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The Red Scarf: Obedience, Governance, and Bureaucracy in Chinese Primary Schools

Written by Yi Li, for an assignment on ‘administrative evil’ in ANTH424, edited and published with assistance from Dr Susan Wardell. 

When I was almost six, at the beginning of primary school, my teacher told me: “You are not old enough to join the Young Pioneers.” I remember feeling depressed because this meant I could not wear a red scarf (Hong Ling Jin) until the following year. It meant that I would be separated from those marked as first-class pupils.

The Red Scarf as a symbol of youth glory

Figure 1: The Book Cover of ‘Why Wear a Red Scarf?’ Published by China Children’s Press, Photo from Google Images

In China, publications for children (as per Figure 1) and political education within the schooling system, jointly construct stories about how the Chinese martyrs and heroes’ blood dyed scarves red. Once the institutional power (of political and educational structures) authorised the narrative of ‘honour’ associated with these scarves, it was taken up as a political fashion among young people. However, only the most outstanding pupils – young people aged six to fourteen – were allowed to wear the red scarves issued by the government, as part of a movement called ‘Young Pioneers of China’. Similar movements successively appeared in many Communist countries, such as North Korea and the Soviet Republic.

The motto of the Young Pioneers of China is “To fight for the cause of communism: Be ready! Always being ready!”

This reflects the socialist construction of ‘red’ emotions, such as enthusiasm and selflessness. In turn this shows how ideology informs moral values and behaviours – forming a distinctly Chinese tradition (Kleinman and Kleinman, 1985, p. 473).

This is true even for my generation, who were born in peace-time. As children, we committed to follow the notion of the Young Pioneers: to be self-disciplined, and contribute to society. In doing so we took on forms of moral behaviour that were embedded in political systems.

In this blog post I argue the ‘administrative evil’ of Young Pioneers not only produces soft violence through formal and informal rule-making and punishments, but also generates social inequality. I also argue that the process creates a ‘shadow’ in adulthood, that I reflect on as being part of the social machinery of oppression as it functions in the collective childhood of Chinese students.

Establishing the Administration: inclusion and exclusion

Figure 2: Young Pioneers Representative offered Red Scarf to Mao Zedong on 25th June 1959, in Mao’s hometown Shaoshan, Hunan province. (Photo from

In the middle of the 20th century (Figure 2), wearing a red scarf was the least privilege for very few authorised young pioneers. Two representatives (the boy and the girl next to Mao) were able to join first-class universities in Beijing once the government processed the resumption of college entrance examination in 1978. After graduation, they were expected to marry, because of this shared honour during childhood.

In contemporary primary schools (especially after the reform and opening-up policy in 1979), most pupils joined the Young Pioneers of China. To wear a red scarf on school days became everyone’s responsibility; for their class honour and individual dignity. Under the governance of senior pioneers, children’s obedience was cultivated by the ideological administration of youth glory.

Children who could not, or did not, join the young pioneers and wear red scarves became the minority among their peers (Figure 3). They would be excluded as outcasts for this. In this way, red scarves acted with authority, to include or exclude.

I vividly remember one day at school, when all my classmates shamed my desk-mate, for being the only person who had forgotten to wear the red scarf. A young ‘senior pioneer’ who was on duty deducted our class’ points, which led to us losing our status as ‘advanced’ level, in the final grade. My desk-mate was isolated by most classmates and mentors, for his accidental lapse. I remember that I remained silent, although I thought their behaviour toward him was wrong. Three months later, his father decided to transfer him to another school.

In this case, ordinary people like youth pioneers act appropriately to their organisational obligations, doing what those around them would agree they should be doing. Yet they participated in, or contributed to, what a critical and reasonable external observer might identify as morally wrong, in the distress they inflicted upon that one child.

What is administrative evil?

Social scientists Adams and Balfour (1998) deem that the technical-rational approach to social and political problems that characterises the modern age, has enabled a new and frightening form of evil. This evil is associated not with sadistic intention, but with harm caused by participation in the administration of everyday systems (Adams and Balfour, 1998, p. 13). Typically, and unlike many other forms of ethical failure, the appearance of ‘administrative evil’ is masked (Adams and Balfour, 1998). People can engage in acts of evil, unaware that they are doing so (Balfour and Alibašić, 2016).

Figure 3: Xi Jinping celebrated International Children’s Festival with Young Pioneers in Beijing Ethnicity Primary School on the 30th May 2014 (Credited by Xinhuanet, Photo from CCTV News

As a child, I regarded the red scarf as the symbol of glory, as I was taught to do. But through this lens, as a scholar of anthropology now, I realise that it was a tool through which the children could enact and reinforce everyday systems of power, through bureaucratic systems within schools. In the harm it enacted on some children, it fits very closely with Adams and Balfour’s description of administrative evil.

