Arthur Wang still remembers what his primary school teacher told him about the Chinese national flag.
- Patriotic education is compulsory in China
- It was introduced following the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protest
- Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to strengthen it further
“If the flag falls on the ground, you must pick it up immediately,” the 21-year-old Chinese international student said.
He remembered reading stories from textbooks about Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members during the historic Long March in 1934-1935 that led to Mao Zedong becoming the leader of the party.
He also recalled learning about the soldiers who lost their lives during China’s anti-Japanese war in the 1930s.
Mr Wang, originally from Harbin in north-east China, moved to Melbourne to study in 2015, and said what he learned at school as a child still has an impact on him today.
“I think I’m a patriot,” he said.
“If I experience discrimination or I’m looked down on [because of my Chinese identity], I will stand up and fight against it.”
Training generations of patriots
China has a long history of ideological teachings, but its compulsory patriotic education curriculum was systematically rolled out in 1994, after the 1989 student protests and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
It was also partly triggered by the decline of authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union.
It includes teachings on the “hundred years of humiliation” concept — an account of China’s history from the 19th to 20th century, with emphasis on China being “bullied” by Western forces.
“It’s telling a specific story of Chinese history that highlights how problems don’t come from China but from abroad, and we as Chinese [people] have to defend ourselves,” William A Callahan, international relations professor from the London School of Economics and Political Science, told the ABC.
Barry Li, 39, moved to Sydney to study in 2004, and was among the first generation of Chinese youths to receive the patriotic lessons.
He told the ABC the subject of “morality and politics” was one of the most memorable, for teaching him the “basic lessons of being a good person” — from having good hygiene to remaining diligent.
He said he learned about how the country and the CCP operated, including that China and the ruling party come as a “package deal”.
“[It implied] you need to love the country and the party [together],” he said.
“When you’re young, you think [patriotic education] is a natural part of your life,” Mr Li said, adding that he never questioned what was taught to him.
But many international students told the ABC that China wasn’t alone in this, highlighting that Australia has a form of patriotic education when it comes to ANZAC memorials and Australia Day, for example.
Patriotic education in films and cartoons
The ideological teaching also goes beyond the classroom.
Mona Ma, a 30-year-old international student in Melbourne, recalled going on school trips to learn about Chinese history.
She said students were asked to paint pictures and write columns on blackboards to celebrate important days such as China’s Children’s Day, National Day and Chinese Communist founding day.
She also recalled flag-raising ceremonies every Monday where students were required to “dress properly” and wear a red scarf — a symbol of the Young Pioneers of China, a youth organisation affiliated with the CCP.
Professor Callahan said patriotic education has been one of “the longest successful propaganda campaigns” in China.
“One of the ways to understand the success of patriotic education is that it’s a multimedia campaign, that it’s everywhere,” he said.
“It’s in news and entertainment, [cartoons], films and TV programs.
“Because it’s just normal. It is what it is, this is how you understand China.”
‘You start to question what you are told’
Patriotic education didn’t teach Mr Wang how to love China, but he said it was implied that there shouldn’t be any criticism against his country.
“We didn’t learn exactly that you couldn’t talk bad about China, but through other ways, you learn that people from other countries couldn’t insult our country, ” he said, adding that he agreed with the teachings.
Melbourne international student Sally Ding, 26, said she once felt personally “attacked” when she heard criticisms against China as a teenager.
“I was at the age where you think you know something, but you’re not really clear about it,” she said.
“I would believe that Western media was insulting China and I would get very angry, but I wouldn’t verify whether [the media report] was true or not.”
Ms Ding said she changed her mind during university as she became aware of the patriotic education she grew up with, and began to reflect on what she’s learned.
Wei Zhang is an education researcher and PhD candidate studying China’s patriotic education curriculum from Perth’s Edith Cowan University.
According to her research, many Chinese international students felt that being critical could be the same as “being aggressive”.
Ms Zhang said many Australian international students are both receivers of patriotic education, which emphasises the achievements of the CCP, and observers of China’s dramatic economic development.
She said many questioned why those in the West keep criticising China and focusing only “on the negative issues”, when it has done so much, such as lifting people out of poverty.
“‘It’s very hard for them, psychologically, to adapt to [a different] way of thinking,” she told the ABC.
‘Poisonous ideas’ the biggest threat to the CCP
Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power, he has called for further improvements to China’s education system.
He has described patriotism as the “eternal theme of education”, in order to plant “the seed of loving China … deep in the heart of every child”.
Katja Drinhausen, senior analyst at Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany, said the CCP’s strengthening of patriotic messages in education was inspired by recent student protests in Hong Kong.
“They believe that if young people have access to the wrong information, they – as it is often phrased — get poisonous ideas in their heads,” Ms Drinhausen said.
Concerns have been raised about patriotic Chinese students intruding on academic freedoms on university campuses in Australia, where about 39 per cent of international students are from China.
“In universities abroad where you have conflict, outbursts or activism by Chinese student organisations when something goes against China’s interests, it is because the type of criticism raised against their country and government is often very new to them,” Ms Drinhausen said.
“So understanding the story behind it, understanding how the world has been presented to Chinese students and why they feel that duty to speak up for China, is really important to finding ways forward.”
Professor Callahan, who also teaches Chinese politics and has Chinese international students, echoed Ms Drinhausen’s opinion.
“We should be respectful and nice [to them],” he said.
“Don’t be suspicious of them.”
Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.