The Scholars at Risk Network said Chinese academics struggle under systematic Chinese government policies intended “to constrict academic activity and to intimidate, silence, and punish outspoken academics and students”

All Chinese universities are under the control of the Communist party, which appoints the institutions’ top administrative officials and runs party committees on campuses. Often each department has a party head. Verna Yu wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: Since the 1949 revolution, universities in China have been under the firm control of its Communist rulers. Mao Zedong openly expressed hostility towards intellectuals, whom he saw as a threat. Throughout his reign, millions of them were subject to humiliating treatment and brutally persecuted in political movements such as the anti-rightist movement in 1957 and the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Now academics report a revival of antipathy towards intellectuals that is partly reminiscent of earlier periods under Mao and the party, though less physically brutal. Today, outspoken scholars get fired, or they are pressured to leave. [Source:Verna Yu, Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 2015]

Chris Buckley wrote in New York Times: “Education authorities generously fund pro-party scholars. Chinese and foreign foundations that once supported less orthodox Chinese scholars have retrenched because of tightening official restrictions. Dissenting academics are maligned in the party-run news media and risk professional ruin. [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, August 2, 2020]

Xi Jinping Calls for Universities to Be Communist Party ‘Strongholds’

In a major speech in December 2016, China leader Xi Jinping said China universities must become Communist party “strongholds that adhere to party leadership ”and all teachers must be “staunch supporters” of party governance. “Higher education ... must adhere to correct political orientation” and and political education should be made “more appealing”, Xi said at a two-day congress on “ideological and political work” in Beijing. [Source: Tom Phillips, The Guardian, December 9, 2016]

The Guardian reported: “Echoing a 1932 speech by Joseph Stalin the Chinese president told his audience teachers were “engineers of the human soul” whose “sacredmission” was to help students “improve in ideological quality, political awareness, moral characteristics and humanistic quality”. “Party authorities should increase their contact with intellectuals in colleges, befriend them and sincerely listen to their opinions,” Xi added, pointing out that the party’s education policies “must be fully carried out”.

“Carl Minzner, an expert in Chinese law and politics from Fordham University in New York, said Xi’s speech appeared to signal the next phase of a decade-long campaign to wrest back control of areas it feared were “getting out of control” such as the media, public interest law and academia. “What you are seeing is a reassertion of ideological control because they feel that colleges and schools are the hotbeds for ideas that potentially could be problematic; ideas of constitutionalism, ideas of liberalism. This is an effort to figure out, ‘How do we get a tighter control over that?’ and it looks like this is definitely going to be rolling through all of China’s colleges over the next couple of years. This is a big deal.”

“Universities have been coming under increasing pressure since 2014, when a party-run newspaper sent its reporters into classrooms and accused Chinese academics of not giving enough support to the country’s political system. “The atmosphere in higher education has been getting progressively colder over the last couple of years … I think people have already begun getting the message: ‘You need to watch yourself,’” said Minzner. “[But] this is a signal that things are about to go to the next level.”

In December 1015, Xi called for greater “ideological guidance” in China’s universities and urged the study of Marxism. “Xi said universities had to “shoulder the burden of learning and researching the dissemination of Marxism” and called on the authorities to step up the party’s “leadership and guidance” in universities as well as to “strengthen and improve the ideological and political work”. Campuses should “cultivate and practice the core values of socialism in their teaching”, Xi said. .[Source: Reuters, December 29, 2015]

