The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The Chinese Communist Party is trying to ensure that the country’s universities are ideologically pure.

In a bold stride towards ideological consolidation, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has initiated a campaign to assert its intellectual supremacy over the country’s universities. In a pronounced departure from established academic autonomy, the party has entwined its apparatus with university administration, underpinning a vision of higher education that aligns with party doctrine.

The previous year marked a pivotal shift with the CCP’s proclamation, calling for the fusion of university administrative bodies with campus party committees to forge a singular authoritative entity. In adherence to this mandate, Beijing’s distinguished Tsinghua University unveiled on January 14 a merged governance model, signaling a new epoch of unified leadership in academia.

Historically, university administrators wielded the authority to manage essential operations, including faculty appointments and advancement, informed by insights from an academic council of scholars and party affiliates. In contrast, campus party committees traditionally tended to the social fabric of university life. This merger is emblematic of the CCP’s crusade to cultivate “Socialist Universities with Chinese Characteristics,” an endeavor that weaves Xi Jinping Thought into the tapestry of educational pursuits. Since Xi’s ascendance to power in 2012, the party’s grip has steadily tightened across societal domains, notably education.

The centralization of university governance poses profound implications for the trajectory of higher education in China. It raises probing questions about the sanctity of academic freedom and the fate of innovation, as the encroaching party influence threatens to stifle scholarly dialogue and the richness of diverse viewpoints in academic precincts.

The ideology behind the ‘mergence’

Xi Jinping’s commitment to commandeering the ideological reins of China’s academic sphere is unwavering. His maneuvers reflect a strategic echo of the Maoist era, suggesting a revival of its doctrines.

Mao Zedong’s adherence to Lenin’s rigid dogma of discipline led to the formulation of four tenets: individual subjugation to the collective, the minority to the majority, subordinate ranks to their superiors, and unwavering loyalty to the party’s central command. Xi resonated with this ethos in January 2016, declaring the CCP’s omnipotence over the nation’s political and civil spheres, a testament to a hierarchical, integrated rule.

In January 2016, he declared that “everything in China is under the direction of the CCP: party, state, army, civilians’ life, and education,” illustrating a “top-down integrated rule” approach.

Mirroring Mao’s strategic mobilization of students, particularly the Red Guards, to disrupt the status quo and spur revolutionary fervor, Xi is bracing for the possibility of youth-led upheaval amidst economic tribulations. His resolve to mold the intellectual spirit of academic institutions is manifest in the proliferation of Marxist study centers and the elevation of his ideologies to constitutional reverence. Xi’s precepts have become omnipresent, a state-endorsed leitmotif designed to cement his dominion.

For the CCP, the entrenchment of ideological purity within educational corridors is of paramount importance. The party perceives its stranglehold on academia as a bulwark against counter-narratives, a mechanism to silence dissident voices that dare to challenge its supremacy.

Control on ‘thought’

The onset of an ideological purification process within Chinese academia traces back to 2011, before Xi Jinping’s ascent to power. It was Wu Bangguo, then-chairman of the Standing Committee, who set the stage, denouncing the infiltration of ideas like multiparty democracy and the separation of powers. The narrative took a sharper turn in 2013 with the release of Document 9 by the party elite, delineating seven threats to the established order — ranging from the allure of constitutional governance to the seduction of neoliberalism, and encompassing a wide arc that included historical “nihilism,” universal values, the Western media’s lens, and any questioning of the state’s socialist underpinnings.

Under Xi’s stewardship, this ideological tightening has not only persisted but intensified, with a distinct aversion for human rights advocates, independent journalists, scholars, and all who dare to counter the party narrative. An orchestrated movement has sought to recapture media narratives, entrenched in the belief that the party alone has the authority to interpret and recount the nation’s history.

2015 marked an internal reckoning within the CCP over reformist stirrings. An octet of rules emerged, designed to temper intra-party excesses. These rules were not just about curbing lavish entertainment or personal indiscretions; they were about preventing factionalism, ensuring allegiance to the party’s ideological line, and forbidding the use of political clout for self-serving ends. An ethos of austerity was promoted, with a focus on modesty and the rejection of opulence.

These strictures served a dual purpose: they were a campaign to fortify Xi’s grip on the societal fabric as well as the party’s internal machinery, thereby tightening the reins of power across the board.

Xi’s tactical blueprint for preempting dissent — the “nip the bud” strategy — became apparent in 2016. At a conclave on the ideological and political indoctrination in universities, attended by the upper echelons of academia and Xi himself, a clarion call was made for universities to stand as bastions of party doctrine. The goal was clear: to ensure that the ideological uniformity of faculty and students aligned squarely with the party line, embedding a singular political perspective at the heart of academic life.

The tightening grip on university thought and personnel only escalated in subsequent years. In 2017, the CCP’s internal watchdog berated several premier universities for their perceived ideological laxity. The response was swift and unequivocal: the creation of party departments within these institutions to oversee and direct the political thought of the academic staff.

The Ministry of Education, taking a cue from these actions, decreed that adherence to party ideology would be the paramount metric in evaluating academic staff. Government oversight of universities intensified, with officials conducting regular inspections to ensure ideological compliance among educators.

In early 2023, the party issued a stark admonition against the encroachment of Western democratic ideologies, specifically targeting legal theorists and educators. The consolidation of control continued with the melding of university administrative and party structures, reinforcing surveillance and ideological adherence.

By January 2024, at the National Education Work Conference, the CCP underscored its ambition to carve out a significant role in “global education governance.” Yet, despite the Education Minister’s overtures towards international cooperation in education, the stringent ideological constraints imposed by China may well act as barriers to true integration and exchange within the global educational milieu.

Restriction stifle development

The constraints tightening around Chinese universities are casting long shadows, fostering an atmosphere where self-censorship among scholars is not just a fear, but an increasingly adopted survival tactic. The withdrawal of projects like historian Dai Yi’s inquiry into Qing dynasty history — ostensibly for deviating from the party’s interpretation — signals a troubling diminishment of academic integrity and liberty.

This encroachment on scholarly freedom represents a retrograde motion for intellectual progress. The National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science, dictating that grant-seeking social scientists hew to pre-vetted subjects steeped in CCP doctrine, effectively corrals academic pursuits into ideologically conformist pastures. The alignment of one’s scholarly trajectory with party-sanctioned thought — over areas of personal scholarly conviction — is a mandate laid bare.

Economist Diano Choylena, through the prism of the Asia Society’s “China 2024: What to Watch,” posits that Xi’s melding of comprehensive national security concerns with a renaissance of Marxist-Leninist thought may be at odds with economic dynamism and the essence of liberty.

Voices within the academy echo these concerns. Historian Zhang Lifan speaks of a ‘degeneration epidemic,’ with universities mutating into apparatuses of state ideology. Lifan’s forewarning of academia’s “partyfication,” mirrored by public intellectual Zi Zhongyun’s critique of Tsinghua University’s pivot towards administrative over academic valor, underscores a disturbing trend of burgeoning party dominance.

The reach of these policies threatens to repel renowned international scholars and propel a brain drain of domestic intellects, jeopardizing the global stature and repute of Chinese academic institutions. The CCP’s vigilance in safeguarding its dominion and ideological purity might well come at the cost of stifled creativity, critical inquiry, and scholarly progression. The schism between the academic sphere’s innate quest for knowledge and the party’s doctrinal directives is widening, placing scholars in an untenable quandary with the state’s ideological ambitions.

Uthra Jeyakumar is a post-graduate student at Delhi University. Uthra speaks fluent Chinese, French, English and Tamil.