Daphne Bramham: More oversight needed for Mandarin-language materials used in B.C. schools

Of note:

It has been described by people both in China and outside as the best propaganda film that country has ever produced and it may be the first Chinese-produced film to earn more than US$1 billion.

So it’s not surprising that parents and others are questioning the appropriateness of the trailers for My People, My Country being used as teaching material in Grade 10, 11 and 12 Mandarin language classes at a high school in Richmond.

The film is a 254-minute, patriotic review of seven historic high points since Mao Zedong and the Communist Party came to power 70 years ago.

Co-produced by a state-owned company, there is no mention of the Cultural Revolution or the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. The return of Hong Kong to Chinese control is portrayed as a triumph.

The South China Morning Post’s review described the film as a “jingoistic anthology,” while the Chinese news agency Xinhua said the film’s aim was to “awaken shared memories of Chinese people around the world.”

“After 70 years, our culture and propaganda departments finally figured out how to combine propaganda with art,” Yan Feng, a Chinese literature professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University wrote in a Weibo post quoted by the New York Times.

Even without English translation, the YouTube trailer is nothing like what you might imagine propaganda looks like — aside perhaps from the Hollywood patriot movies like Top Gun.

That’s what makes it so powerful.

There are seven trailers in all for the film and four were shown to Grades 10, 11 and 12, Mandarin-language classes at Steveston-London Secondary School.

After viewing them, students had a brief informal chat about what they saw before being handed written questions as a prompt for another discussion the following day, according to an Oct. 24 letter that principal Carol-Lyn Sakata sent to parents.

A copy of the principal’s letter with the teacher’s name redacted that was posted to the Canada Hong Konger Facebook page.

That discussion was cancelled because of parents’ concerns about using Communist Party propaganda in the school.

“We believe the teacher intended to engage students in an informal and open discussion to ‘analyze personal, shared, and others’ experiences, perspectives, and world views through a cultural lens,’ as contemplated in the provincial curriculum,” Richmond School District spokesman Dave Sadler wrote in an emailed response.”

But is propaganda culture? Or is it simply politics?

There’s a plausible argument to be made that My People, My Country is a cultural and even historic phenomenon. Certainly, it’s being widely shown and widely seen.

Released on Oct. 1 to coincide with 70th anniversary celebrations, it had 135,000 daily screenings on the first weekend, earning US$102 million, according to Variety. Online reviewers in China scored it as high as 9.7 out of 10, but as Variety diplomatically pointed out “in the past there has been doubt about the reliability of such scores.” Still, Variety suggests, it may be the first Chinese film to earn US$1 billion.

But if the teacher’s intent was to talk about it as cultural phenomenon, that’s not evident from the principal’s letter or from the assignment itself.

Under the Chinese caption “I love my motherland,” students were given “reflection questions.” Among them were: How did this movie make you feel? What words or phrases made you feel good? What was your favourite part? What four adjectives would you use to describe the movie? Does it remind you of your life?

Further down, there were questions about what they thought the movie’s message is and why it was produced.

Sakata noted the “controversial and political nature of the film” in her letter to parents. “With the current political unrest in Hong Kong, I understand the concern that you may have.”

There’s no doubt that that may be what has made parents and students more acutely aware of what is being taught in Mandarin classes.

But to suggest that is the only reason for concern is a disservice to both students and parents who are raising important questions far beyond a single teacher, some trailers and three classrooms.

What is being taught under the guise of Mandarin language learning in British Columbia’s public and private schools? How are teaching materials chosen? Who chooses them? Are they being supplied at no cost by the Chinese government?

While the provincial government sets curriculum, it doesn’t choose the resources used in local schools. That’s up to the school districts using the province’s rather vague criteria.

According to an education ministry spokeswoman, teaching materials must: support learning standards and outcomes of the curriculum; make connections with real-life examples; be age appropriate; meet copyright and privacy requirements; and, content must be socially acceptable.

There’s enough leeway that the Coquitlam School District, for example, has partnered directly with the Chinese government to set up a Confucius Institute with teachers and teaching resources provided by China at no cost.

It’s not clear how the choices are made in Richmond. Sadler wasn’t able to provide the answers Friday as it was a professional development day and the people who deal with curriculum issues were away.

But it begs the question of the province’s responsibility.

Canadian students and foreign students studying in Canada deserve an education untainted by political influence or interference especially from another country’s government. And that should be something the province is doing.

Source: Daphne Bramham: More oversight needed for Mandarin-language materials used in B.C. schools

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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