This paper offers a critique of the Chinese philosophy of online distance learning as a means of building a lifelong learning society. Literature about lifelong learning and its implications for online distance learning is reviewed. Documents, reports and research papers are examined to explore the characteristics of the Chinese philosophy of online distance learning as reflected in the prevailing understanding and debates in the field. Phenomenological analysis, deconstructive discourse analysis and internal criticism are employed, guided by a phenomenological qualitative methodology. The critique reveals that the notion of lifelong learning is to some extent obscured in meaning in the prevailing understanding of and debates about Chinese online distance learning. Furthermore, it shows that the Chinese philosophy of online distance learning paradoxically combines a sense of overenthusiasm with a sense of underestimation associated with the potential of online distance learning in promoting lifelong learning. Also identified is the emerging development of Chinese online distance learning towards its ‘in‐depth development’, based on an increasing awareness of the necessity to enhance the quality of online distance learning through integration of educational theories with information and communication technologies (ICT). The paper calls for a new vision on ICT for learning as a necessary condition for successful incorporation of Chinese online distance learning with and into lifelong learning. Copyright © 2007 The Author.