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China Turns to Online Courses, and Mao, in Pursuit of Soft Power
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.
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.”
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.
“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 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 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 propaganda,” he said, “is not propaganda.”
JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ
China correspondent, The New York Times