China’s Online Courses for the World: Tweaking International Media Coverage for Chinese Eyes


On Oct 21, the New York Times ran an interesting article entitled China Turns to Online Courses, and Mao, in Pursuit of Soft Power.  Sure enough, Xinhua’s Cankao Xiaoxi picked it up and translated it for the masses just two days later, with an enhanced title that focuses on capturing foreign eyeballs (中文原文):


Cankao Xiaoxi is a respected and influential Chinese-language digest of the world press with a long history, and in many newsstands across the mainland the 8- or 16-page edition — black-and-white, almost no graphics, on cheap paper that smudges easily over breakfast — sells out every day before noon. Virtually no English is used and little content is added to the text proper. Packaging elements like headlines, sub-heads and captions, however, are totally refurbished, and references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often “airbrushed.”

As usual in my pieces on Cankao Xiaoxi, I run the original English copy immediately below. For the benefit of English speakers who cannot read the Chinese version, I cross out the specific words that were deleted when the article was translated, and indicate any added copy (normally just for readability’s sake) by putting it [in brackets]. This way one can see just how Cankao’s editors “re-package” foreign copy for domestic consumption.


China Turns to Online Courses, and Mao, in Pursuit of Soft Power

[China Making Use of Online Courses to Attract Foreign Audiences]

By JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ [US New York Times online ] Oct. 21, 2015 [report] [Original headline: China Using Online Courses and Mao Zedong Thought to Promote Soft Power] [(Reporter Hernandez’s Hong Kong dispatch)]

HONG KONG — Karla Cabrera, a 29-year-old lawyer in Mexico City, was excited when she came across “Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought,” an online course about the Chinese revolutionary leader. She has a passion for Chinese history, and she hoped the class would shed light on the brutal political battles that took place under Mao’s rule.

But when Ms. Cabrera began watching the lectures on edX, a popular online education platform owned and administered by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was disappointed.

Each class opened with a patriotic video montage. Talk of Mao’s errors was minimal, restricted to the Communist Party line. The professor, a faculty member at Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious universities, seemed eager to mimic Mao himself, dressing in a tunic suit and referring to Maoism as a “magic bullet” for the party.

“It was like watching propaganda,” Ms. Cabrera said in a telephone interview. “They just told you what they wanted you to know.”

As China seeks to extend its global clout [influence], it has gone to great lengths [made an effort] in recent years to promote its culture and values abroad, building vast media operations overseas and opening hundreds of language and cultural outposts [centers].

Now it is turning  [getting help from] to a new tool: online education, a rapidly growing industry that promises access to  [to attract] millions of students and the endorsement of some of the world’s most renowned institutions.

When “Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought,” taught by Feng Wuzhong, an associate professor at Tsinghua’s School of Marxism, made its debut last month, it quickly found a large audience, attracting about 3,100 students from 125 countries, including more than 700 from the United States.

The course is one of more than a hundred offered on edX and other top [major] education platforms by mainland Chinese universities. There are classes on philosophy, architecture and computer science, but also a handful on subjects deemed politically sensitive in China, such as international relations or law, in which Chinese professors must adhere  [teach according] to the [communist] party’s views.

Aiming to expand  [ensure] their offerings [courses] and draw a global audience, Chinese universities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars [huge sums] on sleek videos and [providing] translations [in foreign languages]. They are advising instructors to abandon dull lecturing styles. And they are coaching professors on how to deal with foreign students, telling them to embrace [accept] open discussion and dissent [alternative viewpoints].

But the effort faces significant challenges, most notably convincing overseas students that their courses are intellectually compelling and rigorous, despite China’s strict limits on academic freedom. It also puts online education providers in a difficult position, forcing them to strike a balance between preserving academic freedom and maintaining high standards for thousands of courses.

Yong Zhao, an education professor at the University of Oregon, compared China’s push in online education to its efforts to build an international following for its flagship news network, CCTV, over the past decade.

“China has been on the receiving end of education for a long time, and now it has a big opportunity,” Professor Zhao said. “The question is, can it really reach anybody? Does it have the same credentials, quality and authenticity?”

Under President Xi Jinping,  Chinese universities have faced  [are facing] enormous pressure to build [launch top-class] programs that rival those of the great institutions of the West. At the same time, government officials have urged universities to promote Chinese values, by discouraging  [not permitting] the use of Western textbooks, for example, and offering more courses on thinkers like Confucius and Marx.

For many universities, online education provides a way to achieve both those objectives.

“Putting courses on international platforms can help promote Chinese culture,” said Shi Xuelin, who oversees the online curriculum for Tsinghua. “It also helps boost the school’s reputation.”