Anthropologist Caton (2010, p.167) uses two philosophical concepts to unpack the idea of guilt or culpability in acts of evil: intentionality and contingency. These ideas highlight the way an anthropological analysis of evil should note the roots and contexts of actions; the role of both self-awareness (or lack thereof), and circumstance. In a similar way, Farmer (2004) proposes that anthropology of structural violence can often be understood as patterned by history, biology, and political economy (Farmer, 2004, p. 308), as well as individual ‘choice’.

Both of these views call for a holistic understanding of evil: linking macro forces to personal experience. Employing these theories is useful to examine the formation and social effect of Youth Pioneers movement, as an example of administrative power. In doing this I have also noted the rising collective nostalgia associated with red scarves, across now-adult populations.

The price of growth: collective nostalgia

Xiang Ge’s short film poster Hong Ling Jin (Red Scarf), 2011

In different historical contexts, both generations before and after the 1979 reform have been educated by the ideology of the red scarf –  with wearing red scarves part of the recognition of excellence. When National leaders meet children who are honourees of the Young Pioneer programme, they do so knowing this glorious moment will be remembered (by the children, and others) as part of the chid’s lifelong glory.

For some individuals though, being deprived of the red scarf as a punishment has also become a part of the collective memory of a Chinese childhood.

Interestingly two different recent short films –  Hong Ling Jin (2011) and The Red (2010) – both tell a story about boys were punished by confiscating their red scarves because they read cartoon books in classes. Under the punishment of the Young Pioneers, and under the institutions’ supervision, these actions cause the protagonists to fall into rebellion and self-doubt.

Li Xia, Cheng Teng’s animated short film The Red poster, 2010

Both of the film’s directors were born in 1980s’ China. They described their creations as part of “nostalgia”, representing their experience in primary schools.

The social media response to these films reflects a recognition that the heart-breaking moment of losing a red scarf has formed a deeply emotional part of Chinese people’s individual and collective identity. However other aspects of public discussion on social media tends to interpret their films as the “indictment of red scarves”.


The red scarf, a symbol accompanied by a legend about political heroes, presents a vision of glory to Chinese children. Wearing a red scarf encouraged me to embody the moral emotions of communism. However the scarf as a visible sign of being a Youth Pioneer, also became the sign of privilege, and functioned to produce obedience at an early age, via reproducing established systems of governance though bureaucratic systems. It shaped our behaviour, even to the point of our participation in emotionally harming ‘divergent’ peers.

How can a child make a moral judgement, when he/she submits to the collective? For me, the red scarf is a reminder that I, like others, I have passed through the valley of administrative evil – where no one is innocent, and no one is exempt.


  •  Adams, G. B. and Balfour, D. L. (1998) ‘The Dynamics of Evil and Administrative Evil’, in Unmasking Administrative Evil. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Ltd, pp. 2–13. doi: 10.4324/9781315716640-1.
  • Balfour, D. and Alibašić, H. (2016) ‘Administrative Evil’, in Farazmand, A. (ed.) Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance. Springer International Publishing, pp. 1–5. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1119-1.
  • Caton, S. C. (2010) ‘Abu Ghraib and the Problem of Evil’, in Ordinary Ethics : Anthropology , Language , and Action. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 165–184. Available at:
  • Farmer, P. (2004) ‘Sidney W. Mintz Lecture for 2001: An anthropology of structural violence’, Current Anthropology, 45(3), pp. 305–325. doi:
  • Kleinman, A. and Kleinman, J. (1985) ‘Somatization: the interconnections in Chinese society among culture, depressive experiences, and the meanings of pain’, in Lock, M. and J. F. (ed.) Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 468–474.

NZ Schooling: a case study of administrative evil against Māori?

Written by Etienne DeVilliers, for an assignment on ‘administrative evil’ in ANTH424.

‘Evil’ is a powerful and versatile word. Often when we think of evil, what comes to mind are very deliberate, sadistic or strategic actions. Yet sometimes deeply harmful actions are unintentional.

We all know the consequence of a mistimed word or unthinking act, on an intimate, personal scale. But this is also true on a wider social social scale too, in terms of the negative consequences that can result for certain people or groups, simply from the large scale bureaucratic systems we all take part in. This is what the concept of ‘administrative evil aims’ to capture, and contemporary social scholars argue that more attention needs to be paid to this in the modern, technologically and bureaucratically efficient world we live in (Adams & Balfour 2014).

How does ‘administrative evil’ apply to the NZ schooling system?

Administrative evil is a form of evil which has emerged within a world with a rapidly expanding population which has turned to rationalist systems, such as bureaucracies. Administrative evil relies not on passionate hatred and emotional connections, but rather on a more banal form of evil, characterised by disinterest or unawareness – and thus often lacking in an intentional motive. The example of this that I will be using is the disregard towards the gap in academic results between Māori students and their peers within the contemporary New Zealand schooling system (Page 2008).


I will argue that the harmful consequences of this are a result of administrative evil, where European rationalist approaches are favoured over Māori systems of knowing, resulting in this disparity in educational outcomes.

