International Children’s Day passes largely unnoticed in Europe and America, but is still celebrated in many parts of Asia. Originally established to raise awareness of child abuse and enhance the protection of youngsters, in China it’s become an occasion for the Communist party to pass on its propaganda to younger generations.
China’s theme for Children’s Day this year is Chinese Dream - a concept created by newly elected party chief Xi Jinping. And while the well-known American Dream celebrates individual success, the Chinese Dream emphasises the revival of the nation. The Communist party wants people to strive and make sacrifices for this dream. Children, often referred to as “Flowers of the motherland”, also have an important part to play in this grand scheme.
Chang Ping, former Director of News at Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly, wrote this opinion piece for RNW’s China Desk, condemning the “political duties” the Communist Party imposes on children, around International Children’s Day.
Many children and parents complain that rather than having a relaxing break, they’re additionally burdened on Children’s Day. Indeed, children face a lot of pressure at school due to the emphasis on good grades. Yet on occasions like this, their already scarce spare time is taken up by political performances. The theme for this year’s performance was “to praise Chinese Dream, depict Chinese Dream and realise Chinese Dream in various art forms”. They were also required to sing songs to show their loyalty to the party.
An outsider might think that if a child is not interested, has a different opinion, or doesn’t have time, he or she can choose not to participate. But this is very much NOT the case. Participation is usually obligatory. Not just the schools pressure their pupils to join in, but also parents. Taking part in political performances on this sort of occasion is seen as offering one of the few chances to move upward in a strictly hierarchical society. Parents know their children will have a difficult time if they differ from their peers. Chinese society doesn’t tolerate difference, let alone accepting open opposition.
Weary and waiting
I have been to one of the performances, and seen the poor children waiting for their turn to go on stage. The directors knew very well that parents will go to great lengths to secure such an opportunity for their children. They‘ll use their connections, and even offer bribes. The children are required to be present during the rehearsal and the performance, no matter how trivial their role is. They hang about waiting, starving, breathing the stuffy air, and wearing heavy make-up. If they’re unlucky, their particular part of the show might be cancelled by the end of the day. For even a fleeting moment of glory, one must suffer.
Worse still, this kind of performance is a brainwashing process. Each Chinese leader has their own propaganda style. No matter whether it’s Hu Jintao’s harmonious society, or Xi’s Chinese Dream, children are always ready tools for this kind of political propaganda. As the ministerial red-tape merchants put it: through incorporating socialist core values and Chinese Dream into the performances, they aim to influence children gradually and imperceptibly.
What is Chinese Dream? According to Xi, it is the grand revival of the Chinese nation. The nationalist tone here is quite unsettling. Some political experts pointed out that it indicates the centralisation of governmental control, rather than allowing Chinese people civil rights. The Economist recently compared Xi to Qianlong Emperor, a Manchurian ruler of China’s last feudal dynasty. He arrogantly refused Britain’s diplomatic overtures as he believed his empire was self-sufficient and didn’t need foreign trade. The fact is, many Chinese still look back proudly to the era under his rule - an era when China controlled 1/3 of the world’s wealth.
Chinese state media also contributed their own campaigns propagating and interpreting the Chinese Dream. They declare that constitutionalism is unsuitable for China. Western democracy works only regionally, and this doesn’t include China. Adults may joke about these campaigns, but children are forced to internalise these notions through their festive performances. Since the 1990s, the party has strengthened its nationalist education and we are witnessing the consequences.