Rogier Creemers of Oxford University wrote: “Previous administrations had tended to accommodate and tolerate intellectual gadflies. Perhaps they preferred critical voices inside the tent; perhaps it was recognized that open debate (albeit in closed circles) would enable the emergence of new ideas and suggestions for policy reform. Certainly, foreign academics attending Chinese conferences are often surprised by the vigour and the robustness of the debate. That debate has now been strictly circumscribed. Xi’s rhetorical push of the Chinese Dream, and his call for more self-confidence about China’s unique path, buttressed by “the theory and the system of Socialism with Chinese characteristics” have been oriented at making clear once and for all that the core elements of the Western liberal democratic order are utterly unsuited to the Chinese context, and that no illusions to the contrary should be harboured. Instead, Xi proposes a nativist-exceptionalist approach, which focuses on – a politically correct version of – Chinese history and politics. In short, this ideological push is primarily aimed at curtailing the independence and autonomy of Chinese academy, imposing ideology, and refocusing the task of universities toward teaching, rather than research. [Source: Rogier Creemers, “Ideology Matters: Parsing Recent Changes in China’s Intellectual Landscape”, February 8, 2015. Creemers is a Rubicon Scholar at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, an Associate at the China Centre of Oxford University]

Measures Take to Restrict Academic Freedom at Chinese Universities

In December 2019, Fudan University in Shanghai, considered one of China’s more liberal institutions, changed its charter. Among the changes were dropping the phrase “freedom of thought” and the inclusion of a pledge to follow the Communist party’s leadership. [Source: Reuters The Guardian, December 18, 2019]

Verna Yu wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: In Document No. 9, a promulgation in Xi’s core edict issued in 2013, cadres responsible for education, ideology and propaganda are told to tackle “seven serious problems in the ideological sphere.” This includes banning discussions on “Western constitutional democracy,” and universal values like human rights and the rule of law. Scholarly critiques of history that include party mistakes are also taboo. More teaching of Marxism and socialism In recent months authorities have put out a series of official edicts that would further tighten these controls. In January, a joint directive from the State Council and the General Office of the Communist Party's Central Committee ordered universities to step up the teaching of Marxism and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to make sure that the theories will enter "textbooks, classrooms and brains." [Source: Verna Yu, Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 2015]

Rogier Creemers of Oxford University wrote: “According to a January 2015 Central Committee Document universities are to put a higher priority on teaching (research is only mentioned insofar it concerns Marxist and Socialist theory), strengthen a common ideological basis and enhance Party leadership in higher education. Political theory courses and textbooks are to be centralized, and new evaluation and performance management systems introduced, in order to standardize the curriculum. Teaching staff will be required to participate in regular ideology training and study sessions, and to spend time engaging in “social practice” outside campuses. In the weeks since this document was published, the heads of all elite education institutions have published pledges of allegiance in various Party media. [Source: Rogier Creemers, “Ideology Matters: Parsing Recent Changes in China’s Intellectual Landscape”, February 8, 2015. Creemers is a Rubicon Scholar at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, an Associate at the China Centre of Oxford University]

Reasons Why Academic Freedom at Chinese Universities is Being Restricted

Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says the crackdown on free speech and academic freedom is the worst since the crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989. President Xi Jinping, says Mr. Lam, is trying to restore core Mao-era communist values and ideals across Chinese society and wants the colleges to fall into line. Mr. Xi wants to keep China stable in part by keeping out alien or disruptive ideas, he adds. The party is insecure, says Lam, because it faces hundreds of thousands of cases of social unrest every year and needs to regain the upper hand in shaping popular opinion. “People’s thoughts and minds – these are the battleground,” Lam says. “Xi wants to make sure that the battleground is filled up with politically correct stuff so there will be no room for subversive, democratic thinking.” [Source: Verna Yu, Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 2015]

Creemers said. “There are quite a few reasons why the academy is targeted. First, it has internationalized more than any other professional group in China. Many well-regarded Chinese professors have either been educated abroad, or have spent considerable time outside China as visiting researchers. This considerable time spent living in a different political environment has provided them with a more nuanced understanding of social and political organization in other countries than can be gained in short trips. Second, they have considerable input into policymaking processes. China’s technocratic governance mode has often valued expert input more than public participation. This, therefore, provides academics with avenues to transform imported ideas into reality. Third, “patriotic worrying” is a part of Chinese intellectual tradition, which compels academics to relentlessly search out flaws in the China of the present in order to perfect the China of the future. Fourth, as educators, they are crucial in shaping the worldview of a new generation. However, the current generation of millennials (balinghou and jiulinghou) is already seen as rebellious and hedonistic, and it seems the leadership has decided that they’d better not be further confused. Remember: political protests in China over the last century, from May Fourth to Tiananmen, have tended to originate from universities.

