CHINESE UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS
Some Chinese professors spend a lot of time with students outside class time. They are more informal then and often have close relations with their students. Other Chinese professors don't even show up for their lectures because of off-campus business interests. Foreigners who gets jobs at Chinese universities complain they are often forced to teach twice as many hours as their Chinese counterparts.
Steven Kuo wrote in The Guardian, “In my experience, interviewing established professors is sometimes akin to having an audience with a ranking mandarin. They respond anecdotally from a position of superiority, confident with their privileged access to information, their influence on policy and their status in society. Attempts at engaging in academic debate are often dismissed with sighs of “you just don't understand China” and if pressed a little harder, accusations of western imperialism are almost inevitable.” Some of the younger generation of scholars complain privately of having to produce research on demand, of having to censor themselves on “sensitive topics” and having to deal with an unfair system that recognizes seniority rather than originality and quality. But those who are unhappy with the system are in the minority; the majority of them are satisfied with their lot and are biding time until they too take up more senior positions.” [Source: Steven Kuo, The Guardian, August 21, 2010]
After observing university students dozing and playing games while their professors lectured obliviously, David Ho wrote in the South China Morning Post: “There seems to be a mutual and pervasive lack of respect and trust between professors and students, symptomatic of the uninspiring, troubled learning environment found in Chinese universities. Apparently, professors have not yet learned from the sayings of Mao Zedong, that “There are teachers who ramble on and on when they lecture; they should let their students doze off … Rather than keeping your eyes open and listening to boring lectures, it is better to get some refreshing sleep. You don’t have to listen to nonsense.”
“Academic governance is typically politicised, paternalistic and autocratic, given the concentration of authority in the “leader” (for example, the head of department) at different echelons. The leaders don’t lead; they issue edicts. Nothing gets done without a nod from the leader. There is little to constrain them from practising “management by terror”. Once, I mentioned to a department head that students were afraid of him. His reply was: “That’s good. I want students to be fearful of me, so they will be more obedient.” I was taken aback, especially because the head in question professed to be an expert in management.
“Factionalism and territoriality are rampant. If the leader doesn’t like you, you may find yourself ostracised. It’s not personal. The colleagues who shun your company simply want to avoid displeasing the leader. This is called “drawing the line”, reminiscent of past political campaigns during which even family members had to “draw the line” out of self-protection.
“The classroom is highly controlled, marked by unidirectional communication from the teacher to students. What teachers and students say in the classroom may be monitored, especially during periods of political sensitivity. So the strategy for survival is: “Don’t think, just teach” for teachers; and “Don’t question, just study” for students. Understandably, the need for adopting such a strategy is more acute in the social sciences than in the physical sciences. Even so, over the past several decades, the trend towards more freedom of thought is unmistakable.
In June 2021, a professor at China's prestigious Fudan University killed the Communist Party secretary at the school of mathematics, police and school authorities said. Associated Press reported: “Police identified the suspect in custody as a 39-year-old professor whose surname is Jiang, saying he used a knife in committing the crime on the school campus in Shanghai. The school said in a brief statement that Wang Yongzhen, 49, was killed on Monday afternoon. “Police said in their statement that Jiang bore a grudge against Wang and has admitted his guilt. Fudan was the scene of another murder in 2013 when a graduate student poisoned his roommate after a dispute.
Professors in Shanghai the 1920s
Visiting Scholars from China
Visiting scholars make up the largest percentage of Chinese exchange visitors. They do not go abroad to enroll in specific degree programs but rather to conduct research and study on their own. In general, they must have an established reputation in China or a relatively long and successful academic career or research experience when selected for the program.
Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese government has implemented a new policy to ensure the return of visiting scholars; basically, before leaving China they need to turn in a huge amount of money, about 100,000 yuan, to the government as a deposit. Upon their return to China, the money will be returned to them in full plus the interest earned during the period. Also, visiting scholars' decisions are linked to their colleagues' chances of going abroad. If one does not return, one's colleagues cannot go abroad. Besides the strict government policy and the pressures from colleagues, the possibilities for further professional development and for putting to use the new areas of knowledge acquired abroad motivate visiting scholars to go back to China.
Usually, visiting scholars tend to be much older than students and, unlike students, have a high returning rate. Visiting scholars have been funded by both Western and Chinese sources. Studying abroad can be a significant turning point in Chinese professionals' lives, and it has opened up areas of research and teaching that would otherwise have been impossible.
