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Chinese view of US history has new spin

The Straits Times, 1 August 2000

Authors of Chinese textbooks are moving away from vilification and giving students a more accurate and objective view of America's history

BEIJING -- Chinese educators have moved away from vilification of the US in the hope of giving students a more accurate and less ideological introduction to the outside world.

And as China continues to trade socialism for a more market-oriented economy, it has become increasingly difficult to malign capitalism when so many here practise it themselves.

Authors of recently rewritten Chinese high school history texts on the decimation of American Indians in the great westward expansion of the US have added a line noting that the move had opened up land for agriculture and sped up the development of the US economy.

The text used to focus only on the slaughter of American Indians, recounting how many died and how many villages were destroyed. This small change marks a big shift in the way China teaches its children about America.

In the past, we used to say, "Down With American Imperialism', recalled Mr Zhang Weirong, who has taught history for more than two decades in Beijing. Now, we say, "Whatever is good in America, we will learn from'.

Ms Chen Weicong teaches 10th-grade world history at the Beijing University Affiliated High School, one of the top schools in the capital. Her lessons are notable for their fairness and accuracy.

The 39-year-old shows her class black-and-white newsreel footage of the Khrushchev-Nixon kitchen debate in 1959 as well as shots of fighter jets lifting off from US aircraft carriers during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

She maintains an entertaining and breezy style as she moves on to former US President Ronald Reagan and the eventual collapse of China's communist cousin, the Soviet Union.

She also explains how the US military build-up and threat to develop a missile shield known as Star Wars helped hasten the Soviets' economic demise.

What is the purpose? she asked rhetorically. To drag down the Russian economy. Did America reach its goal?

Yes, answered the students.

Although her presentation was fairly straightforward, several students ripped into US policy after the class.

It's hideous, said Wang Wei, 16, blaming the US military build-up for the suffering of the Soviet people.

But how does China's authoritarian regime explain the US success without delving into the role that democracy and political freedom have played in the nation's development?

Given the limits on the expression of political ideas here, the authors have tried to address the issue of democracy subtly.

Actually, we mention this connection between the political system and economic development, but we haven't explained it, said Mr Xu Bin, another of the book's authors.

We talk about the American spirit indirectly, said Mr Chen Qi, director of the history textbook writing department, who added that the books quoted from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. --LAT-WP