Crackdown on Western Ideas in Chinese Universities

In March 2016 education minister Yuan Guiren declared that Chinese professors should be on guard against the infiltration of Western ideas and avoid using teaching materials that “disseminate Western values.” Yuan vowed to ban university textbooks which promote “western values”. “Never let textbooks promoting western values appear in our classes,” he said, according to a report by China’s official Xinhua. “Remarks that slander the leadership of the Communist Party of China” and “smear socialism” must never appear in college classrooms. Yuan was not amused when a Wall Street Journal reporter pointed out to him that Marxism, on which the China Communist Party is based, is a Western idea.[Source: The Guardian, January 30, 2015; Wall Street Journal]

In December 2017, Shenyang Pharmaceutical University in China’s north-east publicly banned the celebration of Christmas on campus, to help students resist what it called the “corrosion of Western religious culture”. The university’s Communist Youth League said the ban would build cultural confidence among those members of the younger generation “blindly excited” about Western holidays. [Source: Amber Ziye Wang, University World News no. 509, June 5, 2018]

In 2018, universities were told to further embed Chinese culture into their curriculum. Amber Ziye Wang wrote in University World News: Universities across China have been told to further integrate Chinese traditional culture into their courses and award students credits for studying ethnic music, arts and crafts in a new government plan to boost cultural confidence and awareness in higher education. According to the notice, the move is expected to strengthen the country’s cultural confidence and awareness, and “instil new vitality” to Chinese traditional culture. It is seen as a move to counter the growing popularity among young people of music, drama and other cultural imports from the West and Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. “Around 100 ‘cultural heritage’ bases will be set up at higher learning institutions nationwide by 2020 to advance education, protection, innovation and exchanges of Chinese traditional culture,” according to a notice issued by the Ministry of Education in May 2018. The government will provide support for ethnic and folk music, arts, dance, theatre, opera, traditional handicrafts and sports while “giving full play to the role and strengths of universities in cultural promotion”, the ministry says.[Source: Amber Ziye Wang, University World News no. 509, June 5, 2018]

Impact of the Loss of Academic Freedom at Chinese Universities

Verna Yu wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: Professors, especially in law and the humanities, describe a loss of academic freedom. They speak of new prohibitions against teaching the concepts behind human rights law, or debates arising out of democratic "color revolutions" and the Arab Spring, to name a few, topics that would be found at most colleges around the world. “If I'm not allowed to [even] talk about citizens' rights, civil society, judicial independence,” says Chen Hongguo, former associate law professor at Northwest University of Politics and Law, “then what qualifies me to teach in the law faculty?” [Source: Verna Yu, Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 2015]

The atmosphere on campus has become more and more oppressive – before, it was relatively free,” he says. “Now, there is more red tape and restrictions.” Party officials are cutting or constraining trips to academic conferences and travel deemed professionally important, scholars say. Student reading lists are being vetted for ideological content; the range of approved research subjects are narrowing; and large swaths of “Western” intellectual inquiry are being characterized as “hostile” pursuits.

“My writing and research have reached a freezing point,” sighed a young Chinese university lecturer in media studies who can’t give his name for fear of being fired. “There are topics I know that as soon as they are mentioned in my classes, I would be sacked immediately,” says the lecturer. He notes that the expanding list of taboo topics in universities now includes last fall's democracy movement in Hong Kong that demanded genuine universal suffrage without candidates having to be vetted by Beijing. The media studies scholar, who has a large following on social media, says he's regularly invited "to have tea” with the secret police where he is tacitly warned against discussing subjects off limits to young people. "It is very painful not being able to teach what I believe in,” he says.

