How the SATs may undermine China’s Communist Party

(Bigstock photo)
(Bigstock)

“SAT reform causes worry of ideology intrusion,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency wrote this week.

Earlier this year, the U.S. College Board amended its syllabus for SAT college entrance exam to include reading passages from the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Students will be expected to learn about the values of “freedom, justice and human dignity," the College Board says, not only as “a way to develop valuable college and career readiness skills but also an opportunity to reflect on and deeply engage with issues and concerns central to informed citizenship.”

Exams will also test students on what the College Board calls the Great Global Conversation based on those values — through the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, as well as through essays by Henry David Thoreau on civil disobedience or by Elizabeth Cady Stanton on women’s suffrage.

In Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper, SAT coach Kelly Yang wrote that the new test will instill American values into “impressionable young Chinese minds.”

“In some ways. the U.S. College Board has created a test as un-Chinese as they come,” wrote Yang, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard Law School, adding that “hundreds of thousands of students all over China will be poring over the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights with the same zeal and tenacity they once reserved for quadratic equations.”

She wrote, “If the new SAT succeeds, it will be the first time America is able to systematically shape the views, beliefs and ideologies of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students every year, not through a popular television show or a politician's speaking tour, but through what the Chinese care about most — exams.”

The changes are global, but they come at a sensitive time in China, since new President Xi Jinping has specifically instructed the Communist Party to guard against “political perils” embodied in Western values such as democracy, civil society and press freedom. Little wonder that Xinhua, which rigidly adheres to the party line at all times, was a little concerned.

On social media, some Netizens echoed that concern, suggesting that the test was an American attempt to brainwash people. But others mocked the authorities for being worried, arguing that Chinese students had been inculcated with official propaganda since birth.

“Now you wet your pants out of fear of a U.S. test? Isn’t that a little bit too unconfident?” one asked.

“Only you are allowed to brainwash? Not anyone else,” another asked the Chinese government.

In any case, the concerns are probably exaggerated. The number of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. universities and colleges has nearly tripled in the past five years, reaching 235,597 in 2012-2013, without any sign that the surge in foreign study has become a direct threat to Communist Party rule.

As Elizabeth Economy at the Council on Foreign Relations pointed out in a recent blog post, “The educational histories of some of the United States’ strongest critics in China are replete with time spent in the United States,” while many of those who most appreciate what the American system has to offer end up staying in the United States after their studies.

In the end, even Xinhua concluded that the test probably won’t change anything much in China just yet.

“We have been studying in China for 12 years,” Tang Anran, a 20-year-old Beijing woman and Ohio State University student, told Xinhua. “Several months of test preparation will change nothing. We learn knowledge for the exam, and after that, we forget it.”

“Don’t worry,” agreed Li Kaisheng, a deputy researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, posting on a microblogging service. “The habit Chinese students have formed is that they only memorize things but not absorb them. They forget about everything once the test is over.”

Xu Jing and Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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