David Cragin, who teaches risk assessment at Peking University, mentioned to me that there is sharp controversy among his colleagues over how to translate the term "critical thinking" into Chinese. Dr. Zheng, the professor who runs the program David teaches for, was never happy with the traditional translation of "critical thinking", that is, pīpàn shì sīwéi 批判式思维.
Google Translate — Chinese to English: 批判式思维 = “critical thinking.” English to Chinese: “critical thinking” = 批判性思维. Bing and Baidu have exactly the same answers. The only difference between the English to Chinese and the Chinese to English is shì 式 ("style; form; pattern") vs. xìng 性 ("nature; character; quality"), which does not materially affect the meaning of the expression. Incidentally, it would be interesting to pursue a separate line of inquiry concerning the use of the attributive suffixes -shì 式 and -xìng 性, both highly productive, in Mandarin. I suspect that they may well have entered Chinese from Japanese -shiki 式 and -sei 性.
Zheng's discomfort was shared by other Chinese colleagues, who got into a heated debate regarding pīpàn shì sīwéi 批判式思维 when they saw it on some of David's teaching materials.
Recently, Zheng came across an article which suggests míngbiàn shì sīwéi 明辨式思维 as a preferred translation for “critical thinking.” Although Zheng was delighted with the new translation, I think that his enthusiasm is misplaced, because míngbiàn shì sīwéi 明辨式思维 means "discerning thought", not "critical thought".
Now, in my estimation there are several reasons for the skittish sensitivity of contemporary Chinese intellectuals to pīpàn shì sīwéi 批判式思维 ("critical thought"). Before embarking on a discussion of its liabilities, however, I wish to point out that pīpàn 批判 is not a Marxist or other heavily ideologically imbued neologism, but is a term that has been around since at least the Song Dynasty a millennium ago (though, of course, it may have been redefined for the modern age). One of the main problems with pīpàn 批判 is that it hearkens back to the dreaded Cultural Revolution when people were required to criticize (pīpíng 批评 / pīpàn 批判) all and sundry, e.g., pī Lín pī Kǒng 批林批孔 ("Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius" [what an odd combination!!]).
After living through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, people became allergic to the syllable pī 批 ("comment on; criticize; refute; slap") and avoided it as much as possible.
The same thing happened to the syllable gé 革 (as a verb means "change; transform; dismiss; remove from office / position; expel"). At the height of the Cultural Revolution and during the Age of Mao generally, gé 革 was one of the most exalted morphemes in Chinese, e.g., gémìng 革命 ("revolution"), gǎigé 改革 ("reform"). By the mid-80s, however, it had taken on a very bad odor, with conspicuous consequences.
I still remember poignantly walking around Wèimíng hú 未名湖 ("Unnamed Lake") on the Peking University campus with my friend, Yin Binyong in about 1985 and using the words gémìng 革命 ("revolution"), gǎigé 改革 ("reform"), and yāpò 压迫 ("oppression"), another key term in Maoist rhetoric. Even though there was no one within earshot, Yin trembled and shuddered when I pronounced such words, and nervously asked me not to repeat them. Yin, and all of my other Chinese colleagues at that time, had seen too many people "struggled" against with words like this, even to the death, so they simply didn't want to hear them uttered.
This anti-gé 革 atmosphere had a direct impact on language policy, such that the Wénzì gǎigé wěiyuánhuì 文字改革委员会 ("Script Reform Committee"), with which I was closely associated from 1981, had to change its name. Quoting from this comment to "Words in Mandarin: twin kle twin kle lit tle star":
…the Wénzì gǎigé wěiyuánhuì 文字改革委员会 (Script Reform Committee) as an independent and powerful bureau under the Guówùyuàn 国务院 (State Council) [was changed] to the Yǔyán wénzì gōngzuò wěiyuánhuì 国家语言文字工作委员会 (State Language Commission) under the Ministry of Education.
The change of name is indicative: anything with the morpheme gé 革 in it became suspect, because it smacked of gémìng 革命 ("revolution"). By the mid-80s, when this happened, the Chinese Communist Party, which had once been an exponent of revolution, had begun to fear revolution (both "revolution" and "jasmine" have recently been censored on the Chinese internet), and even gǎigé 改革 ("reform") was studiously avoided.
The same was true of the songs from the Eight Model Plays which were virtually the only songs permitted during the Cultural Revolution, and blared from loudspeakers in public places at the behest of Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, who was one of the chief architects of the Cultural Revolution. (Never mind that she privately enjoyed watching Western cinema.)
When people heard any of these songs in the 80s, they would put their hands over their ears and run away, so repulsive were the memories they evoked.
To return to the matter of "critical thought", the correct Chinese translation is indeed pīpàn shì sīwéi 批判式思维, not míngbiàn shì sīwéi 明辨式思维 or some other strained attempt to avoid the dreaded syllable pī 批.
As a Chinese colleague who left China about forty years ago astutely put it,
The standard translation is unassailable, because Immanuel Kant's classical work is translated into Chinese as Chúncuì lǐxìng pīpàn 纯粹理性批判 (Critique of Pure Reason). The opposition you have cited likely comes from the negative connotation of the word 批判 from Mao's era. If this is the case, then it is ironical that these professors lack the critical thinking to realize that 批判 became a completely bad word only under communist rule.
Finally, before closing, I would like to mention that, apart from the ambivalence over pīpàn 批判 in Chinese, "critical" itself in English is also a double-edged sword. When we solicit criticism from someone, we often qualify it by saying "constructive criticism", as though "criticism" by itself were negative.
[Thanks to Sanping Chen, Guobin Yang, Yuhua Wang, John Rohsenow, Da'an Pan, and Stephan Stiller]