Chen, the law professor that resigned, says that arranging academic guest seminars used to be relatively simple. But the number of steps for permission has increased and is being vetted by party bureaucrats. Scholars trying to attend conferences outside China, including Hong Kong, must now obtain formal approvals from the university. Less and less space Before Chen resigned he had also been admonished for hosting seminars where he invited liberal Chinese scholars to speak. “This is an effective strategy,” Chen continues. “This way they can force out the people they don't like.”

Thought Control at Chinese Universities

Stephen Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post: When he was vice president in 2012, Xi Jinping has ordered universities to step up ideological control of students and young lecturers ahead of the keynote 18th party congress this autumn, CCTV reported yesterday. Xi is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao in a new Politburo line-up at the Communist Party's 18th national congress - with the party seeking a smooth transition and attempting to remove threats to its political control. [Source: Stephen Chen, South China Morning Post, January 5, 2012]

"University party organs must adopt firmer and stronger measures to maintain harmony and stability in universities. Daily management of the institutions should be stepped up to create a good atmosphere for the success of the party's 18th congress," Xi said yesterday in Beijing at a gathering of Communist Party representatives from universities.

The party, unnerved by a series of riots, demonstrations and strikes caused by land seizures, pollution and labour disputes, is stepping up control on different fronts - such as in propaganda, media and social controls - to minimise political risks ahead of the congress. The revolutions in the Middle East last year, along with online postings calling for similar ones in China, have also put the party on high alert.

Universities have long been regarded as the most important stronghold for the party's grip on ideology. Liu Yandong , the highest-ranking woman in the party and in charge of education, said a series of plans had been made - including holding university presidents responsible for political missions, enhancing the capability of leaders in managing universities, and having active and strong party influence at the grass-roots level - to ensure the smooth opening of the congress.

Xi also emphasised the importance of keeping an eye on lecturers, especially young ones. "Young teachers have many interactions with students and cast significant influence on them," Xi said, adding that their political opinions and moral standards "have a very strong influence on students. They also play a very important role in the spread of ideas". Xi said universities must make it a paramount task to "instruct" the thoughts of young lecturers and recruit more of them to join the party.

Security Camera at Chinese Universities

In December 2014, a Chinese province announced plans to install CCTV cameras in university classrooms, sparking an outcry from lawyers who say the move would further curb academic freedom. According to The Guardian: “Authorities have in the past installed video equipment in the classrooms of outspoken academics, most notably Uighur economics professor Ilham Tohti, who was sentenced to life in prison for separatism in September 2014. Evidence from the classroom cameras was used to convict the scholar, in a case that was condemned by human rights groups.

According to Radio Free Asia: Tan Song, an associate professor at Chongqing Normal University, said that in today's Chinese universities, surveillance cameras are widely installed in the classrooms, and the authorities hire informants among the students. "The teacher's every move in the classroom is monitored. Nowadays one does not need to come to the classroom to monitor the teachers. It's just like the police monitoring traffic. When you want classroom 305, the computer will get it for you. How could the university teacher give a lecture in class? The informant's job is to report on the teachers and students. What the teacher said in the class, the informant will report. The informant officers contact each other on a one-to-one basis and the students will not know they do so. Of course, those who work as informants will benefit in the future such as in placement and becoming a Party member. Under current circumstances, in Chinese colleges and universities, no one dares to say anything." [Source: Radio Free Asia, September 28, 2018]

Student Informers at Chinese Universities

Javier C. Hernández wrote in the New York Times,: “China has long relied on students to serve as checks against their teachers. During the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s, academics and people with ties to the West or who were deemed “class enemies” were persecuted. Young people were called upon to spy on and denounce teachers and other intellectuals suspected of dissent. [Source: Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, November 1, 2019]

“In a throwback to the Mao Zedong era, Chinese universities are deploying students as watchdogs against their teachers, part of a sweeping campaign by Mr. Xi to eliminate dissent and turn universities into party strongholds. The use of student informers has surged under Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, with hundreds of universities now employing the practice, according to interviews with more than two dozen professors and students, as well as a review of public records. “Everyone feels they are in danger,” said You Shengdong, a longtime economics professor at Xiamen University in eastern China who was fired last year after students reported him for criticizing one of Mr. Xi’s favorite propaganda slogans. “How do we make progress,” Mr. You asked, “how can we produce inventions in this environment?”

