In late January, Introduction to Constitutional Law (宪法学导论), a textbook on China’s Constitution first published in 2004 and now in its third edition, vanished from online bookstores, including Amazon.cn, JD.com and dangdang.com. Offline, the book was apparently pulled from shelves at Xinhua Bookstore, a government-affiliated book chain that is also the country’s largest.
Written by Zhang Qianfan (张千帆), a law professor at Peking University and one of the country’s leading experts on constitutional law, Introduction to Constitutional Law has long been essential and required reading for students of law in China. While the precise reasons for the textbook’s disappearance were not entirely clear, rumors posted across social media suggested the textbook had run afoul of the authorities for “promoting western ideas, and singing praise of western systems” (宣扬西方思想, 鼓吹西方制度).
The book’s sudden change of fate is one of the latest and clearest indications of a deeper ideological shift in China under Xi Jinping (习近平), one that puts Marxism — with “Chinese characteristics,” of course — back in the driving seat, with real and felt implications for all aspects of society, including education.
Whatever the backstory concerning Zhang’s book, the news of its disappearance came amid a nationwide operation targeting college textbooks.
Earlier in January, China’s National Textbook Committee asked schools for scrutiny of all Constitution-related textbooks in use, according to a notice published on January 7 on the website of Jiangxi Provincial Education Bureau. That notice, which had been removed from the internet by February, is still cached here.
And as Zhang’s book vanished, one clear winner emerged in the arena of constitutional law that illustrates what is at stake for legal education in China. Several colleges, including Jiangsu Normal University, demanded teachers use instead a textbook called Constitutional Law (宪法学), published in 2011 as part of the “Marxism Theory Studies and Construction Project” (马克思主义理论研究和建设工程), an initiative launched back in 2004 — the same year Zhang’s book was first published — by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party during the tenure of Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao (胡锦涛). The ostensible goal of the project was the “prosperous development of philosophy and social sciences” (繁荣发展哲学社会科学) in China through the application of Marxism.
The results — for the field of constitutional law at any rate — were not exactly inspiring. A search for Constitutional Law on China’s most popular and trafficked book-rating website, Douban, shows the book earning a lackluster rating of 2.5 out of a possible score of 10, while various editions of Zhang Qianfan’s Introduction to Constitutional Law uniformly receive ratings of between 9.1 to 9.8.
An “Ideological Three Gorges Dam”
The “Marxism Theory Studies and Construction Project” that spawned the poorly-rated alternative to Professor Zhang’s book is perhaps a reminder that the ideological turn we associate with President Xi Jinping was already nascent in the Hu Jintao era. And its fruits — such as they are — were not clearly in evidence until 2012, eight years after the project’s initiation, and right on the eve of Xi Jinping’s rise to power.
Searching the official People’s Daily newspaper, we can find 605 results for the “Marxism Theory Studies and Construction Project” in the 15 years since its introduction. The first article appears in March 2004, mentioning the project in a report to that year’s session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
By the dawn of the Xi era in 2012, the project had published 25 textbooks on philosophy, arts and the humanities. Its first book, “Ideological and Moral Cultivation and Basic Law Education” (思想道德修养与法律基础), was published in 2006 following a one year process of compilation and editing. The People’s Daily reported in late 2006 that 5.3 million college freshmen – almost all first-year students in China – used this new textbook.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the reach and importance of this publishing initiative. Today, most college students graduating sometime in the past eight years have at least used one of its textbooks. And this is meant only as the beginning. The Ministry of Education has been charged with managing the publication of 93 textbooks in total, while a central government office established especially for the project is responsible for a further 41 textbooks. The fields of study and research involved include history, ethnic studies, religious studies, and even more specialised subjects like the history of Chinese classical drama.
Aside from new subject-area books, China is promoting the advancement of whole new areas of study. Marxist theory, for example, which used to be a secondary subject under the social sciences, has been elevated to a first-degree subject, the highest degree possible in China’s higher education system.
In recent years, mention of the “Marxism Theory Studies and Construction Project” in the People’s Daily has decreased, but the project itself continues to be a core part of China’s cultural development planning. It received prominent mention in the “12th National Five Year Plan for Cultural Reform and Development” (国家“十二五”文化改革发展规划纲要) issued in February 2012, and was also included China’s “Mid and Long-Term Education Reform and Development Plan: 2010-2020” (国家中长期教育改革和发展规划纲要 2010—2020年), in which universities were told to “positively engage” with the project.
The project is also not limited to textbook publishing. It has produced documentaries, and has even supported the creation of an online encyclopaedia, developed by the Xi’an Institute of Political Science, that collects materials on the “theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
The scale of the project’s output is immense. So immense, in fact, that one expert involved in the project, Xin Bensi (邢贲思), referred to it, in a 2015 article published in the Party’s Seeking Truth journal, as an “ideological Three Gorges Dam” (意识形态的三峡工程).