Teaching at a Chinese College in the 1990s
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: I first came to Sichuan in 1996, as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was sent to a small college in Fuling, a remote city on the Yangtze River, where I taught English language and literature. My students had been born in the mid-nineteen-seventies, when the nation’s population was more than eighty per cent rural. Most of them had grown up on farms, and often they were among the first in their village to receive a higher education — only six out of every hundred young Chinese made it to college. My students tended to be shy, quiet, and traditionally minded. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
In class, when they wrote about public figures they admired, about two-thirds selected Chinese political leaders. The most popular choice was Mao Zedong: “Though he is responsible for the Great Cultural Revolution, we mustn’t deny his achievements. As everyone knows, no gold is pure, no man is perfect.” “ I think Mao Zedong fully deserves to be a worthy in the world’s history. I am afraid only Lenin and Churchill can compare with him.”
In truth, their generation was connected most closely to Deng Xiaoping, who, in 1978, initiated the policies that became known as Reform and Opening. Since then, more than eight hundred million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty, according to the World Bank, and the population has become majority urban. Virtually all my Fuling students have entered the new middle class, and we’ve stayed in close touch over the past quarter century. “Sometimes they write about struggles that I was oblivious of in the classroom: For three years [at the college], I did not eat well and sleep well. I remember in 1996, for half a year, I just had one meal a day. I was a sad man. But now I am happy about my life.”
I moved back to Chengdu in order to reconnect with these former students, but I was also curious about the next generation. Most of the people I taught in Fuling came from relatively large families, because they were born before the institution of the one-child policy. In 1997, during my second year in Fuling, I asked a class of twenty freshmen about their families, and just one was an only child.
Teaching at a Chinese University in the 2010s
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: In 2019, when” asked by students about their families “to a section of fourteen freshmen, only one had siblings. Among all my students that fall, nearly ninety per cent were only children. I learned that when asking this question I had to clarify what I meant by the word “sibling,” because otherwise students might include cousins in their responses. As families shrank, the term broadened — for many young people, a cousin was a kind of substitute brother or sister. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
“With such sweeping social changes, there’s always been concern about how younger generations will turn out. Since the mid-eighties, the foreign and Chinese media have reported on spoiled only children, known as Little Emperors. Like American millennials, young Chinese are digital natives, but their online world is sharply delineated by the Great Firewall, the government’s system of Internet censorship and site-blocking. Patriotic education has intensified under Xi Jinping, who has consolidated power to a degree not seen since the days of Mao. In 2018, the constitution was changed to abolish Presidential term limits, making it possible for Xi to become President for life. Some young people who have come of age in this climate are known as xiao fenhong, Little Pinks, because they are rabidly nationalistic.
“After” negative “Weibo posts about me appeared, the majority of social-media responses seemed critical of the attack. “This generation of young people is impossible,” one Weibo user wrote. Another responded, in English, “Real problem is big brother.” A number of people referred to Xi Jinping, although, in the dance of Chinese censorship, they avoided writing the President’s name: The main reason is not that the teacher cannot disagree with the student’s thinking, it’s that no one can disagree with....I took a poetry appreciation class in my sophomore year. In the class, the teacher satirized *** in front of more than 100 students, and nothing happened. Later, microphones were installed on the ceiling of each classroom.
Teaching Writing at a Chinese University
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: The students had been writing profiles and feature stories, and I asked an engineering major named Tim to read his draft aloud. Tim had researched an online community that called itself the Federation of Stingy Men. Federation members were obsessed with living entirely off the interest from their savings and investment accounts, even though many of them were well employed. They shared strategies: one person explained that three millimetres is the minimum amount of toothpaste necessary for brushing your teeth, and a millionaire documented how he travelled to the airport, with all his luggage, on a ride-share bike. Tim wrote, “There are some people who have been living this kind of abnormally thrifty life . . . because of the habits they developed when they were poor.” [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
“The students’ off-campus research had been a highlight of the semester. I had already decided that the following week we would proceed to a local Porsche salesman, the profile subject of a student named Anna. The salesman told Anna that it was pointless to try to rip off his customers, because of everything a Sichuanese person must have gone through in order to accumulate enough money for a Porsche. “The people who are capable of buying luxury cars have exhausted every means to earn profits and they have coped with all kinds of people,” he said. “It’s impossible to deceive them.”
