China Launches Propaganda War Against Small Maine Town, Loses

The Global Times, China's state-owned, state-operated newspaper, which enjoys a print readership just under twice as large as that of the New York Times, often serves as a regime tool to flatter the Communist Party and to assail its enemies. Still, Global Times' Monday edition chose an unusual target for its latest onslaught: the quaint New England hamlet of Millinocket, Maine.

Stearns is a run-of-the-mill high school and doesn't appear on any "best high school lists."

The school building is over 40 years old. The school has only one Advanced Placement class and the school maps date from the Cold War era.

Millinocket is isolated. The closest mall and movie theater is one hour away. The town gets 93 inches of snow per year. Millinocket has about 5,000 residents but has experienced increasingly hard times since its paper mill filed for bankruptcy eight years ago. There were about 700 students at the high school in the 1970s. Today there are about 200 and the biggest kick for kids is hanging out in a supermarket parking lot.

How did Millinocket, population 5,000, attract the ire of the world's second largest economy and its leading producer of cheesy propaganda? Shanghai-based blogger Adam Minter explains that Millinocket's local high school is attempting to overcome budget shortfalls by recruiting international students. An October 2010 New York Times story on the school ran under the headline, "Needing Students, Maine School Hunts in China."

China, attempting to combat the brain drain that for decades has siphoned away much of the country's top talent, would rather its best students not run off to New England. That fear apparently landed Millinocket's public high school, Stearns, on China's enemies list this week. The Global Times column goes on to argue that the American school will bankrupt Chinese parents and rob their children of the superior Chinese education they deserve.

But, never able to resist a good propaganda opportunity, the Global Times article also trumpets the rate of Chinese acceptance to American universities. "There are more Chinese undergraduate students at American colleges than from any other country or region and the numbers of pre-collegiate Chinese students in the US is increasing every year too," it boasts. "During the 2009-10 academic year, 39,947 Chinese undergraduates were studying in the US, a 52 percent increase from the year before and about five times as many as six years ago."

Minter, an American citizen as well as a practicing journalist, felt compelled to fill in the article's gaping hole: comment from the other side. He emailed Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue and Millinocket Superintendent of Schools Kenneth Smith for their reaction to the Global Times column. Conlogue's response was diplomatic, saying the article "totally misses the point" but otherwise contenting himself to describe Millinocket's appeal to foreign students. But Smith, like a veteran teacher making an example of an unruly student, didn't exercise quite so much restraint. Here's how the superintendent opens his very lengthy response:

It appears the author isn't very well informed. I have a Chinese daughter as an exchange student and she has learned a great deal and she has enjoyed her US public school experience. Her friend from another part of China is staying in the same town with another family and she has also expressed the opinion that her US public school experience has been very useful educationally and quite rewarding.

He goes on to counter the Global Times article point-by-point, carefully citing statistics and qualitative data with the kind of earnest, patient, if somewhat patronizing tone that can only come from teaching high school. He concludes his lecture, "Getting your facts right is important!"

Read all of Millinocket's response here. A Google cache of the Global Times article is here.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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