Foreign Policy Blogs

Britain to Import School Textbooks from Chinese Communist Party Publisher

In a bid to raise student math scores while ingratiating itself ever more deeply with China, Britain will now import translated Chinese math textbooks and Chinese teaching methods for schools throughout the country. The wholesale adoption of Chinese teaching methods for math is the brainchild of Britain’s China-happy schools minister Nick Gibb; and emphasizes a “collective approach,” uniformity, and Chinese-style rote learning over individualized Western methods. Textbooks will be imported through a deal between HarperCollins Publishers and a publisher in Shanghai. The deal was lauded in Shanghai as a “delightful” soft-power boost for China.

What HarperCollins and the UK education department haven’t told the British public about “The Shanghai Maths Project” is that these textbooks come straight from a Chinese state-run publisher that operates under the direct authority of the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda and censorship apparatus. The publisher in question is Shanghai Century Publishing Group (上海世纪出版 [集团] 有限公司 or 上海世纪出版集团, SHCPG). As the SHCPG website clearly states in Chinese, the group was established in 1999 under the authority of the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department (中共中央宣传部), the Shanghai Municipal Communist Party Committee (中共上海市委), and the State Council’s Press and Publication Administration (新闻出版总署).

SHCPG’s subordinate relationship to these agencies is widely noted in Chinese media reports on SHCPG and its agreement with HarperCollins. SHCPG’s president, Gao Yunfei (高韵斐), is also the organization’s Communist Party secretary. As the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China observes, the Press and Publication Administration that oversees SHCPG is one of the primary agencies responsible for censorship in China.

SHCPG also works closely with the Communist Youth League (中国共产主义青年团 or 中国共青团), the party agency responsible for indoctrinating Chinese youth from primary school through university. The SHCPG website includes a section dedicated entirely to “Youth League Activities.”

In Shanghai in August 2016, SHCPG prominently took part in a state-run book fair to “promote the core values of Chinese socialism” and to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Among the titles SHCPG promoted at the fair was: To Be Turned Into Iron, The Metal Itself Must Be Strong: How to Be a Member of the Communist Party (打铁还需自身硬: 今天如何做一名合格的共产党员). In 2015, SHCPG marked the 94th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party with awards for “outstanding party workers and party-building projects” within the organization.

Now SHCPG will be supplying textbooks to students in British schools. As China Global Television Network notes, “These textbooks, created for students in China, will be translated exactly with no editing to adjust them to the UK’s local curriculum.” Britain is simply importing Chinese government curriculum lock, stock, and barrel, with translated textbooks from a state-run Chinese Communist Party publisher.

Not everyone in Britain is as happy about this arrangement as Nick Gibb and HarperCollins are. “Why are we blindly following the Chinese approach to teaching maths?” asks British educational scholar Ruth Merttens, “A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to improve children’s learning. Worse still, it undermines more important features of our culture and heritage, where we punch above our weight in creativity and celebrate originality and difference rather than uniformity.”

Merttens called the education department’s mandatory application of Chinese teaching methods “profoundly undemocratic.” No wonder, since China and the Chinese educational system that Britain so wishes to emulate are also profoundly undemocratic.

The Shanghai textbook deal follows a “disastrous experiment” in bringing math teachers from Shanghai to instruct British students according to Chinese methods. “I’m used to speaking my mind in class, being bold, giving ideas, often working in groups to advance my skills and improve my knowledge,” said one student, “But a lot of the time in the experiment, the only thing I felt I was learning was how to copy notes really fast and listen to the teacher lecture us.”

Beyond the issue of Chinese school textbooks and teaching methods, the British government has been broadly criticized for its starry-eyed approach to Sino-British relations and its apparent love affair with any and all things Chinese. Current prime minister Theresa May and former prime minister David Cameron have both been accused of  “grovelling,” “kowtowing,” and “sucking up” to China in pursuit of trade deals with the one-party state. Among Brexit fears is the concern that Britain will become only more dependent on China after leaving the European Union.

Math textbooks are of course unlikely to contain a great deal of overtly political content. But if it’s math textbooks today, one might reasonably ask, then what will it be tomorrow? Chinese language and culture programs at educational institutions throughout the UK are already run by the Chinese government’s Confucius Institutes, a noted part of Beijing’s “overseas propaganda” apparatus whose presence on Western campuses has been described as “academic malware” and as an educational “Trojan horse” due to their censorship practices and overtly propagandist character. Is it wise to give the Chinese government an even greater footprint in British education?

One might reasonably also question the moral acceptability of a publishing deal that directly profits and legitimizes a party-state apparatus recognized as one of the worst human rights violators in the world. To purchase textbooks from a Chinese Communist Party publisher is to enrich and validate the same party-state agencies that suppress freedom of expression, freedom of information, and academic freedom in China. “The Shanghai Maths Project” is one that educational stakeholders in Britain may wish to think twice about.



Mark C. Eades

Mark C. Eades is an Asia-based writer, educator, and independent researcher. Located in Shanghai, China from 2009 to 2015, he now splits his time between the United States and various locations in Asia. He has spent a total of seven years in China since his first visit in 1991, and has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai. He is also widely traveled throughout East and Southeast Asia. His educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and a Master of Arts in Humanities from San Francisco State University with extensive coursework in Asia-Pacific studies. His previous publications include articles on China and Sino-US relations in U.S. News & World Report, Asia Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and Atlantic Community. Twitter: @MC_Eades