on power or liberalize Chinese society.
It is a cherished belief in the West that its ideals will spread like a virus through authoritarian societies after infection through commerce, news, entertainment, and education. We heard this argument most recently when President Obama announced his desire to normalize relations with Cuba. It was a particularly laughable assertion in that case, since the Cubans have already enjoyed plenty of commerce with Western nations other than America, and 92% of every U.S. dollar paid to Cuban workers by American companies will go straight into the Castro family’s treasure vaults. Unfortunately, the sober truth is that modern authoritarian regimes have grown very adept at inoculating themselves against ideological contagion. Commerce and educational exchange with the West have done little to thaw China or the oppressive regimes of the Middle East, not even in officially friendly Saudi Arabia.
Despite this recent history, the Chinese regime appears threatened enough to visibly fidget about foreign “infiltrators” planting ideas that could threaten their great socialist revolution. The Financial Times reports that the ham-fisted crackdown includes a set of forbidden topics – press freedom, respect for civil society, elected government, constitutionalism – called the “Seven No-Speaks,” plus more layers of censorship added to Chinese Internet access, and even a move to install closed-circuit cameras in classrooms so teachers can be monitored by Party officials. Young people have responded to this rising tide of oppression by significantly increasing their applications to study abroad – a safety valve Beijing can choke off any time it pleases.