I’m a Politics Teacher in China
Three years ago, when I was first employed by the education provider I work for in Shanghai, it was as a drama teacher.
Originally, the company I work for was an employer of and agent for ESL teachers but had decided to expand into drama to get an edge over the competition.
In a strategic move, the company invested in a partnership with a Hong Kong-based drama education company so that they could licence educational material and poach new teachers.
Even though I was living in New Zealand at the time, I was hired by the Hong Kong company and sold to Shanghai as part of the arrangement. I was pioneering its brand new drama program, and I was excited.
Skip forward a year and drama had significantly lost its shine. In a country that prioritises utility above creative expression, parents weren’t willing to pay big bucks to see their child “prance around” on stage.
Students in China go to school and third party learning centres seven days a week, so every second of their time is valuable. I saw the writing on the wall and knew that I had to make the jump out of drama if I wanted to keep my job and my new life in China.
So in the name of self-interest, I sold myself once again to my own company, but this time as a debate teacher.
I edited my resume to include all the little debate contests I’d ever taken part in during my lifetime and asked to be allowed to write a debate course and show them my potential.
Luckily for me, they were in need of fresh material to offer at their brand new learning centre. The centre had cost millions to build, and they were desperate for a wider array of content to showcase to interested parents.
They added my debate course to the bill, and soon I found myself stumbling my way through a course that’s traditionally enjoyed as a hobby in my home country.
Debating My Future
While the first version of my new course was weak, I learned from my mistakes and re-wrote it until it was perfect. My content intrigued the Chinese parents who had bright kids that were too smart for ESL.
For kids who speak great English and need a new challenge, they needed educational content that was analytical, logical, and looked good on a college application.
Debate fit the bill, and over time it expanded out of the learning centre and is now taught by myself and a few other teachers in schools around the city as well as online.
As time went by, schools started to want more. Kids who had been taking debate class for a while weren’t learning anything new once they’d spent more than a year in the class, so it had to be updated.
It was time to integrate another discipline that is also normally a hobby; it was time to involve model UN.
Debate Turns to Politics
The version of debate that I now teach is a hybrid between debate and model UN. When a student begins the course, the content is heavily focused on simple debate principles, but turns heavily political towards the end.
Whenever I tell friends about my course, they’re always really confused. A lot of people have the notion that politics isn’t even taught in China.
I originally thought that too when I moved to China, but over time I met several people who were political majors at college. Not only were they politics majors, but they were also aware and educated on non-communism politics.
It seems that much like religion at Christian schools, all forms of politics are taught and discussed in detail; It’s just that at the end of the day, one school of thought is most heavily favoured.
Besides this, there’s a lot that surprised me when I started teaching politics to kids in China; one such surprise was learning that Orwell isn’t illegal.
For my first year teaching politics in China, I was convinced that Animal Farm by George Orwell was illegal.
It turns out that neither Animal Farm nor 1984 are illegal, and they’re actually read and taught in college. (Boy, would I love to be a fly on the wall during the Orwell discussions at a Chinese university).
After looking into it, the books that are banned in China are ones that speak negatively of China specifically such as ‘The Tiananmen Papers’ and ‘Life and Death in Shanghai.’
However, books that generally speak of communism, even negatively, aren’t banned.
Knowing this has allowed me to teach political themes in a lot more depth than I ever have before. I can raise discussions, and have kids question the system in ways I never thought was allowed.
During class, I run activities where I lay out all forms of government used around the world today and in the past, and kids are able to pick the ones they like and would choose if they were in a position to do so.
The only areas I have to stay away from are any that call the Chinese government or any decisions it makes into question.
This isn’t something I generally have to worry about since my classes focus on politics in a more abstract way and don’t talk about decisions being made by any governments.
The one time I caused an issue was during a game I played a few months ago. We were playing a timed memory game where kids had to name as many current presidents as they could before the time ran out, and someone said Tsai Ing-wen (the President of Taiwan).
This caused a backlash from students who were angry that I counted Ing-wen and gave that team a point.
China doesn’t consider Taiwan to be a country, but a province of China; therefore, they don’t consider Ing-wen to be a President, merely the leader of a Chinese region.
While the students were probably only mad because they didn’t want an opposing team receiving points they considered to be unearned, it made me realise that I could cross the line without even knowing it because even shallow game-based politics can have unpredictable depths.
I haven’t made any “slip-ups” since then, but I have caught flack from fellow teachers.
Some would have me take politics entirely out of my classes, even though I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from students and parents.
In contrast, others want me to take a stronger stance in favour of democracy and set a “better example” for the students.
But in my mind, not taking a stance is how I’ve been able to keep my job this long.
I have to see politics as abstract to teach this content; I can’t take it personally and have my opinions come through.
Teaching is an exercise in trust, and if the students feel that I disagree with them I won’t earn their trust, and my job would be impossible.
I have to seem to be completely unbiased so that when I lay out political frames of thought, they feel comfortable stating their opinion and not feeling judged.
If Chinese students want to question communism, I’d rather it happened in a safe space where they can speak their mind and take their opinions home to mull on during their very limited personal time.
That’s never going to happen if their teacher leans in a political direction that’s strange and foreign to them.
What I’ve Learned
If there’s one thing I’ve learned teaching politics in China, it’s that it’s very easy to make enemies of other adults whenever I seem too cozy to China, too radically opposed to China, or too” robotic” and unbiased. (There’s literally no way to avoid ruffling feathers).
But as long as I can make my students happy while also opening their minds to possibilities and other ways of thinking, I think I’ve done something good and kept my job another day.
Although if I ever screw up and get my ass deported, at least it’ll make a great book. There’s always a silver lining to a devastating turn of events.