“Under Mr. Xi, many universities now appoint one student monitor per class, according to public notices posted by universities. Students must apply to serve as informers, and many schools accept only party members or those who can demonstrate they hold “correct” political views. Universities are posting advertisements recruiting students to spy on their teachers, with some aiming to have one in every classroom. It has created a chilling effect that some have compared to the ideological purification campaigns of the decade-long Cultural Revolution, in which radical students attacked Mao’s perceived enemies.

“Professors and students described at least a dozen instances since early last year in which professors at Chinese universities have been fired or punished after students filed reports against them. A university in central China fired a professor after a student reported her for criticizing the elimination of presidential term limits by Mr. Xi, a move that allows him to remain in office indefinitely. In Beijing, a university suspended a math professor after a student complained that she had suggested Japanese students worked harder than their Chinese counterparts.

“The proliferation of student informers has raised concerns among scholars and students, who see the practice as another attempt to stifle classroom debate.“Teachers can be reported for anything,” said Tang Yun, a veteran literature professor at Chongqing Normal University in southwestern China.

What I Expected of Students Spies at Chinese Universities

Reporting from Chengdu, Javier C. Hernández wrote in the New York Times: With a neon-red backpack and white Adidas shoes, he looks like any other undergraduate on the campus of Sichuan University in southwestern China. But Peng Wei, a 21-year-old chemistry major, has a special mission: He is both student and spy. Mr. Peng is one of a growing number of “student information officers” who keep tabs on their professors’ ideological views. They are there to help root out teachers who show any sign of disloyalty to President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party. “It’s our duty to make sure that the learning environment is pure,” Mr. Peng said, “and that professors are following the rules.”[Source: Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, November 1, 2019]

“Some students take an expansive view of their mandate, keeping an eye not only on what professors say in class, but on their private lives, including tastes in books and movies, informers said in interviews. Mr. Pengsaid he also speaks regularly with other students to gather impressions of teachers, including about their character, values and patriotism. He rejected the idea that the rise of informers is hurting classroom debate and said that for too long, Chinese universities have ignored the views of students. “Teachers need to listen to the concerns of students,” he said.

“At some schools, student informers are required to submit reports about their teachers to campus branches of the Communist Party, according to advertisements for the positions. Ankang University in northwest China said in an online notice that student informers should formally report professors who spread superstition, cults and pornography, “promote Western political values,” and criticize the party’s tenets. School administrators, the notice says, should respond to each complaint within three working days. At Xiantao Vocational College in central China, informers are expected to monitor for “behavior or speech that violates the party’s line.” Xinyang Normal University in central China calls on student informers to report anything teachers say that “endangers national security” or “national unity.”

Respected Law Textbook Replaced with Communist-Party-Endorsed Propaganda

“In late January, “Introduction to Constitutional Law”, a textbook on China’s Constitution first published in 2004, suddenly vanished from bookstores, online sources and classrooms. Written by Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University and one of the country’s leading experts on constitutional law, the book had long been essential and required reading for students of law in China. While the precise reasons for the textbook’s disappearance were not entirely clear, rumors posted across social media suggested the textbook had run afoul of the authorities for “promoting western ideas, and singing praise of western systems” . [Source: Elaine Wang, China Media Project, February 24, 2019]

According to the China Media Project: Several colleges, including Jiangsu Normal University, demanded teachers use instead a textbook called “Constitutional Law”, published in 2011 as part of the “Marxism Theory Studies and Construction Project”. The ostensible goal of the project was the “prosperous development of philosophy and social sciences” in China through the application of Marxism.