“The students could be brutally honest about themselves. They wrote well — when I contacted them for permission to quote their papers for this story, some made minor edits, but these excerpts are essentially as I first received them. I saw few signs of Little Emperor syndrome, which seems to be based primarily on a Western imagining of what an only-child society might be like. For one thing, most of my students had spent surprisingly little time alone. Chinese schools often require additional on-campus study periods, and quite a few of my students had lived in dormitories during high school, a practice that’s common in China.
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: As a teacher in China, I had a special fear and loathing for the argumentative essay. In the nineties, my students were provided with “A Handbook of Writing,” a state-published text whose section on “argumentation” featured a model essay entitled “The Three Gorges Project Is Beneficial.” The counter-argument paragraph listed some reasons to oppose the Three Gorges Dam: flooded scenery, lost cultural relics, the risk of an earthquake destroying the structure. “Their worries and warnings are well justified,” the essay continued, and then proceeded to the transition: “But we should not give up eating for fear of choking.” [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
“I found it hard to teach this essay for various reasons. First, nobody was allowed to argue about the Three Gorges Dam. Fuling was one of the places that would be affected, and in low-lying parts of the city the government had painted red lines that marked the water level of the future reservoir. Another red line, figuratively speaking, was the topic of the dam itself. At that time, it wasn’t possible for a Chinese scientist to publish an open opposition to the project.
“An infinitely smaller problem, but one that occupied infinitely more of my energy, was that transition sentence. Chinese education traditionally emphasizes imitation of models and rote literary phrases, and my Fuling students diligently incorporated the transition into their argumentative papers. It infected other writing, too: personal narratives, dialogues, literary essays. I might be reading a paper about “Hamlet,” when suddenly a voice would boom out, worse than Polonius’s: “But we should not give up eating for fear of choking.” The words are a direct translation of yinyefeishi, a Chinese literary phrase. Over and over, I tried to explain that this sounds terrible in English.
“More than two decades later, at Sichuan University, I occasionally received a freshman argumentative essay that choked up the same phrase. And there were plenty of subjects that remained off limits for argumentation. For a returning teacher, this was a mystery: how had China experienced so much social, economic, and educational change while the politics remained stagnant, or even regressive? Nobody in freshman English was going to argue that it was a bad idea to remove Presidential term limits, or that the internment camps in Xinjiang should be abolished. Even if a student took a pro-government stance on a sensitive topic, he couldn’t fully engage with a counter-argument. And there was some risk for a teacher who played devil’s advocate while editing.
One of my freshmen — I’ll call him John — submitted a draft of an essay arguing that it was necessary for the government to limit free speech. He wrote that, “in a civilized country with the rule of law,” citizens aren’t allowed to make statements that question national sovereignty. I responded in the comments section: It’s not accurate to say that in a civilized country with rule of law, people are not allowed to make statements that challenge national sovereignty and social stability. In the United States, Canada, Europe, etc., anybody can make a statement claiming that some part of the country deserves independence.
Teaching Animal Farm at Sichuan University
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: On the whole, my students were good readers of Orwell. As part of our “Animal Farm” unit, they wrote about the character they most identified with. A common choice was Benjamin, the donkey who is skeptical of the new farm but keeps his thoughts to himself: As a Chinese saying goes, huocongkouchu, which means that all one’s troubles were caused by his tongue. We have two eyes, two ears, two hands, but only one mouth, which just tells us we should observe more, listen more, do more, and speak less. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
Some students identified with Boxer, the faithful and slow-witted horse who gets worked to death: “I am a person without independent thinking, too. I often believe what others say to me, and I always complete the work given by other people without any personal thinking. If I am one of the animals in the farm, I will believe the word said by the leader such as Snowball and Napoleon. . . . Maybe I will be brainwashed by Napoleon and finally become the animal who does whatever Napoleon orders me to do. In the end, I will be put away by Napoleon.”
When my final class of freshmen read “Animal Farm,” I asked them to reimagine the story at Sichuan University. In one boy’s version, a mob of students take over the campus and penetrate the administration’s central computer room, hoping to change grades, only to realize that the security cameras are still operating.
