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

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

Guards changing shifts beneath the portrait of the former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing after a flag-raising ceremony this month. Credit Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press       

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.”

Interactive Feature           

How Fluent Are You in the Teachings of Mao?           

The following questions were compiled from the English-language version of the tests that are administered during “An Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought,” an online course offered by edX. Test your knowledge of the chairman’s philosophy by taking the quiz.           

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

Now it is turning to a new tool: online education, a rapidly growing industry that promises access to 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 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 to the party’s views.

Aiming to expand their offerings and draw a global audience, Chinese universities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sleek videos and translations. 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 open discussion and dissent.

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.


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