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A low for Marx in China

COLUMN ONE

Socialism is still part of the nation's required curriculum, but it's a bore for today's students. They're more interested in money than in Mao.

June 26, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Beijing — 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 \o7but\f7 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.

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