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Focus of China’s education security evolves 100 yrs on

Author  :  Qi Zhanyong, Du Yue, and Chen Peng     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-07-30

National education security refers to the education sovereignty of a given state and its related education system, traditions, resources, functions, and development to unitedly avoid interference, erosion, and subversion from internal or external hostile forces. Education security also enhances the role of education in cultural appreciation and value shaping, so as to strengthen citizens’ national identity and ensure overall national security.

In the past 100 years, national education security’s focus has been evolving, from a nationalism movement to distinctive measures, from a forced response to foreign invasions to a proactive self-awakening, and from solitary appeals for the retrieval of education sovereignty to the expression of pluralistic needs.

Retrieval of education sovereignty (1911-48)

After the two Opium Wars, China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties with foreign powers. Seizing this opportunity, foreign missionaries flocked to China on a large scale and carried out so-called “spiritual influence” missions.

However, the strength of traditional Chinese thought processes made Western civilizations’ export attempt unsuccessful, so foreign powers decided to set up schools to spread Western ideology, culture, and religion in China. The number of missionary schools increased rapidly, and rhetoric about the “superiority of Western culture” surfaced, alongside the imposition of religious faith onto the Chinese.

In response, several Chinese intellectuals called on the people to unify and abolish unequal treaties to reclaim China’s territorial and sovereignty rights. As the sovereignty of roads, minerals, and customs duties—which were closely related to the development of the national economy—were recovered one after another, the retrieval of education sovereignty was also added to the agenda.

At the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China, there was a spontaneous uprising of non-Christian movements among the people, which became a battlefield for the elimination of Western colonial ideology’s influence and the start of calls to safeguard national education security. In particular, while advocating for “Democracy and Science,” people from all walks of life began to question the loss of national education sovereignty. Nationalists, church schools, and educational groups debated whether religious education violated national sovereignty, and the non-Christian movement began to unfold.

Renowned Chinese educator Cai Yuanpei put forward a proposal for “aesthetic education to replace religion.” Chinese educator Yu Jiaju took the lead in the “retrieval of education sovereignty.” Such revolutions against religious education were suppressed by missionary schools, but the patriotic youth immediately launched substantial resistance.

In the patriotic struggle against imperialism, the May 30 Massacre and the March 18 Massacre occurred successively, pushing the revolutionary movement to a climax. Students in missionary schools in Guangzhou, Hunan, Fujian, and other locations carried out strikes and demonstrations, or transferred to public schools, resolutely resisting foreign powers’ cultural control over the Chinese people, fiercely criticizing invaders for using education to erode our country, and vigorously striving for national sovereignty.

With the upsurge of anti-imperialist patriotic movements among the people, the government began to regulate rules for foreign school administration and put ideas from the non-Christian movement into practice.

In 1925, the Beiyang government stipulated that “those who set up schools with donations from foreigners must apply for accreditation and act in accordance with regulations of the Ministry of Education.” In addition, “the principal must be Chinese,” “the school must not take preaching as its purpose,” and “the curriculum must not take religious subjects as compulsory courses.” For the first time, the separation of education and religion was etched in official documents.

In 1926, the Ministry of Education further stated that “students must not be forced or induced to participate” in religious services, and that the chairman of the school board or board of trustees “must be Chinese.”

In summary, the education sovereignty movement happened against the backdrop of China’s drive for national independence. During this period, the fight for national education security was most intense, and the revolutionary call of people from all walks of life to save the country via practices in education took fire, laying an ideological foundation for modern China’s national awakening.

Eliminate foreign influence (1949-77)

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the construction of the country was on the right track in all aspects, so the Party and the government began to make rules for the education field.

At the first national education working conference, it clarified the principle of education in newly liberated areas. Specifically, the principle “is to adopt appropriate measures to educate existing practitioners and establishments so that they can acquire new ideas and methods to serve the Chinese people.” This rational decision stemmed from comprehensive considerations. For one, it accepted positive factors from missionary schools and hoped that they could resume classes as soon as possible to help develop education in the early days of the founding of New China. Also, it clarified the bottom line of its own education system.

However, China’s friendly attitude was not met with the same response. Imperialist powers repeatedly distributed reactionary propaganda with the help of missionary schools to obstruct the construction of New China.

In light of this, China began to eliminate the residual influence of imperialism and founded a state-owned education system, which provided a roadmap for comprehensive awakening of New China’s sovereignty consciousness amid a confrontation between the new democratic culture and Western culture. A clear-cut goal, resolute attitude, and decisive and thorough policy truly portrayed the main efforts of safeguarding national education security at this stage.

After the socialist transformation was completed, the Party and the government reflected on the Soviet Union’s experience and creatively mapped out our own socialist path.

Later, the Party observed that the principal contradiction in Chinese society was between the “advanced socialist system and backward productive forces.” Therefore, the Hundred Flowers Campaign, a liberalization movement named after a traditional poem “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” was carried out to try to expand democracy in educational and cultural undertakings. To some extent, this broke through the Soviet Union’s model of a rigid form of centralized educational philosophy and teaching materials.

It was apparent that New China had established a more comprehensive and thorough leadership by safeguarding national education security, providing reference for building China’s discourse, and shaping its new role on the modern world stage.

Open, pluralistic world (1978 till now)

In the new era of reform and opening up, seeking all-round opening up to the outside world has become a topic of great concern for national education and its related fields.

Domestically, strengthening national identity and cultivating patriotism are a prerequisite for fostering and practicing people’s core socialist values in the new era, which provides an ideological foundation that better copes with opportunities and challenges in globalization. “Remaining true to our original aspiration and keeping our mission firmly in mind,” and “cultivating a political character of loyalty, integrity, and responsibility” are all profound yet concise requirements for Party cadres. Young college students are in the critical period of forming their values. They are encouraged to have firm faith, nurture virtue, study hard, and work to become individuals with ideals, ability, and a strong sense of responsibility, well-prepared to join the socialist cause and contribute to the rule of law and national rejuvenation.

In terms of opening up to the world in the education sector, the Party and government have always focused on improving talent training and advancing socialist construction of our country. Full support and freedom have been given to those who wish to study abroad and those who wish to return to China upon completing their studies.

At the same time, regulations and other normative documents on Chinese-foreign cooperation in school administration have been issued, emphasizing the core concept of introducing high-quality foreign educational resources to serve China’s national strategic development.

Since the reform and opening up, the focus on national education security has inherited its previous goal of defending national sovereignty and independence, while paying more attention to strengthening national identity.

In today’s pluralistic world, China must take the initiative to reform the idea of education and cooperation, and seek multilateral cooperation in the education field. This new turn is powerful evidence that China has realized its transformation from rising up, gaining prosperity, to becoming a strong nation. It also means that national education security presents increasingly complex characteristics of the times, which require us to strengthen our awareness of national education security and explore concrete ways to safeguard it.


Qi Zhanyong, Du Yue, and Chen Peng are from the Faculty of Education at Shaanxi Normal University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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