Another boy, named Carl, described a revolt in which students successfully expel professors and staff. Afterward, all students are equal, but some become more equal than others: Without teachers, the undisciplined people give up studying completely, while the self-disciplined people work harder every day, especially the people from the West China College of Stomatology. Although they said there was no discrimination, the students at Pittsburgh Institute were about 15 points worse than those of other colleges of Sichuan University in the college entrance examination.” Carl’s story ends with the stomatologists embarking on successful careers while other students fail to get jobs, thus destroying the university’s reputation.
Teaching The Great Gatsby in Chengdu
Matt Lombardi wrote in The Daily Beast: “Danghao Geng, the sophomore class president at Southwestern University in Chengdu, China, stood at the front of a cinder-block classroom before a crowd of eager students — and sold books. The university had failed to acquire the course texts in time for the first class, but Danghao, an industrious Insurance major who prefers to be called Harry (“like Harry Potter”), had solved the problem at a local copy shop. As Harry watched stacks of his bootlegged books diminish and the stack of yuan in his hand grow, he joked, “I could really be making a lot more money right now.” That seemed fitting, considering one of the novels he was selling told the story of American fiction’s most notorious bootlegger. In inky black letters across a stark mint cover, the title read, “THE GREAT GATSBY BY F,” followed by a line a few inches below in smaller type: “Scott Fitzgerald.” [Source: Matt Lombardi, The Daily Beast, May 20, 2013]
In the fall of 2012, Baruch College at the City University of New York sent me to Chengdu, in southwestern China, to teach English 2150, a writing course that I titled “Strangers in Strange Lands.” One of the books that I taught was The Great Gatsby, and I was curious to see how one country’s sacred classic played out in another. The parallels between post–World War I America and present-day China seemed relevant. Chinese youth culture is not “roaring,” but the country’s prosperity, industrial growth, rampant consumerism, new technology, and thriving cities resemble the American 1920s.
“If we look to The Great Gatsby for answers, it wasn’t Nick Carraway, the novel’s conflicted narrator, with whom students sympathized. As one student stated in an essay, “Gatsby’s unyieldingness to the gauntlet lay down by the sham world acted like a shooting star in the darkest night, giving the darkness dawn, the sorrow comfort, and the desperation hope.” “My students didn’t see Jay Gatsby as a naive idealist.... Young people don’t expect to live this fantasy at home. They want to transform themselves in another place, like Gatsby did.
After my class read the famous scene in chapter five when Gatsby gives Daisy a tour of his Long Island mansion, and Daisy breaks down crying on a pile of extravagant dress shirts, we had a discussion of the tensions and identities regarding luxury and status. Students were well aware of China’s aggressive consumerism, as well as the irony it poses for a communist country, but viewed this trend with simultaneous concern and pride. A student who went by Victor wrote: There are many cockbrain in American society now, and they reach after personal fame and gain, they spend their wealth on the pleasure or something like that. As a matter of fact, I have to say there are much more wheeler-dealer in China. As a developing country, China is second populous area of the world and it has great development potential, but there is still a number of issues exist in our development of economy, such as the large gap between. It is well known that Chinese always pursue the luxury goods.
Many people told me that the biggest culprits of the extravagant Gatsby lifestyle in China were government officials. Many accused party leaders of excessive wealth and decadence filled with liquor and women....China’s new middle-class college students don’t see themselves as primarily Chinese, but as part of a broader world culture their parents never knew. They dress nearly identical to the students I teach in New York, watch the same media, and see politics at home as a lost cause. Like the people in Fitzgerald’s Roaring ’20s, China’s growing urbanization, corruption, and newfound love of luxury has left its young citizens both aspirational and disenchanted. Their pursuits are individualist, and many seek to be expatriates. President Xi Jinping urged citizens to “achieve prosperity, revitalize the nation, and bring about the happiness of the people,” but he may be creating China’s own Lost Generation.