“The results — for the field of constitutional law at any rate — were not exactly inspiring. A search for Constitutional Law on China’s most popular and trafficked book-rating website, Douban, shows the book earning a lackluster rating of 2.5 out of a possible score of 10, while various editions of Zhang Qianfan’s Introduction to Constitutional Law uniformly receive ratings of between 9.1 to 9.8.

“Ideological and Moral Cultivation and Basic Law Education” is another book recommended by Beijing for use in university law classes. “According to state media, students and teachers have nothing but praise to the new textbooks. “[I] never expected the textbook will be so interesting,” said Liu Xiaojun, a first-year college student at China Agriculture University, in an interview with the People’s Daily in 2012 when talking about the book the mentioned above,, “this is one of the most helpful courses to freshmen like us.” But the feedback online is less encouraging. The book received a rating of just 3.5 on Douban, where many called it “dogmatic” and “brainwashing.” Some have panned the textbook as “rubbish.” “It includes nothing [valuable],” an anonymous user on Zhihu, China’s equivalent of Quora, complained of one textbook. “Our teacher had to add extra contents to it, and students had to make extra notes all the time.”

Researching Politics in China

Daniel A. Bell wrote in the New York Times in 2015: “Research is...challenging. I can publish books and articles in English without any interference. When my writings are translated into Chinese, however, the censors do their work. An earlier book on the rise of political Confucianism was due to be published in 2008, but I was told it couldn’t go to press because of the Olympics: Nothing remotely critical about contemporary politics in China could be published when the whole world was watching the country. In 2009, the 60th anniversary of the founding of modern China made it another “sensitive” year. In early 2010, the upcoming World Expo in Shanghai provided an excuse for delay. To my surprise, my book was indeed published during a brief period of politically “not-so-sensitive” time in the autumn of 2010. [Source: Daniel A. Bell, New York Times, April 16, 2015]

“Lately, the censorship regime has intensified. This time, the main reason is President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign, which produces real enemies with a strong motivation to undermine the current leadership. Hence, even more curbs than usual on political publications, no matter how academic. I’ve ordered books on Amazon that have been confiscated at the border. I’ve long needed a virtual private network to access The New York Times and Google Scholar, but censors have been disrupting the use of V.P.N.s. My tech-savvy students help me to get around the restrictions, but it’s a cat-and-mouse game and the cat is getting smarter. My mood varies almost directly with the ease of Internet access, and lately I’ve often been in a foul mood.

“Ironically, I had a particularly hard time accessing sources for a new book that is a largely positive account of the principles underlying the Chinese political system. I had to leave the country for several months to access works on the Internet and banned books in English and Chinese necessary to make my case.

Fired Professors in China

Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at the prestigious Peking University, was fired from his post in 2013 after a 13-year tenure in a decision he attributed to persistent calls for political change in China. Xia told AFP he believed he was dismissed because of his political views, particularly his support for Charter 08, a document signed by hundreds of intellectuals, dissidents and others urging pluralist democracy in China. But Peking University said that Xia was the school's worst-ranked teacher and the source of 340 student complaints since 2006. "Xia Yeliang's teaching evaluation scores were for many years in a row the lowest of the entire university," the statement said. According to Twitter, “at a meeting, 30 of 34 professors voted against continuing Prof. Xia's employment.” Those claims were disputed. Xia received an overall score of 4.3 out of 5, and a review of the comments by Epoch Times shows that all of them – dating back to 2007 – are positive. “Xia was called “the conscience of the School of Economics,” “very charismatic,” and “thought-provoking.” “One student wrote:“Mr. Xia’s Principles of Economics is the most popular class in Peking University. A 100 seat classroom was packed with students. Even the space around the lectern and out in the hall were full of people. I really learnt a lot.” [Source: AFP, October 21, 2013; The Epoch Times, October 23, 2013]