The Changing Constitution of Legal Studies
The Constitutional Law textbook was officially introduced in 2012. The People’s Daily offered its endorsement on February 29 that year by describing the book’s basic, defining character — which in retrospect might help to explain the recent textbook replacement. According to that article, the textbook is “firmly against the blind copying of Western constitutional theories” (坚决反对盲目照抄照搬西方的宪法学理论).
The People’s Daily piece also criticised constitutional definitions offered by Western scholars, saying that they “describe the form but do not touch on the nature and essentials” (从形式上描述而不触及本质).
The new textbook also sought to offer “response and guidance” on the “misunderstanding and erroneous tendency in international and domestic ideas” that held that the Preamble to China’s Constitution — which mentions, for example, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” — was not legal binding. The book sought to address such “wrong views about the Constitution’s Preamble,” establishing the principle that the Constitution is a binding document in full. One of the most compelling arguments against such an understanding has come from Zhang Qianfan, who wrote in the Yanhuang Chunqiu journal in 2013 of the Preamble to China’s Constitution that “we believe that it does not have common ‘legal effect.'”
The 2012 textbook also presents what it calls a “Marxist View of Human Rights” (马克思主义人权观),” a direct response to criticisms of China’s human rights record, which the book refers to as “attacks from international powers on human right issues.”
A basic idea underlying the textbook is the notion of national relativism, that constitutions must accommodate the unique characteristics of their own countries. “Constitutions take different routes in different countries and regions,” Xu Chongde, the chief editor of the textbook, wrote in the People’s Daily in 2013. “[We] cannot copy directly from others.”
This official textbook on China’s Constitution is directed not just at legal students in China, but has become regular and required reading for college students more broadly, with the premise that students should become more adept at refuting frequent criticism from the West on China’s failure to abide in terms of policy, practice and law enforcement by many of the stated rights and principles outlined in the Constitution.
“[We should] establish the noble spirit of our Constitution in all citizens,” said Luo Shugang, deputy director of China’s Central Propaganda Department, in a 2014 meeting reported by the People’s Daily. “[Meanwhile, we must] clearly outline the difference between our Constitution-based governance and Western ‘constitutionalism’.”
Huge Cost, Mixed Reviews
The textbooks created as part of the “Marxism Theory Studies and Construction Project” are part of the fifth generation of textbooks introduced at Chinese universities on “ethics and politics,” which is essentially code for the study of Marxism.
Generally speaking, the renewal of texts and reworking of classes and curriculum requires a huge input in terms of capital and human resources. By the end of 2008, the People’s Daily has reported, colleges in China employed more than 60,000 teachers for courses in “ethics and politics,” and a further 91,808 undergraduate mentors. That means that for every 207 students studying at the undergraduate level in China, there is one mentor in Marxism studies.
Since 2008, more than 10 universities, including Peking University and Renmin University, have established new centers for Marxist theory, and a national forum bringing together related experts has been held every year since. At the university level, human resources have been devoted to Marxism studies on a massive scale. Renmin University alone reported in 2012 that it had 151 teachers involved in the writing and editing of textbooks on Marxism.
But this massive outlay of resources has yielded only mixed reviews when it comes to quality.
According to state media, students and teachers have nothing but praise to the new textbooks. “[I] never expected the textbook will be so interesting,” said Liu Xiaojun, a first-year college student at China Agriculture University, in an interview with the People’s Daily in 2012 when talking about the book “Ideological and Moral Cultivation and Basic Law Education” (思想道德修养与法律基础), “this is one of the most helpful courses to freshmen like us.”
But the feedback online is less encouraging. The book received a rating of just 3.5 on Douban, where many called it “dogmatic” and “brainwashing.”
Some have panned the textbook as “rubbish.” “It includes nothing [valuable],” an anonymous user on Zhihu, China’s equivalent of Quora, complained of one textbook. “Our teacher had to add extra contents to it, and students had to make extra notes all the time.”
Just this week, the Chinese Communist Party released an ambitious blueprint to modernise the country’s education system by 2035, and state media reported that the plan “demonstrated China’s active participation in global education governance.” But others argue that the advancement of compulsory textbooks designed to place ideology over substance threaten the quality of education in China and its engagement with the world.
In an interview with WeMedia NGOCN, Zhang Qianfan, author of the banned book, disputed the criticism that his book “promotes western ideas.” “China’s existing Constitution borrows heavily from the achievements of world civilization,” he said. “What we are promoting is not some ‘Western civilization’ . . . but rather clauses in our own Constitution.”