BEIJING — Democracy. Is it effective or flawed? Would it work in China?
Those were the teacher’s instructions on a recent Sunday morning when 17 college students met at Tsinghua University in Beijing for “Mao Zedong Thought and the Theoretical System of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” a mouthful of a course that is part of a government-mandated regimen of ideological education in China.
The students were sporting dragon tattoos and irreverent shirts — one had “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” emblazoned on its back — and playing bloody shoot-’em-up video games on their phones before class.
But inside classroom 106-B, they echoed the party line.
“We’ve learned democracy just can’t last long here,” said Zhang Tingkai, a 19-year-old architecture major, describing the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution under Mao.
“It can easily turn into populism,” said Mao Quanwu, 20, a mechanical engineering student, “like what’s happening in Taiwan.”
The uniformity of opinion would likely have pleased Communist Party leaders, who often rail against the dangers of Western-style liberalism. But the challenges facing the party as it seeks to inspire a new generation of Communists are clear.
While students publicly praise ideological classes like this one, in private many say they find the courses dull and irrelevant, numbing propaganda — and only grudgingly participate.
At one lecture, students watched historical dramas and scanned social media sites on their laptops while a professor spoke about the importance of studying Mao’s ideology. At another session, they chatted with friends and worked on physics problems.
The courses, some of which have existed for decades, are more important than ever to President Xi Jinping and the party.
While the emphasis on Mao evokes turbulent periods of Chinese history, many in China still see Mao as a hero. Elements of his philosophy, like suspicion of foreign ideas and calls for centralized power, help lend legitimacy to Mr. Xi’s agenda.
So under pressure from Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, professors are working to make ideological classes more relevant to the lives of students, infusing lectures with humor and references to popular culture.
“We are making the theories interesting again,” Feng Wuzhong, the head teacher of the Mao Zedong Thought course, said one day after class.
While primary and secondary schools have had success with patriotic education, by the time students reach college, they are often more critical, worldly and defiant. The notion of a forced curriculum runs counter to ideals of academic freedom many students admire.
In the Beijing classroom, students could recite major points from lectures when put on the spot by Xi Liuchang, the graduate student overseeing the discussion section.
Some questions about the finer points of Mao’s theories were met with long silences. Some students openly acknowledged they hadn’t prepared.
Within the Communist Party, there are deep anxieties about the “ideological purity” of this generation of university students, who have only a faint connection, through parents and grandparents, to the Mao era and the ideals of revolution. The state-run media has described them as too cynical, independent and apathetic about politics.
Under Mr. Xi, officials have prescribed a heavier dose of ideological education across China’s more than 2,500 universities.
Students must now complete up to five courses to graduate — including a class on Marxism, one on morality, a modern Chinese history course, and “situation and policy education,” an exploration of modern-day issues like the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and policies concerning ethnic minorities.
Mr. Xi’s administration has chastised universities, including Tsinghua, his alma mater, as too lax, and the government has dispatched inspectors to discourage criticism of the Communist Party on campus.
At the same time, officials have urged professors to rethink how they teach ideology, warning that students are not willing to listen to “dead theories.” Some colleges are beginning to offer lessons on Mr. Xi’s own worldview, known as Xi Jinping Thought.
Professor Feng is helping lead the push for change. In 2015, he began offering classes on Maoism on edX, the online platform founded by Harvard and M.I.T., one of the first Chinese professors to embrace the internet to teach ideology courses.
Mr. Feng, an energetic orator who sometimes dresses in Mao suits, now teaches Mao Zedong Thought primarily through online lecture videos on topics like “The Necessity of the Sinicization of Marxism” and “The Living Soul of Mao Zedong Thought.”
He assigns readings not just by Mao but by Western authors like Alexis de Tocqueville and Samuel P. Huntington, the American political scientist.
During live lectures, he tries to bring the material to life by discussing topics like Mao’s favorite books and asking students to rate the policies of Chinese leaders, rewarding the most active participants with digital cash sent by WeChat, the messaging app.
Still, Mr. Feng’s lectures can have the feel of a different era. In describing Mao’s views on revolution, for example, he rails against imperialist forces and “bureaucratic capitalism” for “ruthlessly exploiting laboring people.”
Those sentiments are jarring in modern-day China, where capitalism is now openly embraced, fueling a sense that ideological courses are no longer pertinent.
But Mr. Feng said Mao’s words were more relevant than ever, even if China has changed.
For example, he said, students might see Mao’s call for “armed struggle” during the Communist Revolution of 1949 as a reminder of the importance of standing strong in the face of difficulties in daily life.
“Students should have the courage to confront the tough with toughness,” Mr. Feng said. “They should dare to crack the hard nut.”
At a recent lecture, he asked students, “If you were on a deserted island, what book would you bring?” The responses included Chinese classics like “Dream of the Red Chamber.” One person, perhaps angling for a better grade, suggested the course textbook for Mao Zedong Thought.
In the Beijing classroom, the discussion turned away from Mao’s theories and to questions about whether China’s authoritarian system offered enough channels for people to express their views.
“Our lives and democracy are disconnected,” said one student, Xiong Yining. “When decisions are made by the upper class, we feel that we are not engaged in the process.”
Mr. Zhang, the architecture student, agreed. “We still don’t know why the upper class makes certain decisions,” he said. “They could be very thoughtful decisions, but if we don’t understand why, we might be misled.”
A student asked whether China risked creating another personality cult, but the discussion quickly returned to the strengths of China’s system.
“Our top leader, Xi Jinping has a great deal of prestige,” said Mr. Mao, the mechanical engineering student. “As long as his decisions are sensible enough, it feels like the risks aren’t that big.”
Outside a classroom window, a large red propaganda banner hanging from the side of a building displayed one of Mr. Xi’s favorite phrases, a reminder of the party’s mission and omnipresence.
“Work hard to achieve the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era,” it said.
Follow Javier C. Hernández on Twitter: @HernandezJavier
Iris Zhao contributed research.
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