However I must stress I am not saying this is done intentionally by the vast majority of people – policy makers, teachers, and so on – but  instead that it is done because unthinkingly, by people who grow up within these systems and never stop to question them. In short, an unintentional evil – detached from the radical personalities of people like Stalin or Hitler, and embedded instead in bureaucratic systems with in-built disadvantages. There are a few key ways in which this unintentional evil is present in NZ schooling systems, that I will look at.

When bias meets bureaucracy 

People of different cultural backgrounds approach situations in different ways. One study showing this in an educational setting, compared how Chinese and American children understood stories in different ways, reflecting wider cultural norms (Wang & Leichtman, 2000). Cultural differences are also present within a New Zealand context, in ways of knowing and learning that are distinct between Māori and European systems.

Despite the country’s aspirations towards a ‘bicultural nation’, the very nature of contemporary schooling institutions in New Zealand is derived from European thought. Much of the comes from past and ongoing perceptions of the superiority of European systems and ways of knowing – the legacy of New Zealand’s past as a colonised nation. Indigenous ways of knowing have been disadvantaged and repressed in numerous systematic ways during this period of political dominance – as is seen among indigenous people in many colonised nations around the world.

Not only the methods and contexts of education, but the way of measuring the success of education, is based on a western set of values, prioritising efficiency and rationalism.

Today the question of funding is important to analysing administrative evil in any given system (Adams & Balfour 2014). Balfour & Adams argue that institutions, in their strive for greater efficiency, can be either constructive or deconstructive – and  in a world where much of the making and unmaking of things comes down to money, ventures which are prioritized for funding can become constructed and those that are not become deconstructed. In this way things that are neglected in terms of funding can become disadvantaged.


Such a case can be seen in the case of Pūhoro STEM Academy (Parahi, 2019) a learning support structure for Māori students which has been successful by many measures, but has a hard time receiving funding due to a perceived lack of efficiency and validity. This is despite it’s potential to address the sometimes large gap between cohorts of Māori students’ results and other students (Page 2008, Collins 2019). In fact another recent public discussion in New Zealand highlights that decisions regarding the funding of Māori centered educational systems are further disadvantaged by the gap between Māori students and their peers (Gerritsen, 2019) – seemingly penalising them for both the result and the cause of the inequality. What this emphasises is how these low results have become an obstacle to improvement, due to questions of efficiency, creating a cycle of administrative evil as less and less access to funding is given.

Cultural ‘border crossing’

Modern education systems in most settler nations are built around western systems. Indigenous forms of knowledge can be and are sometimes introduced to these – but typically in a supporting role, within the overall structures and frameworks of European schooling. This can be seen in the earlier example of the Pūhoro STEM Academy (Parahi, 2019), which is a support system present within a more mainstream system that  is western in both nature and design.

What this means is that Māori students, and particularly those who grow up with Te Ao Māori  as the basis for their way of being in the world, have to move from one system of learning to another, or be at a major disadvantage. In short they have to undergo a sort of cultural border crossing (Aikenhead 1996).

This is allowed to occur as the systems we have in place have become taken for granted as the most efficient form of educating the largest amounts of people. This relates to two characteristics of administrative evil, as proposed by Adams & Balfour (2014). The first is that the system has become taken for granted and as such has become seen as ‘natural’ rather than as a flawed institution. The second is a utilitarian logic that essentially condones a “small” evil (in the disadvantaging of Māori) to support a “greater good” (efficiently educating the largest amounts of people possible) (Balfour., et al., 2014).


When you look at the way that modern educational institutions are structured, it becomes clear that certain methods of learning are prioritized within mainstream schooling, due both to a racist history of belief in the superiority of European thought as well as the distinctive characteristic of rationalism  in the bureaucratic systems that deliver and evaluate it.

This can be seen in the way Māori education is managed in contemporary New Zealand. The emphasis on outcomes for the majority, the basis of funding decisions on these outcomes, and the placement of indigenous ways of knowing and learning as ‘supplementary’ or ‘supporting’ to the standardised western systems… all of this connects to the idea of ‘taking for granted’ the natural and beneficial nature of these systems.

In practice this means either accepting, or simply not thinking to question, the ‘small’ evils of disadvantaged Māori students, against the ‘greater’ gain of the majority. For all of these reasons, mainstream schooling in New Zealand is a fitting example of administrative evil as it can function, insidiously, in contemporary post-colonial nation.


  • Aikenhead, G.S., 1996. Science education: Border crossing into the subculture of science.
  • Wang, Q. and Leichtman, M.D., 2000
  • Page, R., 2008. Variation in storytelling style amongst New Zealand schoolchildren. Narrative Inquiry, 18(1), pp.152-179
  • Balfour, D.L., Adams, G. and Nickels, A., 2014. Unmasking administrative evil. Routledge pg 3-22.
  • Gerritsen, J., 2019. RNZ, New Zealand retrieved from:
  • Collins, S., 2019. New Zealand Herald. New Zealand., retrieved from:
  • Parahi, C., 2019. Stuff., New Zealand., retrieved from: