Legislating Ideological Unity in China: The Patriotic Education Law and Xi’s Master Plan


A scholar sums up China’s new Patriotic Education Law as the culmination of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to make political indoctrination the law and ensure ideological unity in the “new era.”

China’s new Patriotic Education Law came into force on January 1, 2024. Calling for the creation of “a mighty force for comprehensively building a modern socialist country and comprehensively advancing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (article 1), it legislates a unified, systematic program of patriotic education to realize President Xi Jinping’s vision of China as a “great socialist country.”

The Patriotic Education Law was enacted on October 24, 2023, about four months after a draft was first submitted to the National People’s Congress. The full text of the draft was made public soon after deliberations began, and the people were encouraged to submit comments online or through other channels. This has become standard procedure, part of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to bolster its legitimacy by demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law and a legislative process that “reflects the people’s will.”

Viewed from this perspective, the law’s passage might appear somewhat rushed. But in fact, it was the culmination of years of preparation.

Surpassing Deng Xiaoping

Many of the new law’s key points were anticipated in the Implementation Guidelines for Patriotic Education in the New Era, published in November 2019, which outlines a new society-wide program of education based on “Xi Jinping thought.”

Both the name and the subject matter of the 2019 document call to mind the 1994 Outline of Patriotic Education adopted under the regime of Jiang Zemin. Facing a legitimacy crisis following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the state and CCP sought to strengthen national cohesion by substituting patriotism for socialism as the binding ideology.

Although commonly associated with Jiang Zemin, the 1994 Outline is fundamentally the work of Deng Xiaoping. It states that education should be guided by the party’s core principles and “the theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics developed by Comrade Deng Xiaoping,” and it is liberally sprinkled with Deng’s quotations. Resuming his campaign for “reform and opening up” in 1992 (after its suspension in the wake of the Tiananmen Square debacle), Deng had seized on patriotism as an important ideological mechanism for preserving unity, order, and stability while overhauling China’s socialist system.

Xi Jinping’s 2019 Guidelines superseded Deng’s Outline, just as his “third historical resolution” superseded Deng’s 1981 summation of the party’s history. In the area of patriotic education as elsewhere, Xi seems determined to surpass the achievements of Deng Xiaoping.

Xi’s Master Plan

Xi’s project of enshrining patriotic education and ideological conformity in the nation’s laws began years before the publication of the 2019 Guidelines.

In February 2014, the Standing Committee of the NPC passed a law establishing Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day (December 13) and Victory Day (September 3) as the two major national observances linking China’s struggle against Japanese aggression with the global fight against fascism. In Japan, this was viewed as part and parcel of the “history wars” between Beijing and Tokyo, which were expected to peak in 2015, as China celebrated the seventieth anniversary of its victory over the invading Japanese and the global defeat of fascism. However, Xi’s focus lays elsewhere.

In fact, his intent at this point was to mend fences with Japan. In 2014, friction between China and the United States seemed bound to intensify, Washington having rejected Xi’s vision of a “new model of great power relations.” To avoid economic isolation, it was inevitable that China’s leaders heed the lessons of history and choose the path of closer ties with Japan. This is why, at the December 2014 national ceremony commemorating the Nanjing Massacre, Xi cautioned, “We should not bear hatred against an entire nation just because a small minority of militarists launched aggressive wars,” underscoring the distinction (or “dichotomy”) that has been a pillar of Beijing’s foreign policy toward Japan. With bilateral tensions mounting over historical and territorial disputes, this principle had come under fire within China, but Xi Jinping used his authority to reaffirm its status as official policy. That marked the beginning of a partial thaw in Japan-China relations, which had reached a postwar nadir following the Japanese government’s nationalization of the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2012.

