In the era of Mao Zedong, China used propaganda posters to urge young people to create a great socialist nation. After the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Communist Party rewrote textbooks to deliver its version of history and to steer its young away from Western ideas.
Today, China is embarked on another campaign to re-educate its young people. The message is more blatantly nationalistic than anything in recent decades, with President Xi Jinping’s image often at the center. And it is far more sophisticated than anything Beijing has attempted in the past.
Slick videos on social media are notching millions of views. One episode of a popular video series called Year Hare Affair, co-produced by a Communist Party organization, featured a bald eagle dressed in an American flag plotting with talking cockroaches to create chaos in Hong Kong. Cute Chinese rabbits show up to fight off the cockroaches.
Pan Borui, a 19-year-old freshman at a Beijing college, got hooked last year on the cartoons, which he said will “shape the thinking of the next generation of Chinese.” He said he knew they were made with party support, but said most Chinese still considered them very accurate and more accessible than traditional news reports.
Chinese leaders have always tried to encourage patriotism. In Mao’s era, young people learned about “Mao Zedong Thought” and class struggle and sang revolutionary songs. Curriculum changes in the early 1990s began spreading the narrative that China was suffering at the hands of the West.
Yet polls of university students about a decade ago showed that many saw those efforts as clumsy and transparent. Many identified themselves as holding liberal or Western political views.
Previous leaders such as Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi’s predecessor, were wary of pushing propaganda too hard, fearful it could inflame nationalism in ways that might destabilize China. They wanted to speed economic development and were willing to allow some debate over Western ideas.
Under Mr. Xi, patriotic education has become sharper and more widespread. Chinese authorities learned from recent unrest among teenagers and young adults in Hong Kong that indoctrination has to start young, according to Stanley Rosen, a Chinese politics professor at the University of Southern California.
“We need to seize this critical period that determines and forms teenagers’ values and guide them so they can do up life’s first buckle,” Mr. Xi explained in one August 2018 meeting.
Beijing’s ambitions are laid out in a document published by the State Council, China’s cabinet, in November 2019, which said “patriotism is the most natural and simple emotion of the Chinese. We must insist on starting from when they are babies, focusing on consolidating the roots, concentrating on the soul.”
The 9,000-word document includes instructions for government and party officials to promote movies, news and classroom lessons with Mr. Xi’s ideology and his plans for China’s rejuvenation. It calls on authorities to capitalize on teenagers’ interests in online games, animation and short videos “so that patriotism can fill the internet space.”
The Military Correspondent, a news journal sponsored by the People’s Liberation Army, has said China’s military must increase use of social-media platforms, which it calls “gathering places for younger users.”
The Changing Face of Chinese Propaganda
During Mao Zedong’s reign, China used propaganda posters, art and tales of revolutionary heroes to instill a spirit of nationalism.
During the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 to 1976, political posters were designed to further Mao’s ideological campaign.
After the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Communist Party began revising textbooks to play up the notion of China as a “victim” of the West.
Patriotic education guidelines were released, with museums and martyr memorials designated as patriotic education sites for people to visit.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has turned to social media and animation to get his message out, with government accounts helping to burnish his image.
One of the most popular video efforts has been Year Hare Affair, an animated series that uses talking animals to represent countries and illustrate world political events, with a pro-China spin.
Surveys suggest younger Chinese people today are fiercely patriotic and more loyal to their country than previous generations. Academics, parents and teenagers said in interviews that young people have many reasons to be proud of China, including its economic growth and success in containing Covid-19.
One kindergarten in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou interspersed its lessons in September with four days of what it called “military training” for its 5- and 6-year-olds. The children, dressed in military fatigues, held Chinese flags and performed salutes, according to the school’s official WeChat social-media account.
The school’s principal said in a speech that the goal was to encourage children to be strong and to persevere like young Chinese soldiers.
The roots of the current patriotic campaign reach back to 2013, soon after Mr. Xi ascended to power. That year, party leaders wrote a policy memo, Document No. 9, which warned of seven threats to the party, including the rise of Western notions of civil society and a free press. It called on party members to strengthen resistance to infiltration by outside ideas.
In 2016, the government appointed a new education minister, Chen Baosheng, who pushed for more patriotic teaching. Mr. Chen was a party veteran whose main academic experience was serving as vice president of the Communist Party’s Central Party School, which trains Party cadres. Mr. Xi was the school’s president during most of Mr. Chen’s tenure there.
In a speech that year, Mr. Chen warned that “hostile forces” versed in “internet language” were trying to subvert China’s education system to weaken the party and spread the wrong kind of thinking. “Once the students come into contact with it, they are easily deceived, and is the equivalent to the white cloth entering the dye vat,” he said.