China’s top universities have forged ties with several leading online education providers based in the United States, including edX and Coursera, to bring their offerings to millions of users, joining the ranks of schools like Columbia, Princeton and Yale. The courses are generally free though some schools offer the option of paying a fee for a certificate of completion.  The Chinese [university] courses are typically taught in Mandarin but with English subtitles.

Xi’an Jiaotong University provides a course on Chinese philosophy. Nanjing University has started a class on the [overseas Jews] Jewish diaspora in China. Shanghai Jiao Tong University is  promoting [just now launching] a course on Chinese medicine and traditional culture.

Over the summer, Tsinghua presented a course on Chinese politics and economics titled, “Will China Rise as a Disruptive Force? The Insiders’ Perspective.”

When edX approached Tsinghua about offering a class on heroes in Chinese culture, university officials suggested a course on Mao and socialism, a requirement in Chinese universities that many students loathe for its brittle pronouncements on party thought. The course is not about Mao’s life, but rather his political theories, a form of Marxism that the party honors as a guiding ideology, but that most Chinese, including officials, all but ignore as irrelevant.

Professor Feng devised a condensed version of that course  the [“Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought,”] course, broken into four chapters that cover topics like Marxism and revolutionary theory. The online course provides a discussion forum. Tests are administered regularly. Those who pass are granted a certificate of completion.

Several students said they found the course to be closed-minded, adding that  it glossed over more controversial aspects of Mao’s tenure [time in political power], like the famine caused by the [“]Great Leap Forward [“] and the chaos [caused by launching] of the Cultural Revolution.

“It was way too ideological, with very little self-criticism,” said Scott Drucks, 65, an American retiree who lives in Hong Kong.

Still, some said they found it enlightening. Asher de Sadeleer, 25, a student from the Netherlands, said he gained a better understanding of why Mao [Zedong] is revered in China.

“I got a more nuanced, fuller perspective on Mao Zedong, who remains a major historical character, whether you like him or not,” he wrote in an email.

The online course seems to be more popular with Chinese students, who say they enjoy reading the reactions of foreign students in the discussion forums.

“Sure, it may be a bit like propaganda, but it’s something that’s being taught in every school in China,” said Xie Xinyan, 27, a medical student in Tianjin. “More Chinese universities should offer these kinds of courses because it gives the world a window into China.”

Professor Feng said he decided to offer the course to counter misperceptions about Mao.

“People either think he was a god or a demon, but Mao was neither,” he said.

Several prominent China experts in the United States said they believed the Mao course did not deserve to be hosted by edX.

Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of Chinese history and politics at Harvard, said he was “staggered” that edX would offer the class. Rebecca Karl, an associate professor of history at New York University, called it “pure hack stuff” and said it should be discontinued.

But edX defended the class, saying that it would not interfere in content, so long as it was not unlawful or offensive. In a statement, the chief executive of edX, Anant Agarwal, called Tsinghua “one of the leading academic institutions in the world.”

A spokesman for Harvard declined to discuss the matter, and M.I.T. did not respond to requests for comment.

To some scholars, China’s ambitions in online education resemble the country’s efforts over the past decade to improve public opinion about China by creating a global network of learning centers known as Confucius Institutes.

Li Xiaoming, a computer science professor at Peking University who helps lead its online efforts, said there were some similarities. A course on Chinese for beginners has attracted about 300,000 students, he noted.

“Sometimes we teachers joke that we are actually doing [the job of] Confucius Institutes, just with a more advanced technological approach,” he said.

By aggressively pursuing online education, Chinese leaders seem eager to replicate the success of the United States, which has long derived influence from educating hundreds of thousands [large numbers] of foreign students each year on American campuses.

Joseph S. Nye, a scholar of international relations at Harvard who developed the concept of “soft power,” said China’s success would depend on whether it was able to deliver courses in a way that offered a genuine exchange of ideas.

“The most effective [political] propaganda,” he said, “is not [to do political] propaganda.”

Mia Li and Adam Wu contributed research from Beijing.

2 thoughts on “China’s Online Courses for the World: Tweaking International Media Coverage for Chinese Eyes

  1. Hello Bruce, and greetings from Beijing:
    I just saw your blog for the first time on The Sinocism Newsletter. Please advise how I can subscribe to it.

    Many thanks,



  2. Thanks, Bruce. A very interesting article. (I was directed to it by Bill Bishop, in the Sinocism newsletter). Statement of fact (in my observations): the CPC is very adamant that it (the CPC) and China, the people and country, are one and the same, and that those who oppose the CPC, also oppose China and it’s “rising up.” Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Most who oppose and criticize the CPC love China and its people. My suggestion: please ensure in your articles that there is always a differentiation between the CPC and the country China.


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