Touching on Sensitive Topics at Chinese Universities
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: Some of my most powerful memories from the classroom in Fuling involve incidents in which I made a statement that touched, even obliquely, on a sensitive aspect of Chinese history or politics. At such moments, the room would fall silent, and students would stare at their desks. It was a visceral response, and it became the same for me — looking out over the bowed heads, my heart raced and my face grew hot. Initially, I considered these to be the instances when I felt most like a foreigner. But I came to realize it was the opposite: my body was experiencing something that must be common to young Chinese. The Party had created a climate so intense that the political became physical. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
During my first three and a half months teaching in Chengdu, I hadn’t yet had that sensation. I was probably better at speaking diplomatically, but there are so many Chinese sensitivities that any foreign teacher is bound to trespass. Recently, a nonfiction student told me that in October of 2019, when Leslie visited my class to talk about her experiences as a journalist, she casually used the phrase “China and Taiwan.” She had stumbled into a forbidden zone: those two proper nouns can be linked by history, culture, geography, politics — but never by the conjunction “and.” Even the act of connecting these places linguistically implies that they are separate. Two years later, my student recalled that there had been some glances, and a classmate had whispered something about correcting the phrase. But the students had let it go. Neither Leslie nor I had noticed; after I was told about it, we couldn’t remember the larger context. I was certain that I broke many other such taboos, and in the old days I would have felt it — somehow these students were more capable of controlling outward reactions. Still, they had been trained like hawks to be alert to such phrases.
According to Radio Free Asia: Tan Song, an associate professor at Chongqing Normal University investigated the truth about the "land reform movement," the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Because he did so, the school expelled him and the police arrested him. Another charge was that he taught about the 1989 Student Movement and the June 4th Tiananmen Massacre. In 2017, he was forced to leave China and is currently living in exile in Los Angeles. “Tan said that in Chinese colleges and universities, the "Tiananmen Square protest of 1989" is an absolutely untouchable topic. He once tried to understand how much his students knew about what happened in 1989. Not a single student knew about it. [Source: Radio Free Asia, September 28, 2018]
“He said, "I later found out that these students, from kindergarten to elementary school, junior high school, high school, and through the university, not a single teacher ever told them about the 1989 protests. One cannot blame the teachers. Nowadays the university is very sensitive to this topic. If any teacher dares to speak the truth about the incident in the classroom, the lightest punishment is that the teacher will leave his teaching position. He will either be expelled or be sent to the police station.
“I know a teacher at the Sichuan Foreign Languages College. Because he taught about the June 4th incident, the police immediately took him away." Tan said that, in today's Internet age, some students do not know it from the classroom but learned about the June 4th 1989 incident and the persecution that followed from the Internet. "A student received a short video from his friend about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. He uploaded the video to the campus network and was quickly discovered. At the time of discovery, thirty-six students had already downloaded the video. Each of the thirty-six students was taken away and the police came to talk to them one by one, with a warning as the punishment. The original student who uploaded the video was taken away and no one knows his whereabouts."
Teaching Politics in China
One Japanese student who took a course at Beijing University that compared political systems told the Yomiuri Shimbun that the lecturer criticized the democratic system over and over and often ended the lecture by criticizing the United States and concluding that the Communist Party knows what is best for China. The student said a typical assignment was summarizing a 600 page book in about disarmament in two weeks.
Daniel A. Bell wrote in the New York Times in 2015: “I’ve been teaching political theory at Tsinghua University — one of the country’s top universities — for more than a decade, and I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the amount of freedom in the classroom. I routinely discuss politically sensitive topics and much of what I teach would fall in the “prohibited” category if official warnings were enforced to the letter. This term we’re reading Francis Fukuyama’s works, starting with his famous 1989 article that declared the debates about political ideology ended with the triumph of liberal democracy. Students say what’s on their minds, as they would in any Western university. [Source: Daniel A. Bell, New York Times, April 16, 2015]
“I try to present the ideas of great political theorists in the best possible light, and let students debate their merits among themselves. If it’s a class on Mill’s “On Liberty,” I’ll try to make the best possible case for the freedom of speech, and in a class on Confucius’s “Analects,” I’ll do the same for the value of harmony. I invite leading thinkers from China and the West to give guest lectures, whatever their political outlooks. The good news is that my classrooms have been almost completely free from political interference. The one exception happened shortly after I arrived in Beijing in 2004. I wanted to teach a course on Marxism but was told it would not be advisable because my interpretation may differ from official ideology. Human rights and democracy are fine, but not Marxism. I learned to get around that constraint by teaching the material without putting the word “Marxist” in the course title.
I am in favor of free speech in universities. And my views are widely shared in Chinese academia: Whatever people say in public, I haven’t met a single Chinese intellectual — socialist, liberal or Confucian — who argues in private discussion for censorship of scholarly works. Censorship only serves to alienate intellectuals. My own students usually say that political reform should take place on the basis of the current political system, not against it. But the more they are prevented from discussing such views, the more disenchanted they will become, and that spells trouble for the long term. Openness, in my view, can only benefit the system.
