How China’s Patriotic Education Became One of the “Most Successful Propaganda Campaigns”

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Arthur Wang still remembers what his elementary school teacher told him about the Chinese national flag.

“If the flag falls to the ground, you must pick it up immediately,” the 21-year-old Chinese international student said.

He remembered reading stories in textbooks about Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members during the historic 1934-1935 long march that led Mao Zedong to become party leader.

He also recalled hearing about the soldiers who lost their lives during China’s anti-Japanese war in the 1930s.

Mr Wang, from Harbin in northeast China, moved to Melbourne to study in 2015, and said what he learned in school as a child still has an impact on him today.

“I think I am a patriot,” he said.

“If I am discriminated against or if I am looked down upon [because of my Chinese identity], I’m going to get up and fight this. “

Train generations of patriots

China has a long history of ideological teachings, but its compulsory patriotic education program was systematically implemented in 1994, after the student protests of 1989 and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

It was also in part triggered by the decline of authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union.

It includes teachings on the concept of “one hundred years of humiliation” – a narrative of Chinese history from the 19th to the 20th century, emphasizing that China is “intimidated” by Western forces.

“It tells a specific story in Chinese history that highlights how the problems do not come from China but from abroad, and us as Chinese [people] we have to stand up for ourselves, ”William A Callahan, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told the ABC.

A young Chinese man holds a book.
Barry Li says he now realizes the influence that patriotic education had on him. (

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Barry Li, 39, moved to Sydney to study in 2004, and was among the first generation of Chinese youth to receive patriotism Classes.

He told the ABC that the subject of “morals and politics” was one of the most memorable, for teaching him the “basic lessons to be a good person” – to have good hygiene in stay diligent.

He said he had learned how the country and the CCP worked, including that China and the ruling party were a “comprehensive deal.”

“[It implied] you have to love the country and the party [together],” he said.

“When you are young you think [patriotic education] is a natural part of your life, ”Mr. Li said, adding that he never questioned what he was taught.

But many international students told the ABC that China was not alone in this case, pointing out that Australia has some form of patriotic education when it comes to ANZAC memorials and Day of Australia, for example.

Patriotic education in movies and cartoons

Ideological education also goes beyond the classroom.

Mona Ma, a 30-year-old international student in Melbourne, recalled taking school trips to learn about Chinese history.

A group of Chinese women in blue skirts singing with their arms raised.
Chinese children are taught that the national flag is red because it is “drenched in the blood of martyrs.”(

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She said students were invited to paint pictures and write columns on blackboards to celebrate important days such as Children’s Day in China, National Day and the founding day of the Chinese Communist Party.

She also recalled the flag-raising ceremonies every Monday where students were required to “dress properly” and wear a red scarf – a symbol of the Young Pioneers of China, a youth organization affiliated with the CCP.

Prof. Callahan said patriotic education has been one of the “most successful propaganda campaigns” in China.

A man in a suit looks aside.
Professor Callahan says it is important to understand the educational background of many Chinese students.(

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“One of the ways to understand the success of patriotic education is that it is a multimedia campaign, that it is everywhere,” he said.

“It’s in the news and entertainment, [cartoons], movies and television programs.

“Because it’s just normal. It’s what it is, that’s how you understand China.”

“You start to question what you are told”

An overhead view of rows of graduating students seated with colorful scarves over their black academic robes.
Some students say they felt personally attacked when people criticized China.(

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Patriotic education did not teach Mr. Wang how to love China, but he said that implied that there should be no criticism against his country.

“We haven’t learned exactly that you can’t speak badly about China, but in other ways you learn that people from other countries can’t insult our country,” he said, adding that he agreed with the teachings.

Melbourne international student Sally Ding, 26, said she once felt personally “attacked” when she heard criticism of China as a teenager.

“I was at the age where you think you know something, but you’re not really clear about it,” she said.

“I would think the western media was insulting China and I would be very angry, but I would not check if [the media report] was true or not. “

Ms. Ding said that she changed her mind in college as she realized the patriotic upbringing she had grown up with and began to reflect on what she had learned.

Wei Zhang is an education researcher and doctoral student studying the China Patriotic Education Program at Edith Cowan University in Perth.

A studio in the school with the logo of the pioneer youth of China, with a slogan of
The logo of the Young Pioneers of China, which reads: “Fight for Communism”. (

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According to his research, many Chinese international students felt that being critical could be the same as “being aggressive”.

Ms. Zhang said that many Australian international students are both beneficiaries of a patriotic education, which emphasizes the achievements of the CCP, and observers of China’s spectacular economic development.

She said many wondered why the West continued to criticize China and focus only “on the negative issues”, when he’s done so much, like lifting people out of poverty.

“It’s very difficult for them, psychologically, to adapt to [a different] way of thinking, ”she told ABC.

“Poisonous Ideas” the Biggest Threat to the CCP

Peng Liyuan, left, and Xi Jinping, right, stand in front of international flags.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan, a singer known for her catchy propaganda songs.(

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Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power, he has called for further improvements in the Chinese education system.

He described patriotism as the “eternal theme of education”, in order to sow “the seed of love from China … deep in the heart of every child.”

Katja Drinhausen, senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies in Germany, said the CCP’s strengthening of patriotic messages in education was inspired by the recent student protests in Hong Kong.

“They think that if young people have access to wrong information, they – as it is often said – have poisonous ideas in their heads,” Drinhausen said.

Concerns have been expressed about patriotic Chinese students encroaching on academic freedoms on college campuses in Australia, where around 39% of international students come from China.

A woman in a costume looks ahead.
Katja Drinhausen says the recent protests in Hong Kong have seen the CCP reinforce patriotic messages.(

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“In universities abroad where there are conflicts, explosions or the activism of Chinese student organizations when something goes against the interests of China, it is because the type of criticism raised against their country and their government is often very new to them, ”Ms. Drinhausen said.

“So understanding the story behind it, understanding how the world has been presented to Chinese students and why they feel a duty to defend China, is really important in finding ways to move forward. “

Prof Callahan, who also teaches Chinese politics and has international Chinese students, echoed Drinhausen’s opinion.

“We must be respectful and kind [to them],” he said.

“Don’t be suspicious of them.”


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