One of Britain’s top public schools is set to open six offshoots in China teaching the Chinese national curriculum at a time when the country’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, is pushing to tighten the Communist party’s grip on the classroom.
According to the Financial Times, Westminster School will on Thursday unveil plans to create branches in six major Chinese cities in partnership with a Hong Kong education group called HKMETG. The first will open in Chengdu, capital of the south-western province of Sichuan, in 2020.
Westminster, whose alumni include politicians such as Tony Benn and Nick Clegg as well as Martin Amis, Helena Bonham Carter and Louis Theroux, described the move as a “soft power” initiative that would help fund a bursary scheme in the UK.
“The reason for opening the schools is that we’re quite excited about being able to influence education of Chinese pupils in China,” a spokeswoman said.
Westminster, which was founded in 1179 by Benedictine monks, is the latest in a series of British schools to head east. Dulwich College, Harrow and Wellington all operate spin-offs for international students in Shanghai, with Dulwich also boasting campuses in Beijing and Suzhou and a franchise in the southern city of Zhuhai.
Unusually, however, the Westminster schools will reportedly teach China’s national curriculum to 6- to 15-year-olds.
Xiong Bingqi, an education specialist from Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, told the Guardian that was the only way Chinese authorities would allow a foreign school to offer Chinese students compulsory education.
However, as a result teachers are likely to skirt over politically sensitive topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, in which Chinese troops gunned down an unknown number of civilians, and Mao’s Great Famine, in which tens of millions died.
Westminster said students aged 16-18 would be able to study the English national curriculum.
Chinese textbooks have grown increasingly pro-party since Xi took power in 2012 and set in motion a severe political chill that has seen academics forced into exile and critics jailed.
In August, China’s assistant education minister, Zheng Fuzhi, unveiled a new generation of party-sanctioned textbooks designed to push Xi’s so-called “core socialist values” and reinforce Beijing’s claims over places such as Tibet, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
One recent command to schools pronounced that pupils should be “guided to firmly support the CPC [Chinese Communist party] leadership”.
Steve Tsang, the head of the School of Oriental and African Studies’ (SOAS) China Institute, told the Financial Times he believed Westminster was making a mistake.
“I think they have no idea what they’re dealing with … If you set up a school in China, they will have a party secretary superintending the whole school and the party secretary will be responsible for political education.”
Xiong said it was normal for Beijing to require a foreign school to operate under Chinese rules: “Even if you are running a school in the US, you need to obey local education laws and regulations.”
He said there would be greater flexibility outside the period of compulsory education, although not when it came to ideologically or historically sensitive topics. “Teaching anything in history class that is different from what is in Chinese textbooks, that’s impossible.”
Westminster is likely to have to modify its motto, as well as its teaching materials, before opening in one-party China, an officially atheist country. The school’s motto is currently: “Dat deus incrementum” or ‘God gives bounteously”.
Before it opened in China, Dulwich College had to replace its original motto - “Detur gloria soli deo” (“Let glory be given to God alone”) - with ‘Detur pons mundo” (“Building bridges to the world”).
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen