FOR the first time in China since university entrance examinations were reinstated in the late 1970s, students applying for science subjects at college this year were exempted from the notorious political science exam.
The examination was used by the authorities to gauge the political correctness of students entering university but was widely resented.
While liberal arts majors still had to take the political science examination during last week's national college entrance examinations, many educationalists believed they would soon be exempted.
''The political science examination is an anachronism,'' a Beijing college professor said. ''For a long time now students have simply been regurgitating the correct answers in the exam without thinking.'' But while the demise of the political science examination was welcomed by students and teachers alike, analysts warned the move should not be seen as a sign of political liberalisation in the classroom.
''This does not mean the authorities are easing up on the student population. In fact it is quite the opposite,'' a Beijing University student said.
''By getting rid of the political science exam they are removing one more source of tension between the students and the authorities.'' The student claimed the State Education Commission was concerned by forcing students to study Marxist doctrine and Communist Party propaganda it gave students something to rebel against.
''Several officials in the commission believe the 1986 and 1989 student protests were in some part a revolt against the political dogma of the time,'' the student said.
Instead of focusing on political dogma to keep students in line, the authorities have switched to the softer approach known as ''patriotic education''.
Patriotic education is designed to instil in students a sense of national pride and a belief serving one's country is every citizen's responsibility.
A major focus of the patriotic education system this year has been the ''I am Chinese'' programme which teaches students to be proud of being Chinese by concentrating on the ''great achievements'' of the Chinese people and especially the Communist Party.
''The aim is to win more respect for the party by demonstrating what it has done for the people of China,'' said a high school teacher in Beijing.
''By appealing to the students' sense of patriotism rather than trying to convert them to Marxism, they hope to reassert the moral authority of the party,'' she said.
All the indications are patriotic education has worked where political science failed. Today's students are far less willing to criticise the party because to do so would be seen somehow as being unpatriotic.
Furthermore, the students have seen living standards rise and China's position in the world improve markedly over the past five years.