Xia, a former teenage Red Guard turned free-market advocate, was not well liked by the Chinese Communist Party. In a 2009 public letter he ridiculed the technical school degree held by the nation’s propaganda minister and in 2012 interview with Radio Free Asia he described China as a “Communist one-party dictatorship.” Xia told the New York Times he most likely crossed a line in 2012 when he posted an online jeremiad calling on Chinese intellectuals to gather in public squares to debate political reform. “That seemed to really upset school administrators,” he said. It also apparently upset powerful figures in the Communist Party. Xia moved to the U.S. in 2014. [Source: Andrew Jacobs New York Times, October 14, 2013]

Zhang Xuezhong, a law professor at the East China University of Political Science who openly criticized the Chinese government, was sacked in December 2013. Zhang was an outspoken legal scholar known for advocating free speech and for repeatedly calling on the government to abide by its own Constitution. According to the New York Times His “undoing appears to be an article he published online in June 2013 titled “The Origin and the Perils of the Anti-Constitutionalism Campaign in 2013.” A few days later, he said, four school officials summoned him for a meeting to warn him that the article violated both the nation’s code of teaching ethics and the Chinese Constitution. Professor Zhang appears to have been a fairly popular lecturer at the school. On Pinglaoshi, a website where students can anonymously evaluate their teachers, Professor Zhang received a rating of 4.6 on a scale of 5, with most of the 21 posts favorable. “We admire and respect you,” said one post from September. “You are China’s backbone.” A post from August said, “You are a true warrior with integrity.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs New York Times, December 10, 2013]

Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, was detained in July 2020 and dismissed from his job after writing a stream of essays condemning the party’s direction under Mr. Xi. In March 2019, Xu, a noted scholar of law with an international reputation, was formally notified that he was banned from all teaching activities. Xu was also told that the university would launch formal disciplinary action against him for his recent writings. In July 2020, police showed up in force at the home in northern Beijing and took him away, according to three friends. According to to the New York Times: He was detained on an accusation of consorting with prostitutes, according to Geng Xiaonan, a friend who said she had spoken to the scholar’s wife and students. “It’s just the kind of vile slander that they use against someone they want to silence,” said Ms. Geng, a businesswoman involved in film and publishing. “He foresaw this day,” she said. “He kept some clothes in a bag hanging inside his front door, so he wouldn’t have to go without a change when they took him away.” Professor Xu, 57, is one of the few prominent Chinese academics who have dared to speak out against the ruling party as Mr. Xi has tightened controls on universities. He came to wider prominence after publishing an essay in 2018 that, without naming Mr. Xi, condemned his government for stifling even the narrow space for debate that the party had previously tolerated. [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, July 6, 2020]

Before Xi Jinping teachers and professors got away with more and the crackdowns were not harsh. In May 2010, Yuan Tengfei, a history teacher at Beijing's Haidian Teachers' Training Institute, was warned and censured by school authorities for “gravely incorrect comments” over inflammatory comments he made about Mao Zedong in an online video clip. Yuan, hailed by some Internet users as the mainland's boldest history teacher, condemned Mao as the world's No. 1 tyrant in a lecture on the history of the Cultural Revolution, saying, “Those who have read some books should not have a good impression of Mao Zedong, otherwise what you've read ends up in a dog's head,” Yuan said in the clip. He also likened Mao's mausoleum on Beijing's Tiananmen Square to Japan's Yasukuni Shrine, “where a butcher with people's blood on his hands is worshipped.” Afterwards Yuan still worked at the privately run Jinghua School. Yuan is not the only academic punished for challenging state-endorsed accepted historical views. Sun Yat-sen University philosophy professor Yuan Weishi came under fire for an article published in a China Youth Daily supplement in 2006 questioning the official interpretation of history and cautioning against nationalism in the study of Chinese history. That row led to the sacking of the supplement's editor, Li Datong. [Source: Raymond Li, South China Morning Post, May 15, 2010]