Running Afoul with Authorities at a Chinese University
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: At Chinese universities, when a student reports a professor for political wrongdoing, the verb that’s used to describe this action is jubao. It happens rarely, but the possibility is always there, because potential infractions are both undefined and extremely varied. A student might jubao a teacher for a comment about a sensitive historical event, or a remark that seems to contradict a Communist Party policy. Ambiguous statements about Xi Jinping, the President of China, are especially risky. In 2019, during a class at Chongqing Normal University, a literature professor named Tang Yun offhandedly described the language of one of Xi’s slogans as coarse. After students complained, Tang was demoted to a job in the library. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
Other problems can involve class materials. In the fall of 2019, I started teaching at Sichuan University, in southwestern China, where I met a law-school teacher from another institution who had developed a syllabus with some sensitive content. The course included “Disturbing the Peace,” an Ai Weiwei documentary about the artist’s encounters with the Chinese judicial system. For two years, the teacher used the film in class without incident, but then, when he was partway through another semester, some students decided to jubao. Within a week, the teacher had been replaced with a substitute instructor. But the process can be slower, and much less predictable, if an initial complaint is made on social media, which was how it happened to me.
One evening in mid-December of 2019, I was about to leave my office for class when my wife, Leslie, called. A friend had just sent her a message copied from Twitter: “American writer and journalist Peter Hessler, under Chinese name Ho Wei . . . who moved to China with his family in Aug. 2019 to teach Non-fiction writing at Sichuan University, has possibly been reported for his behavior/speech.”
The tweet was by a Chinese academic in the United States. She had included a blurry screenshot from Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. People in China often distribute such images, because original Weibo posts can be removed by censors, who have more trouble monitoring screenshots. Leslie’s friend said that the report was spreading quickly on Chinese social media. “I wanted to warn you before you started class,” Leslie told me.
That evening, I was teaching nonfiction; on other days, I had two sections of freshman English composition. The freshman classes were currently reading “Animal Farm,” but my department had assigned that book as a required text, and I couldn’t think of other materials that might have triggered somebody to jubao. There wasn’t enough time to search for the original comment. I decided to start the evening class as normal, hoping that the report hadn’t come from this group.
My office and the classroom were in a wing of a new building on Sichuan University’s Jiang’an campus, in the southwestern suburbs of Chengdu. Walking to class took little more than a minute, but I passed six surveillance cameras along the way. The cameras were among the many things that had changed since I’d last taught in China, more than twenty years earlier. In the nonfiction classroom, another camera was mounted on the wall behind me. When I stood at the lectern, the camera was positioned above my right shoulder, pointed at the students.
I heard some whispering while I called roll. It was the fourteenth week of the term, and the class of about thirty students had developed a good rapport. But tonight they seemed unsettled. Finally, a girl sitting near the front said, “Mr. Hessler, have you seen this?” She handed me her phone. She had pulled up screenshots of the Weibo posts, which consisted of seven comments. The first one read, in Chinese: “To have Ho Wei teaching in our institute is truly treasonous.” I scanned the other posts. “I know where this is coming from,” I said. “It’s from another class. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.”...During breaks in class, a number of students said that they hated the jubao behavior. I told them not to worry, and that we would meet the following week. But in truth I wasn’t certain. The Weibo posts had claimed that I was “finished,” a term that, in Chinese, could also be read as a death threat. One Twitter user translated the last line: [Ho Wei] spoke w/o restraint only b/c he considered himself a big writer; I think he’s gonna die soon.
Source of the Trouble: an Argumentative Essay on Limiting Free Speech
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: One of my freshmen — I’ll call him John — submitted a draft of an essay arguing that it was necessary for the government to limit free speech. He wrote that, “in a civilized country with the rule of law,” citizens aren’t allowed to make statements that question national sovereignty. I responded in the comments section: It’s not accurate to say that in a civilized country with rule of law, people are not allowed to make statements that challenge national sovereignty and social stability. In the United States, Canada, Europe, etc., anybody can make a statement claiming that some part of the country deserves independence. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
In the Weibo posts, the comment had been turned into something else: In class, a student gave a speech saying that the country’s sovereignty cannot be violated. Ho Wei asked why it’s allowed to be violated in Quebec, Texas, California, and Scotland. People violate their national sovereignty every day. The posts continued in this vein: using details from my comments and fabricating other things, the author created a scene in which I argued aggressively in the classroom, browbeating students about China’s government. The Weibo account was anonymous, and it was quickly removed from the site, possibly by censors. Reading the fictional argument, I remembered that that freshman classroom was the only place I taught that did not have a surveillance camera. There wasn’t any digital proof that the argument hadn’t occurred.
