Catechism on Mao's words dictates future

Call it multiple-choice Mao. Just what did the Great Helmsman expound in his article, "Against the Party: eight-part essay"?

This is no idle query. For some 242,000 would-be Chinese postgraduate students, ticking the correct answer box to this and other such questions last is still a requirement for entry to any post-graduate course.

As the bleary-eyed faces of some of my friends can attest, the national examinations for postgraduate courses were held over three days last Friday to Sunday all across China. And the one compulsory paper for all those who sat it was still politics. No candidate who fails this paper can be accepted onto a postgraduate course. Be your choice chemistry, English literature, or computer science, you had better have known how to define "the three characteristics of nationalisation after 1949".

And it came worse than that. One of the two compulsory long essay topics this time was "Analyse the wave of migrant workers from a Marxist dialectical materialist point of view". (The other one was no light relief either: "Analyse the problems of China's state-owned enterprises from a Marxist dialectical materialist point of view".)

For the whole of December, these Chinese friends disappeared every second evening to attend three-hour cramming lectures in politically correct thinking. With 242,000 applicants competing for 51,000 postgraduate places, the 60 per cent pass mark for the paper is no pushover.

Unlike the other subject examinations which are set by individual universities, the same politics paper is taken by everyone. But it is hardly an exercise in encouraging critical and independent thought. Each question, whether set as multiple choice or short essay, has a "right" answer which the cramming courses teach by rote. This is fair enough when asked to name the three main battles against the warlords in Guizhou province in 1927. But it places something of a limit on philosophical rigour when faced with short essay questions such as: "What is the main difference between idealism and materialism?" (The correct response, quoting Mao's edict "Seek truth from facts", is that materialism is right and idealism is wrong.)

So what is the point of it all? Not apparently to nurture any interest in politics or philosophy among those who struggle through the two-and- a half-hour examination. "You must remember a lot of things crammed in your head," moaned one friend. "We only know the answers, but we don't know the meaning." A book published by the National Education Commission lists all the most important questions with specimen correct answers. "That one is the best to use," my friend said.

Early on in the cramming course, one tutor issued a list of 21 of Chairman Mao's articles and told his students to look them up. Rather than slog through library references, another friend said he found it easier to buy one of the Little Red Books so cherished during the Cultural Revolution, which collected together most of Mao's works. "But I didn't read them," he admitted.

As a guide to current political ideology, the examination paper offers few revelations. This year, President Jiang Zemin's campaign for "spiritual civilization" was new on the curriculum, and a short essay question duly appeared asking for the six items in Mr Jiang's speech on the subject. "Actually I didn't have the answer to this," admitted my friend sheepishly, despite the fact that this was the main propaganda campaign during 1996.

And why do the applicants need to know which Qing dynasty scholar advised: "Learn the Westerners' strong points, and then use what you have learned to get the upper hand with them"?

Rather more contemporary was this one: "How can capitalists exploit the workers by taking away the `surplus value"'? The correct answer to this was about long working hours, forcing increased productivity, and the evils of introducing new technology for the sake of one's profits rather than to benefit the workers. The wrong answer would have been to detail the lives of the hardworking factory employees in the south of China - who are delighted to have found such employment and are far better off than workers in Mao's planned economy.

And for anyone still puzzling over Mao's "Against the Party: eight-part essay", it was written in 1945. The correct multiple-choice answer was that Mao was against party bureaucracy, and in favour of linking theory with reality.