Chinese President Xi Jinping is displayed on a screen as performers dance at a gala show ahead of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing

China’s Xi Jinping Thought curricula teaches students how to ‘unmask enemies’ of the state, author says

Author François Godement discusses the new addition to China’s school curriculum with The World’s host Marco Werman, saying it’s a mix of different ideologies.

The World

China has announced that the political ideology of its president, Xi Jinping, will now be taught in schools from elementary through the university level. The Ministry of Education said the goal is to cultivate the builders and successors of socialism with an all-around moral, intellectual, physical and aesthetic grounding. What’s known as “Xi Jinping Thought” has actually been enshrined in China’s constitution since 2018.

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It includes caution against China’s enemies. The move comes amid global tensions with Beijing, economically and politically. US Vice President Kamala Harris criticized China during her recent Southeast Asia tour, stemming from both countries’ territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

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François Godement is the author of “Les Mots de Xi Jinping” or “The Words of Xi Jinping.” He’s also a senior adviser for Asia at the Institut Montaigne in Paris. He spoke with The World’s host Marco Werman about the new curricula. 

Marco Werman: François, is there a way to summarize what Xi Jinping Thought is?
François Godement: Well, not easily, because it’s a mixture of sometimes very personal aphorisms. But at the other extreme, it’s literally a handbook on governance. Xi Jinping is a micromanager who touches just about every subject. There are already six volumes of his so-called works and speeches since he’s come to power. At other times, it’s very combative. As you said, it’s very moral. And there’s a mixture of Marxist communist ideology — sometimes bordering on a return to Maoism — but also conservative morals, which is much more akin to traditional China. And, of course, Xi Jinping’s talent is to mix both in a kind of educative group that he has already imposed on the rest of the population.
So, when Xi Jinping introduced this in 2017, it was a 3 1/2-hour speech at a party congress. It was called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era.” What was the message for you that came through at the time?
At the time, it wasn’t as distinctive as it is now, because he has really branched out, and we now have also collections of his speeches at various places and various times. It’s become more and more militant. It’s obsessed with struggle. It’s both class struggle, but struggle also with China’s external enemies. I think in 2017, it was still a kind of cultural ideology that was quite compatible with what his predecessors have said.
Were you surprised then by today’s news that Xi Jinping Thought will now be part of the Chinese school curriculum?
Not at all, because it has already spread through society. For example, there are several apps that broadcast Xi Jinping’s thoughts and allow people also to literally train in memorizing and repeating them and using them. And these apps are downloaded hundreds of millions of times. They are Xi Jinping Thought centers in just about every university and institute. There is a Xi Jinping Thought center, for example, at the institute affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So, extending it to kids, who, in any case, are of course submitted to propaganda in their history and ideological courses, is not a surprise. Xi Jinping is really now taking a frontrow seat on just about every ground in preparation for the party congress of 2022, which would extend most likely his reign beyond two terms.
So, what kinds of things will pupils and students be actually taught? Like, give us a sample of the ideas that Xi Jinping believes in.
He believes in morals and anti-corruption. He believes in the power of will. It’s an ideology that’s focused on volunteerism. In that sense, it distinguishes itself from what you could call traditional Marxism and materialism. It’s much closer to Mao Zedong, in fact. It makes a definite distinction between friends and enemies, it’s absolutely central.
And how does Xi distinguish from friends and enemies?
I think the criteria is socialism and Chinese nationalism. So, even though he has an undertone sometimes about criticism, criticism is correct, for example, if it unmasks enemies. But you’ve got to watch out with criticism, so anybody who has a free mind is likely to be targeted. And one aspect of Xi Jinping is that he’s very versatile. For example, during his ascent to power, he actually courted private entrepreneurs, and even foreign enterprises, because it suited him. It was the language of the time. And also, as a provincial leader, he needed these guys to have a better economic record. Now he’s leading an onslaught against them, starting with the Chinese entrepreneurs and probably going on to foreign enterprises as well, slowly diminishing their role. And that is very close to Mao as well, who can, as you say, turn around on a dime.
So, you’ve made the Mao comparison a few times. Xi Jinping Thought as an actual volume. It feels so much like Mao’s “Little Red Book.” But is that a fair comparison, or is Xi Jinping Thought more like a throwback to Chinese emperors laying down the law in a Draconian way?
I think it’s a bit of both. Ubiquity reminds one of the Cultural Revolution from when the “Little Red Book” was printed with hundreds of millions of copies and people waved it. But again, it’s also a compendium for governance. And in that he emulates traditional emperors. A real characteristic of Xi Jinping is that he really fills all available space.
Do you think the Chinese take Xi Jinping Thought seriously or are they just going through the motions?
You know, it’s always very difficult to guess people’s minds and obviously there are no reliable opinion polls, and nobody is going to freely tell you what they think. The more you get to have contact with the people we know, who tend to be public intellectuals or experts, not the common people whom we seldom meet, the more you can see there is skepticism and there’s probably hatred of Xi Jinping by the people who have suffered, if only because of the fight against corruption or because of the fights inside the party and the total dominance that he’s established. For the common people, I would suggest they are very fatalistic about political power. Xi Jinping is very distant to them. They appreciate probably the order that is being kept. Order is very important in China and levels of income that would keep rising — it’s his insurance policy.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

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