Earlier this month, my nine-year-old son came home from his bilingual school in Shanghai having vandalized his Mandarin textbook. Under the title of a lesson called â€œThe Bountiful Xisha Islands,â€ he had scribbled, in pencil, â€œä¸å¥½,â€ or â€œnot good.â€ The Xisha, or â€œWestern Sands,â€ are islands in the South China Sea that are known in English as the Paracels. The textbook described the islands, which are located in waters between China and Vietnam, as â€œcute,â€ with multicolored coral and plentiful turtles that could be hunted for their valuable shells. The lesson, however, neglected to mention that ownership of the Paracels, like that of many islands in the South China Sea, is in dispute. In 1974, China seized complete control of the Paracel island chain from an overextended South Vietnam. Since then, the Chinese have managed to effectively take control of other shoals and maritime features that are claimed by other countries, like the Philippines. In the past couple of years, Chinese dredgers have transformed contested rocks and reefs into military bases, complete with structures that can house surface-to-air-missile batteries. Chinaâ€™s ambitions in the South China Sea do not revolve around turtles.
As the child of two American journalists living in China, my son has developed a certain kind of awareness. He knows that his parents assume their phones are tapped. At least once, when we were living in Beijing, he was interrogated in Mandarin by a state-security agent, who wanted to know where his mother was. (To my sonâ€™s credit, he obfuscated.) Last year, I spent months reporting a story on the South China Seaâ€”travelling to Philippine-controlled islets in the Spratly Islands, another disputed clusterâ€”so he understands something of the territorial disagreements in question. Perhaps because he is more slender than his brother, he also sympathizes with the little guy. Chinaâ€™s increasingly muscular claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, which conflicts with maritime boundaries drawn by Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei, offends his sense of fair play.
Every countryâ€™s textbooks reflect national myths while omitting disagreeable truths. But as Chinaâ€™s leader, Xi Jinping, has intensified a crackdown on dissent that human-rights groups describe as the most punitive in decades, these lessons are likely to become even more ideological. In a December speech, Xi vowed to turn schools into â€œstrongholds of Party leadership,â€ which defend â€œthe correct political direction.â€ Chinaâ€™s economy is slowing. Without the buoyant growth rates that burnished the Chinese Communist Partyâ€™s legitimacy for a quarter century, Xi seems to hope that flag-waving will unify the populace around its rulers. (In a country governed by a sole party for nearly seven decades, to love China is, in the governmentâ€™s eyes, to love the Chinese Communist Party.) A similar tactic was used in the days after Army tanks crushed the Tiananmen democracy movement, in 1989. Worried about the ruling partyâ€™s image, Chinaâ€™s Education Ministry redoubled efforts in the early nineteen-nineties to infuse textbooks with a kind of defensive nationalism. Only the Chinese Communist Party, textbooks taught, had the fortitude to end a hundred and fifty years of humiliation by foreign invaders.
These days, the message in school remains the same, even if the world in which China exists has changed. In 1989, China was largely closed, an impoverished nation of bicycles and socialist collectives. Today, more than three hundred thousand Chinese students have flocked to U.S. schools, most paying their own way. (Xiâ€™s own daughter studied at Harvard.) At least a hundred and thirty million Chinese tourists ventured beyond mainland China last year. Such cultural cross-pollination made it all the more dissonant when, in December, Chinaâ€™s Education Minister, Chen Baosheng, warned that â€œschools are the main targets for infiltration by hostile forces.â€ A year earlier, his predecessor had ordered Chinese universities to â€œnever let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes.â€
The ideological crusade heightened last week, when Chinese publishers told reporters, including one from Hong Kongâ€™s South China Morning Post, that they were being forced to slash the number of foreign childrenâ€™s picture books in their catalogues. Taobao, Chinaâ€™s largest online commerce site, went further, announcing in a statement that, as of March 10th, it was halting resales of all books published overseas. If these latest restrictions are enforced, â€œCharlotteâ€™s Webâ€ and â€œGuess How Much I Love You,â€ two top-selling foreign childrenâ€™s titles, could become samizdat reading in China.
Patriotic education and embargoes on chocolate factories and hungry caterpillars may do less to create a compliant populace than it once did. Itâ€™s true that Chinese kids still wear red kerchiefs to school, and must sit through â€œpolitical educationâ€ classes in college. (Sample topic: Modern applications of dialectical and historical materialism.) However, Alastair Iain Johnston, of Harvard University, who studied Beijing youth raised under the post-Tiananmen educational push, concluded that this cohort is nevertheless less patriotic than the older generation is. â€œThe decline in unquestioning loyalty implies that the Chinese government may have a harder time relying on nationalism to rally the public without also delivering security and prosperity,â€ Jessica Chen Weiss, a China-focussed political scientist at Cornell University, wrote to me in an e-mail.
Yet Weiss noted that another study, by Haifeng Huang of the University of California, Merced, found that â€œexposure to overseas information actually improves Chinese citizensâ€™ views of China by correcting their rosy views of foreign countries.â€ The more that Chinese travel, the more they realize that their subways and airports are better than those in New York or Paris. And the view of the rest of the world from China is limited in ways that many Chinese donâ€™t consider. In China, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google are all blocked by the state; I have to use a virtual private network to leap over the Great Firewall. Most Chinese canâ€™t be bothered with such costly or time-consuming steps. Connecting to those Western services is irrelevant to their lives when domestic search engines and social-media platforms are available. Although these local alternatives offer user-friendly experiences, sometimes even better than those of Western tech companies, they also censor information deemed undesirable by the Chinese state. Exposure is narrowed, even as people feel that their options have expanded. â€œChinese people donâ€™t just memorize by rote what the Chinese Communist Party tells them to,â€ says James Carter, a historian at Saint Josephâ€™s University, who studies the roots of Chinese nationalism. â€œBut what I worry about is that the Party has set the parameters of the debate and, therefore, the range of opinion is limited to what people have access to.â€
As for my son, he ended up crossing out his negative commentary on â€œThe Bountiful Xisha Islands.â€ His Chinese teacher, he worried, would not be pleased. And I discovered that his schoolâ€”which enjoys more autonomy than its local counterparts because of its legal status as an international schoolâ€”had, in fact, already toned down the lesson by removing its concluding sentence. The original version, taught elsewhere in China, ends with a crescendo of patriotism. â€œThe heroes of the island guarded the south gate of the motherland, day and night,â€ the lesson concludes. â€œWith the development of the cause of socialist construction, the cute Xisha Islands will become more bountiful.â€