I asked a Chinese fourth grader a pretty simple question.
“Do you know who Zhou Enlai is?”
“Yes, of course!”
Here’s the kicker, the big follow up. It’s one of those questions that you would expect a fourth grader to answer pretty easily.
“Was Zhou Enlai good or bad?”
“Of course he was good! Otherwise, Mao wouldn’t have liked him so much, and he wouldn’t have been so high-ranking!”
As expected, the elementary school student is pretty good at blanket statements. If I want a straight answer, I’ll ask someone under the age of ten.
It’s probably at least a bit unfair to extrapolate a whole bunch of ideas about the Chinese propaganda machine in primary education from just this one encounter. But I’ll do it anyway.
To Western eyes, Zhou is generally seen as a pragmatist and a moderate relative to Mao. At the same time, he’s certainly not viewed in a good light. As the launcher of two of the deadliest campaigns in the Cultural Revolution, the “Cleanse the Class Ranks” campaign and the “One Strike, three antis” campaign, Zhou is responsible for the persecution of over forty million people, as well of the deaths and suicides of another several million.
What does this tell us about the education system in China? Something is being left out of social studies class. Perhaps at such a young age, students are not yet ready to handle the horrors of the cultural revolution. Nevertheless, Mao is still portrayed as a heroic revolutionary figure. Zhou is good, and the Communist Party is full of good people.
To be fair, this is not all that different from social studies classes in all countries. To nurture some level of nationalistic pride, young children must be ignorant of their country’s bad side.
In China, though, it’s more necessary than ever to make sure that the youth remain ignorant of the last sixty years of CCP history
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