China society
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
A dormitory manager bought chocolates for students as a sign of thanks for their support. Photo: Weibo

Thanksgiving Day in China: the chocolates on an ideological front line

  • A dormitory manager at a northern Chinese university thought she was giving thanks to students by handing out sweets
  • Before long, she would find herself apologising for her inappropriate behaviour

A new front has broken out in the culture wars in China – Thanksgiving Day chocolates.

At a university in the country’s north, a dormitory manager found herself at the centre of a storm on Thursday morning when she made the error of buying chocolates for students in the building as a gesture of thanks for their support.

Umbrage was taken, and an apology was offered but it took the university’s intervention before the threat from an American holiday was finally quelled and the chocolates were saved from becoming a symbol of a Western festival.

The storm erupted in the morning when the dormitory manager, identified only by her surname Wang, put a notice on an internal chat group for students at Building 17 at the Harbin Institute of Technology in Harbin, Heilongjiang province.

“Today is Western Thanksgiving Day. I want to express my gratitude for the support you have extended to the management of Building 17,” Wang said in the message that was later widely shared online.

“I will be giving out some chocolates at around 7.50am in the building foyer. First come, first served.”

China doubles down against foreign teachers spreading Christianity

Within moments, one student with the internet handle “Youqude” took offence and demanded that Wang stop“publicly promoting Western festivals”.

“It is highly inappropriate for a dormitory [employee] to promote a Western festival as such, especially here at the Harbin Institute of Technology,” the student said.

“As an official representative, have you not considered the impact of publicly organising celebrations of Western festivals? Please stop these activities immediately or else I will raise the matter with the university’s administration.”

Harbin Institute of Technology responded to the online comments with a statement saying both parties acted out of kindness. Photo: Shutterstock

The building manager apologised immediately in the chat group.

“I was inconsiderate. I was only trying to give thanks for the support from our students. I will pay attention in the future,” Wang responded.

But other students appreciated the gesture.

“Thank you, Auntie, for giving us sweets on a chilly winter morning as we labour on our research and paper,” another student said in the chat.

That would have been that if the messages were not shared online.

Chinese commenters weighed in, voicing overwhelming support for the building manager.

Thanksgiving celebrations in China grow, but hold the turkey

That prompted the institute’s administration to post a statement on its social media account on Friday, saying it did not encourage Western festivals with “religious elements” on campus.

It also said that both the dormitory manager and the student acted out of kindness.

“Upon investigation, it was actually a kind gesture of the [building manager] to give out chocolates and the student’s comment was also a reminder in kindness,” the statement said.

“This school does not encourage foreign festivals with religious elements from entering our campus and we absolutely forbid all kinds of religious activities on campus.”

Beijing plans to continue tightening grip on Christianity and Islam as China pushes ahead with the ‘Sinicisation of religion’

But many commenters questioned the university administration for downplaying the student’s “malicious complaint”.

“It was clearly a threat of complaint. How is that a reminder in kindness? What’s wrong with giving thanks?” one HIT alumnus posted online.

Others said the university blew the incident out of proportion for describing it as “foreign” and “religious”.

“This is not the first time I am feeling this mortified over such crippling public relations crisis management,” another student said.

Chinese authorities have banned all forms of religious activities on campuses as part of effort to “Sinicise” religions and bring them under the Communist Party’s ideological control. The central government also ordered schools and universities to limit the use of foreign textbooks to prevent infiltration of Western thoughts and values on campus.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Controversy over holiday chocolateson campus Holiday treats lead to campus controversy