The Chinese government reversed a policy that allowed provincial governments to choose their own textbooks, and required any learning material dealing with national sovereignty, ethnicity and religion to be approved by authorities.
It also rewrote textbook sections, including extending the length of China’s war with Japan in the 1930s and 40s by six years to include what it has described as earlier Japanese acts of aggression, amplifying China’s sacrifices. High-school students were required to study a new politics volume, “Socialism in the New Era with Chinese Characteristics,” that focuses on Mr. Xi’s accomplishments. His name appears in the book at least 46 times, compared with 16 mentions of Mao.
Three Chinese teachers described in interviews what they said were efforts to silence debate in schools over the party’s achievements. They said they were asked to give poor grades to exam essays if students took unapproved stances, such as portraying the government’s handling of Covid-19 in a negative light.
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In Beijing, authorities introduced a program with compulsory student visits to museums with nationalist and revolutionary messages. One features an exhibition devoted to Mr. Xi, with a painting of youths admiring him, echoing Mao-era images of that leader surrounded by adoring young people.
A preschool in the city of Yueyang had students dress in army-green Communist Party suits and walk in a nearby national park to commemorate the Long March, a yearlong, 5,600-mile trek made by Red Army soldiers to escape Nationalist forces during the civil war. The children stopped to harvest sweet potatoes and wild vegetables for lunch, just like during the 1930s march, according to a website run by China’s propaganda ministry.
The education ministry also made changes at the university level, including requiring universities to boost Marxist education. The charters of some prestigious universities were amended to place absolute adherence to party rule over academic independence.
This year, China updated its Law for the Protection of Minors, striking “independent thinking” from the list of assets schools are meant to cultivate.
In 2016, the party issued what it said were reform guidelines calling on its Communist Youth League to help lead on social media. The Youth League began opening accounts on platforms including Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. It also started an official account on Bilibili, a video-hosting platform akin to China’s YouTube whose users are mainly under 25. The Youth League and its regional arms now have almost 11.5 million followers there.
A graduate student from China’s Inner Mongolia University analyzed 541 Communist Youth League videos published between March 2018 and March 2020 and found that the videos, which focused mostly on patriotic or otherwise pro-party content, attracted 130 million likes. Some logged more than 100,000 comments.
One of the most effective video efforts has been Year Hare Affair, launched in 2015, initially without government involvement, by illustrator and self-professed military geek Lin Chao.
The animated series uses talking animals to represent world political events, with a pro-China spin. The British are represented as bulls, the French as chickens. They are often seen doing the bidding of the American eagle, who is sometimes seen chomping on a cigar and issuing orders.
One episode in the first season featured Chinese rabbits, wearing green Communist hats and red stars on their bellies, finishing development of an atomic bomb, to the surprise of the eagle. The cartoon said the development “helps Chinese people to finally stand up straight.”
Mr. Lin, the creator, has said in interviews that he wasn’t always sure the government would like the series, because some episodes might offend foreigners. But it attracted at least 100 million views in its first season, and authorities quickly got on board.
At first, the Youth League helped promote the work on social media and organized public events to introduce people to Mr. Lin. Later, the Youth League, China’s military and the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, a Party committee that oversees the police, co-produced episodes.
The Youth League has tied up with celebrities, including Chinese rock stars and national athletes, to attract more eyeballs.
Mr. Lin, the Youth League, the military and the commission didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Some Chinese parents said in interviews that they didn’t mind the rise in patriotic content. Unlike in Hong Kong, where some parents are unnerved by an increase in patriotic behavior in schools and changes in textbooks, many in mainland China are apathetic about it.
One teacher said her students recognize propaganda and often sigh or make faces when encountering political texts. One study, though, suggests that at least some students are embracing the message.
The study, published in September by researchers from Shanxi University, found that Chinese teens born after 1998 are more patriotic than their predecessors. They cited an online survey of more than 580 teenagers in which more than 90% used terms such as “lucky” and “satisfied” to describe how they felt about growing up in China.
Young people realize China’s power and are proud of it, the academics wrote, unlike earlier generations, who regarded China as a backward country and believed Western values could change it. Many even dreamed of moving to the West.
Charlie Hong, a schoolteacher in Chongqing, said that is no longer the case. When he asked his students if they would like to immigrate to a different country, he said, all except one said no.
—Yoko Kubota and Jonathan Cheng contributed to this article.
Write to Liza Lin at Liza.Lin@wsj.com
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