The Chinese leadership’s campaign against Western lifestyles flies in the face of the growing number of young Chinese who study abroad or engage in youth exchanges with Western countries.

Student with books in front of car

China’s party and state leader Xi Jinping is not known to be a friend of “Western values”. Throughout the recent past, Chinese authorities have taken measures to limit the intrusion of allegedly harmful foreign influences on China’s youth, which are vaguely defined as anything from lose sexual mores to attitudes towards consumption.

Education officials pressure schools and universities to remove “foreign material” from classrooms and China’s media regulator announced a ban on entertainment programmes that glorify “Western lifestyles”, such as shows that flaunt wealth and encourage the adulation of pop stars and other celebrities.

The only problem with this campaign is that while “Western ideas” are under attack in China, young Chinese in search of education or adventure keep flocking to the West with highest-level official approval. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, more than half a million Chinese went abroad to study in 2015.

Apart from this educational migration, the US, the EU and individual European governments have created a plethora of forums for young people to meet and exchange views. Germany and China even declared 2016 as the “German-Chinese year of school and youth exchanges”. More than 40 private and public initiatives use this platform to foster language exchanges, to organize debates or art projects or to arrange stays in host families.

Open the windows, but stop the flies from coming in

Today’s China is tightly interwoven with the global economy and cannot afford to isolate itself. China needs an internationally trained elite to move up the value chain from the world’s factory to an innovative nation. Deng Xiaoping understood this when he said, “when you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in”. The current leadership wants to have it both ways: young Chinese are encouraged to study in the US and Europe to acquire skills in fields such as science, IT and engineering, but they are expected to remain ideologically pure. This strategy is hardly realistic.

The current government does have it right when it tries to lure young talents back to China. By offering start-up funding, social services and attractive salaries, Beijing has been successful in repatriating students from overseas. According to official Chinese data, between 70 to 80 per cent of Chinese overseas graduates have returned to China in recent years. More than 400,000 returned after graduating overseas in 2015 alone. Many Chinese with foreign academic degrees now occupy key positions at Chinese elite universities.

In previous decades, China’s leaders accepted that their compatriots would be trained in critical thinking at foreign universities and would gain access to pluralistic and largely uncensored media. But Xi Jinping tries to control his citizens even beyond China’s borders. Earlier this year he called on the Education Ministry to pay special attention to the “patriotic education” of Chinese students overseas.

The effectiveness of efforts to provide ideological guidance to young Chinese abroad seems questionable – especially in light of the exposure to the host countries’ pluralistic debates and the growing number of opportunities to interact with youth from other nationalities.

Propaganda is out of sync with young peoples’ lives

This year, the YMCA branch in the German state of Bavaria received 300 applications from young people in Southern China for its annual exchange program with the YMCA in Hong Kong. The association’s general secretary, Michael Götz, reports that the 50 participants from Guangdong province and Hong Kong appeared to be more interested in ballgames than ideological debates, but that they were very perceptive of cultural differences. Many of them expressed surprise at the anti-authoritarian parenting methods in their German host families, and some were impressed to see German fathers change diapers.

Episodes like this show that the Communist Party’s dogmatic and anti-Western propaganda is out of sync with the lives of globally minded young urban Chinese who have grown up wearing Italian designer clothing, driving German cars and listening to American music. These youth are much more interested in watching popular Western TV series and discussing gender equality than in studying the theories of Marx and Engels or engaging in propagandistic lip service.

China’s propaganda apparatus has so far failed to present a convincing counter-narrative to the “Western ways” it tries to demonize. Instead, it mostly relies on censorship to keep up the artificial ideological borders between the People’s Republic and Western democracies. China’s leaders alienated the entire gay community when they banned homosexual content from television. If they start demonizing everything that makes up young peoples’ lives today, they may end up losing the trust of an entire generation.