China’s legislature nodded through a law on ‘patriotic education‘ on Wednesday, in a move aimed at strengthening patriotic feeling among the country’s youth, state media reported.
According to Xinhua news agency, some people “are at a loss about what is patriotism,” and may give in to “historical nihilism,” a political buzzword used under President Xi Jinping to describe any view that departs from the official Communist Party line on history.
The law, which will take effect on Jan. 1, 2024, and applies to local and central government departments, schools and even families, comes after booksellers removed a popular history book about the last Ming emperor from view, after readers applied some of its conclusions to China under Xi.
It also forms part of the government’s “ethnic unity” policy, which has included forcible assimilation schemes targeting Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, along with bans on ethnic minority language-teaching in Inner Mongolia and among Tibetan communities in Sichuan.
“Deeply rooted in the national culture, patriotism serves as a vital bond among various ethnic its groups,” Xinhua wrote in a commentary on the law, which also repeats bans on “insults” to the national flag or to “revolutionary heroes and martyrs” from Communist Party history that are also covered under other legislation.
Mao was ‘narrow-minded’
The move came as a Chinese AI firm said it would suspend sales of a study assistance device after it was critical of late supreme leader Mao Zedong.
Liu Qingfeng, chairman of iFlytek, was quoted as saying by the Cailianshe news service that the device and its content had been taken off the shelves after a parent complained that the device had generated an essay that called Mao “narrow-minded” and “intolerant” for starting the 10 years of political turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
Shares in iFlytek plunged by 10% on Tuesday after the news broke, Reuters reported.
Liu was quoted as blaming a supplier for the content, and said both the supplier and iFlytek staff had been “punished” over the gaffe.
But Ji Feng, a former pro-democracy activist, said Mao was indeed a problematic figure.
“Mao persecuted many people during the Cultural Revolution,” Ji said. “Anyone who took their own lives by jumping off buildings [during that period] was persecuted by him.”
China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, passed a law in 2018 criminalizing anyone deemed to have smeared the “reputation and honor” of the ruling party’s canon of heroes and martyrs.
Mao, who died in 1976, is still officially venerated by the highest-ranking Chinese leaders on important occasions, and the authorities have prosecuted people who are deemed to have “insulted” his memory.
Party leaders have struggled to come to terms with Mao’s legacy in the nearly four decades after his death. The official line, first declared by successor Deng Xiaoping, is that Mao was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong” in his policies.
At the same time, historians estimate that tens of millions of people died from starvation, persecution and executions during the Cultural Revolution and the preceding 1958-1962 “Great Leap Forward,” when Mao tried to dramatically convert China’s largely agrarian society into a manufacturing economy.
One brave critic called for Mao to be removed from Chinese currency and for his mausoleum to be removed from the center of Tiananmen Square – and authorities swiftly closed down his website. Xi still quotes Mao in policy speeches.
Ye Yaoyuan, chair of international studies at the University of St. Thomas, Texas, described the law as part of “a series of step-by-step processes of rolling out strict controls on freedom of speech.”
U.S.-based Chen Kuide, executive director of the Princeton China Initiative, said the official insistence on patriotism also demonstrates Xi’s sense of insecurity amid an economic slowdown, international tensions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and his own territorial ambitions for Taiwan.
“[Beijing] believes that it must be prepared to deal with the possibility of war, [for example if it decides] to attack Taiwan,” Chen said, referring to the renewed focus on party propaganda.
Current affairs commentator Wang Zheng said many people in China have lost their sense of right and wrong under a constant barrage of government propaganda, and now actively work to help the authorities “maintain stability.”
“Stability maintenance has reached the grassroots level,” Wang said. “The whistleblower [parent] seemed to think he had made a great contribution by reporting and exposing what he found.”
China requires chatbots using artificial intelligence and developed by its tech giants to stick to the ruling Communist Party line, with any dissenting or unapproved content to be removed from materials used to train AI.
The rules were imposed as Chinese tech firms rush to launch homegrown generative AI, amid reports that regulators have warned major tech companies not to offer the Microsoft-backed artificial intelligence bot ChatGPT to the public.
They reflect official concerns around any technology that can produce content without the prior approval of government censors.
Earlier this month, a top-level research institute in the democratic island of Taiwan withdrew an experimental AI chat program when it started spouting Chinese Communist Party propaganda, after being fed with learning materials sourced in China.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.