In this context, the establishment of the two national holidays should be seen not as a slap in Japan’s face but as a step toward Xi’s goal of legislating patriotism. The trend continued with the August 2014 law designating September 30 as Martyrs’ Day, honoring the patriots who had sacrificed their lives in such conflicts as World War II and the Chinese Civil War. Just a month later, Xi and six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee led a flower-laying ceremony at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square.(*1)

From the fall of 2017 through the spring of 2018, the government took further steps to legislate patriotic thought and behavior. A new National Anthem Law took effect in October 2017, followed by statutes prescribing criminal penalties against those who treated the national anthem or the Chinese flag with disrespect. (Given that the previous laws concerning the national flag and national anthem were enacted shortly before the release of Deng’s Outline, one can surmise that the 2017 National Anthem Law was likewise intended to pave the way for the 2019 Guidelines.) In April 2018, the NPC passed the Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law, under which detailed criminal penalties were instituted for those defaming, disrespecting, or denying the deeds of national heroes.(*2)

In the light of this systematic preparation, the Patriotic Education Law can be seen as the culmination of a carefully laid plan to legislate the inculcation of nationalism, patriotism, and loyalty to the Communist Party. Standing as a fundamental law supporting ideological unity in Xi Jinping’s “new era,” it signifies the normalization of patriotic indoctrination in Chinese society.

Reunification as Patriotism

Although the Patriotic Education Law tends to be short on specifics, it pulls no punches when it comes to the issue of Taiwan. The final version of the law expresses in no uncertain terms Xi’s firm determination to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.

In the 2019 Guidelines, the Taiwan issue was never addressed head-on. “Our Taiwan compatriots” were merely included among the targets of efforts to strengthen a sense of national identity and unity, along with the citizens of the Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions and overseas Chinese. However, when it came to the 2023 legislation, Xi insisted on going further.

The draft submitted to the NPC devoted a separate paragraph to Taiwan, signaling a change in emphasis. At that stage, however, the content was still limited to a call to educate “our Taiwan compatriots about China’s history, culture, and national conditions,” as well as the “one country two systems” policy. However, by the time the legislation was enacted, the corresponding provision had been expanded and altered fundamentally.

Under Article 23 of the Patriotic Education Law, the state is to “bolster publicity and education promoting the policy of national reunification and enhance the understanding of all the people of China, including our Taiwan compatriots, of their sacred duty to complete the great cause of national reunification.” (Note here that “Taiwan compatriots” are explicitly included among the people of China.) In addition, the state will “protect the rights and interests of our Taiwan compatriots in accordance with the law and resolutely oppose separatist moves for ‘Taiwan independence,’ safeguarding the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation.”

The Communist Party in Chinese Civilization

There is a strong tendency in Japan to equate China’s patriotic education policy with anti-Japanese propaganda, but the true aim of the law lies elsewhere. Xi Jinping has been deeply interested in history education for many years, as is well known. An official three-volume history of the Chinese Communist Party, published in 2016, was compiled under his supervision. As president, Xi called for a national curriculum structured around the “four histories”: historical accounts of the Chinese Communist Party, the new China, reform and opening up, and the development of socialism.

Perhaps the most important change introduced by the Patriotic Education Law is the addition of the “history of the development of the Chinese people” to this curriculum. The narratives of the “four histories” showcased the Communist Party’s leading role in building the new China. Starting around the time of the Opium Wars, they highlighted China’s break from semi-feudalism and semi-colonial domination by the Great Powers, its victorious struggle against Japanese aggression, and the defeat of the Kuomintang, paving the way for the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The history of the development of the Chinese people, on the other hand, is a narrative spanning thousands of years. The aim is to legitimize the party in this larger context, positioning it as a force essential to the long-term development of the Chinese people and as the sole means of realizing “the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Reflecting this new, broader perspective, article 8 stresses the role of patriotic education in “imparting and developing China’s splendid traditional culture.”

Considering the Patriotic Education Law in this light, we can see the error of viewing it in the narrow context of anti-Japanese propaganda or the “history wars.” In fact, the law has a much larger political purpose—namely, to unite and mold “the Chinese people” into a nation worthy of the “great modern socialist country” Xi Jinping’s Communist Party has pledged to build.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A volunteer explains the Patriotic Education Law to elementary school students in Huaian, China, December 28, 2023. © CFOTO/ Kyōdō.)

(*1) ^ Article 28 of the Patriotic Education Law calls for similar commemorative activities on Victory Day, Martyrs’ Day, and Nanjing Massacre Memorial Day.—Ed.

(*2) ^ Article 37 of the Patriotic Education Law prohibits behavior deemed insulting or disrespectful to the national anthem, national flag, or national heroes and martyrs.—Ed.

China Xi Jinping