In class, John was quiet, and his academic performance was somewhere in the middle of the group. We had never had an unpleasant interaction, and I had a good impression of his cohort. Could he have done this on his own? Or was somebody else from the class involved? Or Little Pinks elsewhere in the university? A security agent? I couldn’t decide if the Weibo posts were clumsy or devious — they were clearly inaccurate, but they seemed calculated to draw maximum attention. [“Little Pink” is a somewhat disparaging term for nationalistic Chinese youth active on the internet]
One of my comments had been particularly critical of the Party. In John’s paper, he mentioned that free speech isn’t necessary because the government always informs citizens about key events in an accurate and timely manner. On the day I marked the essay — December 7, 2019 — I had no idea how soon this particular issue was going to affect us all. In my comments, I referred to the sars outbreak of 2003, when the Chinese government was accused of hiding the true number of infections. That April, a doctor in Beijing told Time magazine that there were sixty cases in his hospital alone, whereas the official number of cases in the capital was only twelve. I mentioned the role of whistle-blowers and journalists, and wrote: “One of the functions of the media anywhere in the world is to report on things that the government might want to hide. We have seen over and over, in countless countries, that official information is not always timely or accurate.”
Interrogation and Meetings with University Authorities
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: Early the following morning, the head of my department telephoned. He sounded worried, and he asked me to come to campus to meet with the dean. By the time I met with Minking Chyu, the scupi dean [scupi is the name of the program that Hessler was involved in and Chyu was the American head of it], Party officials had already interviewed a number of my students. Chyu told me that the students all said they hadn’t witnessed any classroom exchange like what had been recounted on Weibo. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
I had brought John’s essay with my comments, but Chyu said this wasn’t the issue, at least not yet. All that mattered was that nobody had formally started the jubao process, filing a complaint with the administration. A number of Chinese and foreign journalists had contacted me about the incident, and I asked Chyu if it would be accurate for me to say that I had not been reported. Chyu said yes, and after I issued the statement the social-media conversation died down.
That month, my department held a meeting about the incident with a Party official from the university. I explained what had happened, and an American professor asked if any topics were explicitly forbidden in our classrooms. In response, the Party official read from a statement, in English: “These include sex in a graphic or degrading manner, political opinion that may not be generally agreed upon, religious material promoting or degrading the tenets within, and topics deemed politically sensitive.”
This was a typical Party approach — by not being specific, authority remained broader and more flexible. The American professor spoke again. “Sometimes we have discussions and students raise topics themselves,” he said. “And they might raise a topic that seems borderline. To what extent do we interrupt?” “It’s better not to talk about it,” the official responded, this time in Chinese. “Because this is still a Chinese student. You don’t know if that student will fanguolai” — turn it upside down.
Throughout the various meetings, nobody ever said that I had done anything wrong. But neither was I told that it was a violation for a teacher’s private editing comments to be twisted and then posted on social media. If officials had spoken with John, and if they knew more about what had happened, they kept their findings to themselves. The general approach was to proceed as if nothing had occurred, which meant that, five days after the Weibo attack, I was scheduled to teach John and his cohort again. We still had three weeks together in the classroom.
Jubao means “to report (malefactors to the police)” or to denounce. Hessler seems to have been a victom of this. He wrote in The New Yorker: When I discussed jubao culture with the law-school teacher who had been disciplined after using the Ai Weiwei documentary, he explained that the fear ran in two directions. Administrators were afraid of what students might do, and they also feared higher officials. With the parameters deliberately left undefined, outcomes were also uncertain. After the incident with the documentary, the head of the department quickly reassured superiors that he would discipline the teacher. The punishment, though, was relatively light. The teacher was suspended from that class, but he was allowed to continue with his other courses. He told me that a large scandal would have reflected poorly on everybody. “They were protecting me, but they were also protecting themselves,” he said. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
The teacher mentioned the practice of using students as xinxiyuan — literally, “information personnel.” This wasn’t new: in the Peace Corps, we had been told that some students were almost certainly tracking classroom content. In 1997, one volunteer got into an altercation with a taxi-driver and was taken to the police station, where a Peace Corps administrator was also called in. In the course of questioning, it became clear that the police had a record of sensitive political comments that the volunteer had made in class during the previous year and a half.
