‘What adjectives describe Xi Jinping?’ China’s new English textbook asks

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Tens of thousands of Chinese college freshmen began their English language classes this month with an in-depth study of “Never Forget Why You Started”, an article in which President Xi Jinping describes his tough working life in the impoverished north-west in his youth.

As part of their mandatory English language lessons, Chinese university students were tasked with finding adjectives to “describe Xi during his time as a youth worker in Liangjiahe”. China’s president spent seven years in the village during the Cultural Revolution, an episode that now forms a cornerstone of Beijing’s propaganda.

According to two people close to the Ministry of Education, more than 300 universities nationwide have this year begun teaching with College English for New Era, a new textbook that examines dozens of quotes and speeches by the national leader.

The introduction of the textbook is part of a sweeping campaign by Chinese authorities to incorporate the thinking of the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong into university English education.

Whereas once English language students in China learnt about western culture and ideas, seen as symbolic of greater integration into the global order, authorities now view the classes as an opportunity to promote Beijing’s increasingly assertive views.

“If we pick up any major [western] publication, the headlines are all about China, China, China and they are all targeting us [negatively]. China is fighting a war against the US in not only trade, finance, technology, but also ideology,” said Shi Jian, a professor at Sichuan University and chief editor of the textbook, in a speech in April.

The new textbook centres on Xi Jinping’s experience and thinking

“Western [language] theory could no longer account for Chinese experience. We need to incorporate national consciousness into foreign language education which should help students build confidence in Chinese culture . . . and tell a good China story.”

In the past, China has married political doctrines to English education in universities. In the early 1970s, many freshmen began their first English class by learning the slogan: “Long live Chairman Mao”.

As Deng Xiaoping opened China to the outside world, universities began to adopt a more western approach to English education. Textbooks featured more everyday language as well as cultural topics ranging from the Statue of Liberty to Barbie dolls.

This trend began to reverse under Xi.

Xi Jinping Thought has been incorporated into numerous university disciplines ranging from business administration to physics to biology. In its latest College English Teaching Guidance published in 2020, the Ministry of Education said textbooks should “purposefully” incorporate “core socialist values”, a set of slogans spearheaded by Xi, to ensure students have a “correct worldview”.

The resulting overhaul culminated in the publication last year of the New Era series textbooks. Instead of reading about western culture, students are required to translate into English paragraphs that describe their “super confidence” in the nation’s literary achievements or reflect on how the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics “impressed the world”.

The new textbook features a Xi speech against “US aggression” and an analysis arguing that many US-educated Chinese students struggled to find jobs back home because of their “western attitudes”.

The textbooks’ authors, including a scholar who spent seven years teaching English literature at Columbia University, wrote in the preface that they intended to correct the “problematic trend for previous textbooks to focus exclusively on English culture”.

Further updates are planned. “Our latest edition, which will come out next year, will include President Xi’s quotes in the 20th Party Congress,” said a person close to Nanjing University Press, the textbook’s publisher, referring to the conference last October when Xi was confirmed for an unprecedented third term as Communist party chief. “We go with the tide.”

Western scholars, however, were unconvinced that the approach would foster language learning.

“It is not going to make more people want to study English if they have to use it to study Xi Jinping Thought,” said Neil Thomas, a fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis.

“Learning English is now a tool for China to spread its values and viewpoints throughout the world rather than learning from the world.”

Some students shared that scepticism. “Studying Xi Jinping Thought in English makes me less interested in the language,” said Lucy Wang, a freshman in northern Hebei province. “I need more appealing reading materials to learn English.”

Additional reporting by Nian Liu

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