China refines official take on U.S. past to give its schoolchildren a softer view

Beijing's shift toward capitalism reflected in textbooks

July 30, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - In describing the great westward expansion of the United States, Chinese high school history books used to focus on the slaughter of American Indians, recounting how many died and how many villages were destroyed.

Authors of recently rewritten texts, though, have added a line noting that the decimation of the Indians opened up land for agriculture and sped the development of the U.S. economy.

This small change marks a big shift in the way China teaches its children about "mei guo" - or the "beautiful country" - as America is called in Chinese.

Instead of demonizing the United States, as Mao Tse-tung often did, China's education establishment emphasizes its accomplishments and strengths.

Chinese educators have moved from vilification in hopes of giving students a more accurate and less ideological introduction to the outside world.

And as China continues to trade socialism for a more market-oriented economy, it has become increasingly difficult to malign capi- talism when so many here practice it.

The push for a more objective assessment of Western and U.S. history is a welcome step in developing better understanding between two vastly different societies.

"In the past, we used to say, `Down with American imperialism,'" recalled Zhang Weirong, who has taught history for more than two decades in Beijing.

"Now we say whatever is good in America, we will learn from."

Chen Weicong teaches 10th-grade world history at Beijing University Affiliated High School, one of the top schools in the capital.

Anyone expecting Marxist-laden rants will be disappointed. Chen's lessons are notable for their fairness and accuracy.

Armed with a giant-screen television, videotapes and a green blackboard, the 39-year-old tears through lessons on 20th-century foreign affairs, focusing heavily on the United States.

Chen shows black-and-white newsreel footage of the Khrushchev-Nixon "kitchen debate," when the Russian premier and U.S. vice president met in 1959, and shots of fighter jets lifting off from U.S. aircraft carriers during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The class of about 50 students follows along in a textbook, "World Contemporary and Modern History," which includes a cartoon of Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy arm-wrestling while sitting atop nuclear bombs.

Chen maintains an entertaining and breezy style as she moves to Ronald Reagan and the eventual collapse of China's communist cousin, the Soviet Union.

She explains how the U.S. military buildup and threat to develop a missile shield known as "star wars" helped hasten the Soviet Union's economic demise.

"What is the purpose?" Chen asks rhetorically. "To drag down the Russian economy. Did America reach its goal?"

"Yes," answer the students.

Although Chen's presentation is fairly straightforward, several students rip into U.S. policy after class.

"It's hideous," said Wang Wei, 16, blaming the U.S. military buildup for the suffering of the Soviet people. "America is base, not gentlemanly."

The treatment of American Indians - though not covered in the day's lesson - comes under attack as well.

"They shouldn't be chased from their homeland just because people from Europe were stronger technologically," Wang said. "If people chased you from your homeland, how would you feel?"

While Chinese high school texts now present U.S. history in a pretty fair and accurate light, they airbrush out inconvenient facts regarding China.

One nettlesome subject is the Korean War, which began in the summer of 1950 when Chinese ally North Korea invaded the South in an attempt to reunify the peninsula.

The United States came to the South's defense; Chinese troops later fought beside those from the Stalinist North. Nowhere do the books mention that North Korea started it.

"We just say the war broke out," said Li Weike, a professor at Northeast Normal University and one of the textbook's authors.

Why not just print the truth?

"We don't want to tell too many details to confuse students," said Li, who seems uncomfortable covering for government censors.

Another problem: How does China's authoritarian regime explain the United States' success without delving into the role that democracy and political freedom have played in the nation's development?

Given the strict limits on the expression of political ideas here, the authors have tried to subtly address the issue of democracy without incurring the wrath of the Communist Party.

"Actually, we mention this connection between the political system and economic development, but we haven't explained it," said Xu Bin, another of the book's authors.

"We talk about the American spirit indirectly," added Chen Qi, director of the history textbook writing department, who said the book quotes from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

While the authors have had to dodge some major issues and ignore others, they occasionally highlight less significant events.

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