Professors Fired or Disciplined in the Late 2010s

Yang Shaozheng, a well-regarded professor in the College of Economics at Guizhou University, taught game theory and advanced microeconomics. His research focused on optimization theory and mechanism design theory, and managed numerous provincial- and state-funded research projects. In August 2018, his university expelled him for “long-running publication and spreading online of politically mistaken speech, writing a large number of politically harmful articles, and creating a deleterious influence on campus and in society.” He was also guilty of “being unrepentant” and refusing to accept “educational help.” Before that Yang was suspended from teaching and banned from advising graduate students. According to a personal statement he published online, Yang repeatedly approached the administration and the university’s Party Office to demand a formal statement of reasons for the sanctions. In each case he was blown off or refused. His written appeal to the university president was ignored.[Source: China Change, August 21, 2018]

It is widely believed that the reason for his expulsion was an essay titled: “Can We Really Leave the Party Out of Our Economic Research?” submitted to New Tang Dynasty Television, a station affiliated with Falun Gong, a persecuted spiritual group in China. In the essay Yang wrote: “Party personnel as well as the staff of some non-Party mass organizations are sustained by the taxes of the citizenry plus the state’s revenue. They are across the government, the military, mass organizations, state enterprises, educational and cultural institutions, and the organs responsible for Party Affairs. Their number exceeds 20 million; the cost to maintain them, including the loss of wealth caused by maintaining them, is estimated at 2 trillion yuan annually, with every Chinese carrying a burden of roughly 15,000 yuan each.”

You Shengdong, an economics professor from Xiamen University, was fired in 2018 after he said students had reported him for questioning Mr. Xi’s trademark slogan, the “Chinese dream,” a vision of prosperity and strength for the nation. Mr. You said he told his students that dreams are “delusions and fantasies — not ideals.” You, 71, who relocated to New York, said his students referred to him as extreme and “anti-Communist.” His classroom was equipped with a video camera and the authorities warned that they could easily turn up evidence of inappropriate remarks. [Source: Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, November 1, 2019]

According to China Change: Deng Xiangchao, the vice dean of the School of Art at Shandong Jianzhu University, who was forced to retire in January 2017 after he forwarded a number of posts making fun of Mao Zedong on Mao’s birthday.

Zhai Jiehong, , associate professor in the law school at the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan, who in May 2018 had his Party membership cancelled and was suspended from teaching after criticizing the constitutional amendment (to remove the tenure limit on the head of state in China).

Li Mohai, an associate professor and director of the political department in the political-law school of Shandong Institute of Business and Technology, who was sacked in July 2017 for “publishing incorrect speech online”.

Shi Jiepeng, an associate professor of classical Chinese at Beijing Normal University who in August 2017 was expelled for “publishing incorrect views online over a long period of time,” “crossing the red line of ideology management, violating political discipline, and causing severe damage to the reputation of the university”.

Xu Chuanqing, an associate professor at Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture who in September 2017 was subject to administrative punishment after being informed on by students in his Probability Theory class for “making inappropriate comparisons between Japanese and Chinese people and giving free reign to his personal dissatisfaction.”

Liu Shuqing and Zhang Xuezhong, two university professor who are also human rights lawyers, were also deprived of their teaching qualifications. Liu Shuqing was disbarred from practicing law, and while Zhang Xuezhong has managed to keep his license, he’s been unable to practice due to the university’s concerted interference. Recently Zhang, a law professor, received a harsh warning from the police for publishing a proposal for drafting a new constitution by citizens that aimed to help create a modern political system in China.

In early August 2018, Sun Wenguang, a retired professor from Shandong University was set upon and dragged away by half a dozen police officers, who barged into his home while he was in the middle of an interview with Voice of America. The recording cut off live as he was hauled off. He was illegally detained for several days before being allowed to return home, and since then hasn’t been able to speak with journalists. A VOA journalist and news assistant who visited him previously were also temporarily detained.

Tang Yun, a professor at Chongqing Normal University, was stripped of his credentials and demoted to a job in the library in 2019 after he criticized a phrase Mr. Xi uses often — “roll up your sleeves and work hard” — as coarse.

Image Sources: 1) Louis Perrochon ; 2, 3) Ohio State University; 4) Nolls China website; 5) Bucklin archives; 6) Poco Pico blog ; Wikicommons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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