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SHANGHAI – In the still, early hours, cadres make their way down tree-lined paths. They walk through a polished lobby, down dim hallways and settle themselves in rows in plain, wood-paneled classrooms. Here, they sit at the vanguard of the Communist Party of China.
These rising Communist Party members from across the country have come to the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP) in Shanghai as part of the party's decade-long effort to introduce its own elite to foreign ideas. Outside these walls, President Xi Jinping's government is campaigning to scrub Western influence from classrooms, but here some 10,000 party loyalists each year hear from top Western scholars and executives about management techniques, media relations, urban development and innovation.
"It does no harm for top leaders to get to know different ideas in the world," said Zhang Xuezhong, who was barred from teaching at East China University of Political Science and Law in 2013, after publishing an article critical of the government. "The Communist Party expects the people it rules to be ignorant, but they would not expect themselves to be like this."
As China seeks to play a more decisive role on the global stage, such exposure is becoming more important — at least for those at the forefront of transforming China's economy and international role. For everyone else, education has become an ideological battleground, where destabilizing Western values must be vanquished lest they weaken the party's grip on power.
"Young teachers and students are key targets of infiltration by enemy forces," Education Minister Yuan Guiren wrote in a January essay. Around the same time, he told university officials to bar "teaching materials that disseminate Western values," state-run news agency Xinhua reported. His remarks came shortly after Beijing issued new guidelines ordering universities to promote loyalty to the party, core socialist values, and the teachings of Xi himself.
Meanwhile, Westerners continue to march through CELAP, bringing with them an uncontrollable parade of ideas.
Over 470 government leaders, business executives and academics from over 30 countries have taught at CELAP, according to the school, which says it has partnered with Harvard Business School, the Wharton School, Columbia Business School, Oxford University and Berkeley's Haas School of Business.
Former prime ministers Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom, Julia Gillard of Australia and the late Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore have visited. Former World Bank President Robert Zoellick and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson have given lectures. The school also has tie-ups with IBM China and Procter & Gamble China.
"It's a very unusual institution in China," said Oxford University's Nicholas Morris, who has taught at CELAP for a decade. "This institution's job is to help Chinese leaders understand Western practice."
Shanghai has long been China's window on the world — the leafy streets of its old French concession strike some Chinese visitors as "exotic" — and the cadre academy in Shanghai's new Pudong area was founded to focus on innovation, reform and management . The place reeks of exceptionalism. There is the soaring French architecture. The fleet of chefs and long reflective pools. There's even a huddle of swans on a pond ringed with weeping willows.
Located near the intersection of "Splendid" and "Career" streets, the school can accommodate up to 800 cadres for one- to three-week courses, CELAP officials said. Thousands of party schools across China form an important network for maintaining control over the party's more than 86 million members, improving governance and incubating new ideas, according to China historian David Shambaugh.
CELAP, which does not offer degrees, was one of three academies founded in 2005 to train high-ranking cadres. Since then, it has hosted more than 100,000 students.
President Xi, in a 2010 address, tasked CELAP with being "more innovative in helping participants develop a global perspective and enhancing their governing capacity."
But innovation is kept within a Chinese context. "We should understand the outside world," said Chen Yili, a school spokeswoman. "China understands that ideas from the outside may not suit China, but we need to take the ideas that work for China."
Foreigners teach around 12 percent of the classes, according to the school. Lectures on media relations and financial reform are tempered by exercises in the "party-building lab."
The deeper goal, some argue, is to help top cadres strike the correct balance between worldliness and ideological purity in China's shifting political environment.
"These cadres who have to mingle daily with foreign business people are treading a fine line," said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at Hong Kong's Chinese University. "They have a mandate to study and benefit from Western management, but at the same time, they must satisfy Xi's demands on nationalism."
"China is going to play a much bigger role in trying to transform the international financial order," he added. "Before you can transform the international financial order in line with Chinese priorities, you must learn the ropes."
CELAP is not the only place where party orthodoxy gets salted with new ideas. Even within the ideological strictures of other party schools, human curiosity thrives, said Xia Yeliang, an economics professor who was dismissed from Peking University in 2013 after criticizing the government. The school's official reason for his termination was poor student evaluations.
He began giving occasional lectures on constitutional democracy and Western rule of law at a party school in Beijing in 2008, even though he quit the party by ending his payment of dues, which were about 5 percent of his salary.
"They never asked me if I'm a party member," he said. "What I taught was quite against their traditional values, but they still kept inviting me."
He said many of his students yearned for fresh ideas to help explain China's path and new answers to restive questions about traditional Marxism and socialism.
"They need a new wrapping for their officials," he said. They need to be able to tell people "we have learned new things, we know what America is like, we will see what is most suitable for the Chinese people."
Last month, a U.S. delegation came to CELAP to discuss clean energy innovation. The visit afforded reporters rare access to the school.
Officials from state-owned enterprises, banks and insurance companies packed the audience. You Xiang, president of Jiaozuo City Commercial Bank in central China's Henan Province, said CELAP gives people on the front lines of China's globalization invaluable insight.
"We are in the midst of a great change in China," he said. "China's financial system is being integrated with the world. As someone who will be involved in pushing this integration and helping China work with America, I feel this experience will help us."
You listened to Hugh Martin, a serial entrepreneur, talk about working with Steve Jobs at Apple Inc.
"China could be as much or more of a powerhouse as Silicon Valley," Martin said. "But there needs to be a freedom to create without regard for implications."
Reporters were then ushered from the room, before anyone could ask questions.
Follow Erika Kinetz at http://twitter.com/ekinetz