Textbook used in Victorian schools repeats Chinese government propaganda

A textbook used in some Victorian schools includes portions that repeat Chinese Communist party propaganda and features a controversial map in which China claims most of the South China Sea in contradiction of Australian government policy.

The Guardian can reveal concerns about the material have prompted the publisher, Cengage Learning Asia, to recall unsold copies of the textbook, which the Melbourne-based authors said they had written to suit the course design of the Victorian senior school subject Chinese language, culture and society.

While the textbook is not listed by Victorian education authorities as a prescribed text for undertaking the course, it is being used in at least 11 schools in the state, including prestigious private schools Camberwell Grammar School and Ruyton Girls’ School.

The publisher confirmed 633 copies had been sold in Australia and 100 outside Australia.

Among the concerns with the textbook is the inclusion of the “nine-dash line” map which shows China claiming most of the South China Sea – a position contested by Australia and numerous countries in the region and challenged by an international tribunal. It is labelled in the book as “map of China”.

“It is highly misleading to portray the nine-dash line in an educational textbook as a legitimate map of China and the region,” said Prof Rory Medcalf, the head of the Australian National University’s national security college.

An artificial island being built in the South China Sea in December 2015. The Chinese military has been building its presence in the region to stake its claim.

“For it to appear in a textbook in Australia puts it at odds not only with the sensitivities of much of the region, but also with international law and Australian government policy.”

But the Victorian curriculum authority emphasises it has never endorsed the book, while the publisher, Cengage, maintains the inclusion of the map in the Senior Chinese Course: Chinese Language, Culture and Society textbook was “an editorial oversight”.

A Cengage spokesperson said a different version of the map, without the nine-dash line, was replaced when the editors “could not identify the copyright owner”. They said the current map was then inserted without anyone noticing the nine-dash line around the South China Sea.

“We apologise to readers for this carelessness,” Cengage said in a written response. “We have requested a stock recall, and assigned an editorial colleague to review the title, and its ancillaries.”

The publisher expects to recall about 750 copies from Australia and Singapore.

Further investigation revealed the same nine-dash line map in two further Cengage textbooks written by the same authors for potential use in VCE Chinese studies, titled Learn Chinese 1 and Learn Chinese 2.

The textbook’s authors – Xu Jixing and Ha Wei, the heads of Chinese at two of Melbourne’s most prestigious private schools, Scotch College and Camberwell Grammar – said they never included that map, confirming that the publisher did.

Xu also said that he and Ha did not intend the book “to constitute any propaganda for [the] Chinese Communist party at all” and that they “never intended to take a political stance” and that the purpose of the course was to help Australian students have a better understanding of Chinese language and culture.

The concerns about the textbook were first investigated by the Citizen, a publication of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism. Given the matters of public interest involved, the Citizen brought it to the Guardian’s attention and the findings are being published jointly by both outlets.

While initial investigation focused on the map, the Citizen’s subsequent inspection of the final chapter uncovered messaging that China expert Prof John Fitzgerald described as “straight out of the party playbook”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) has been promoting the concept of the Chinese Dream since 2012.

The book devotes two pages to the “Chinese Dream” – a concept promoted by Xi Jinping since 2012 and incorporated into school textbooks in China at the direction of the CCP’s propaganda chief, Liu Yunshan, who wanted to ensure it “enters students’ brains”.

The textbook describes the Chinese Dream as China “becoming equal to any other nation on the international stage”, saying this has “transcended all the differences that exist in the country to become the greatest calling for the Chinese” and a uniting force “propelling the nation forward”.

It says the Chinese people believe the country can develop “only when the nation is united and led by a strong government” and China views the way forward as “democracy under a socialist system with Chinese characteristics”.

Quick Guide

The passages compared:


On Modernisation and the Chinese Dream …

A side-by-side comparison of the textbook and the 2013 article The Chinese Dream and the path of modernization for China

Textbook: Over the past 100 years, the Chinese had frequently asked themselves and been asked this question: Where should China go? Many believe the answer lies in what has been termed the Chinese Dream — becoming a prosperous nation with its people well taken care of.

Article: The Chinese Dream, featuring national prosperity, rejuvenation and people’s welfare, is actually the answer to the question of “where should China go”; a question which has been asked by the Chinese people during the past 100 years.

Textbook: After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese have forged their own unique way forward, along the developmental path of socialist modernisation and have had remarkable achievements. Now China is the closest it has been to being a super power of the world.

Article: After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, especially after the Reform and Opening up Program was initiated, the Chinese have found a unique development path for socialist modernization with remarkable achievements. … Now China is the closest it has been since the beginning of the modern Chinese history, to the achievement of restoring the glory of the Chinese nation.

On the rise of Chinese power …

Textbook: This self-change to rejuvenate their nation was so successful that it took the Chinese only one generation, or about 30 years, to achieve the level of modernisation that most Western countries had taken 200 to 300 years to.

Article: On this path, China has completed the development process within the time of one generation (approx. 30 years), a process that took the West 200-300 years. 

Textbook: The dream of the Chinese over the past 100 years can be summarised as thus: China becoming equal to any other nation on the international stage.

Article: The dream of the Chinese people during the past one hundred years can be summarised as the dream mentioned by Chairman Mao Zedong – the Chinese nation becoming an equal nation on the international stage.

On Socialism with Chinese characteristics …

Textbook: The Chinese believe that only when the nation is united and led by a strong government can it continue developing into an advanced country. In this respect, China has carved out its own niche in the way forward, that is democracy under a socialist system with Chinese characteristics.

Article: Therefore, a reunified China and a strong government become a prerequisite for formulating any modernization plan. The Chinese Path coined by overseas media, in essence, is to let a strong Chinese government with strong governance capabilities take a leading role during the development process … That is the reason why we have and employ the theories and practices of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

The theme “Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” was at the centre of a Xi-authored body of political thought written into the Communist party charter in 2017.

Portions of the Chinese Dream section are very similar to a 2013 article on the state-run news organisation, written by the deputy director of the Chinese Marxism Institute at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Fang Songhua.

Fitzgerald said the Chinese Marxism Institute was “a boilerplate Leninist Communist party propaganda operation”.

The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences has been alleged by the FBI to have links to Chinese intelligence operatives. There is no suggestion that either the publisher or the authors of the textbook have any such links.

The textbook’s authors, Xu and Ha, are the president and vice president respectively of the Chinese Language Teachers Association of Victoria, and Xu is chief examiner for VCE Chinese as a second language.

Both authors were key figures in the development of the VCE Chinese language culture and society subject, designed to attract students from non-Chinese backgrounds.

The preface says the authors wrote the textbook because teachers were calling for material “that can guide the teaching and learning of this course”.

The subject is taught at 37 Victorian schools in 2020. While it’s not clear precisely how many use the textbook, schools that show it on their publicly available book list include Lauriston Girls’ School, Trinity Grammar, Werribee Secondary and Alkira Secondary.

Xu said he and Ha had never intended “to include any political propaganda in our book as we don’t have any political stance towards any political party or any political organisation”.

“We used the most resources that we could find at the time when we were writing the book,” Xu said.

“We just intent to provide some background information only without any political prejudice or political stance for our users to make their critical judgment.”

Xu said he had been in Australia for almost 30 years “and love the politically free atmosphere of my life here in Australia”.

“I won’t speak, or in your words, propagandise for any political party or politician as I am not interested in politics at all and don’t have any political stance for any political party or organisation.”

Ha confirmed the textbook was used at Camberwell Grammar “as a reference, not compulsory for everyone”.

The textbook also discusses the virtues of Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and China’s need to build up its “Comprehensive National Power”.

An excerpt reads: “the Chinese view the Western notion of personal and political freedoms as unfeasible in a huge country like China … Instead, they value a strong central government led by people who have the people’s interests at heart.”

Fitzgerald said: “Much of the book is innocuous, but what is presented in these passages and the map is an unvarnished Chinese Communist party view of the world which has no place in a ‘textbook’ anywhere outside China.”

The Chinese Language Culture and Society textbook used in Victorian schools.

The publisher said China’s modernisation was “intertwined with the policies of the Chinese government, and any discussion of these aspects of the country, however superficial, cannot escape this reality, even if the CCP is not mentioned”.

“It should not be the case that presenting these topics without political critique immediately marks them as ‘propaganda’ since the authors’ intention is only to provide background information and describe China’s engagement with the world,” the Cengage spokesperson said.

The spokesperson pointed to a passage that described “many low-income and poorly-educated citizens, high levels of corruption and a weak civil society” and other portions that were critical of the one-child policy and employment shortages.

These were “hardly what one expects in a propaganda piece”, the spokesperson said, and readers were also expected to address the Chinese Dream section critically.

The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority said the textbook “is not and has never been on the prescribed text list approved by the VCAA for Chinese Language Culture and Society”.

The VCAA doesn’t prescribe any textbook for the course but has a number of other approved texts, such as chapters from particular books, a play and a film.

Fitzgerald argued this exposed an urgent vulnerability in the education system.

“The Victorian Curriculum Authority says it has no responsibility for overseeing that, well the question then is, who does?”

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