But we never knew the exact mechanisms. Even after more than a quarter century, with a number of Fuling students who are very close friends, I’ve never heard a word about the monitoring. My impression is that the Party is shrewd about recruitment for such jobs, and the vast majority of students remain outside this subsystem. And there’s little incentive, and also significant risk, for them to ask questions. “It’s a waste of time to find out,” one of my more liberal Sichuan University students told me. It was like following a thread that connected to an enormous tapestry, which was how I felt about the surveillance cameras. When I counted the devices in my local subway station, at Dongmen Daqiao, I saw fifteen cameras at track level, forty-seven at the turnstiles, and thirty-eight for the escalators. The total came to a hundred cameras, not to mention the two devices that were positioned in each individual subway car. Who was monitoring all this stuff?
The Little Pink phenomenon, which seems to be amplified by social media, was not something I observed in the classroom....The law-school teacher had heard that he had been reported by a group of students, but he didn’t know which ones. He said he wouldn’t have been angry at any individual. “He doesn’t know that his mind is being enslaved,” the teacher said. “I’m angry with the system.” When I came to class after the Weibo attacks, John was sitting alone toward the back. He didn’t make eye contact when I greeted the students...
Confronting the Purported Source of the Trouble
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: At the university, I never again had an experience like the one with John. A little more than a month after that incident, the pandemic shut down the campus, and I never saw him in person again. Recently, I contacted him, sending a long e-mail and a screenshot of the original Weibo posts. Almost immediately, John responded, and within hours we were talking via video connection.[Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
John told me that he was mortified to learn that the attack had been connected to his essay. He claimed that in the fall of 2019 he had heard only that I had been reported. John didn’t post on Weibo, and he hadn’t seen the original attack. “I’m sorry,” he said. He had no idea how the editing comments had become public.
Over the years, I had talked about the incident with a few politically savvy students and professors. One teacher who knew John had told me that the boy didn’t seem like a Little Pink. The teacher and others imagined the same scenario: that some other student had seen the essay, or heard details from it, and then written the attack. When I spoke with John, he said that he had mentioned some of the editing comments to his roommates, and that he had also taken the paper to the institute’s writing center, where other students and tutors may have seen it. From looking at John’s face, and from his over-all reaction, I believed that he was telling the truth.
“Actually, after you gave the comments on the paper, I was a little upset,” he said. “I totally agree with you about the comments, if we don’t consider the politics. But I had to consider the politics, because I am under a certain circumstance in China. Your comments were against the traditional politics.” I asked if he would have the same reaction now. “Yes,” he said. “It’s not that the comments are wrong. It’s just the feelings.”
Fallout of Running Afoul with Authorities at a Chinese University
Peter Hessler wrote in The New Yorker: In early April, 2021, my teaching contract wasn’t renewed. Dean Chyu had been in the United States since the start of the pandemic, and he e-mailed me with the news. First, he said that scupi had other candidates, but, when I checked with my department, I was told that there wasn’t any recruitment taking place — because of the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to get foreign teachers into China. After I wrote to the dean again, he added a different reason, citing a Chinese rule that supposedly prevented the university from extending a short-term contract like mine. I offered to sign a long-term contract, but he declined, without explanation. Recently, I wrote to Chyu, and he responded in an e-mail that he was too busy to do an interview. (When contacted by a fact checker, Chyu claimed that I never expressed interest in signing a long-term contract, and he said that he had made plans to replace me before the pandemic began.) [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, May 9, 2022]
During the pandemic, there had been periodic social-media attacks about my writing, by Little Pinks and others. Two professors at Sichuan University told me that mid-level administrators had had to file reports about these incidents, which supposedly was one of the reasons my job ended. (Chyu and a former university official claim that they were not aware of any such reports.) The professors also told me that nobody at the top had issued a direct command to not renew my contract, because the system created enough nervousness that people were likely to err on the side of caution. “Tianwei bukece,” one professor explained, using a phrase that means the highest authority remains unclear. “You have to guess what the exact order is.”
Near the end of June, less than a week before my wife and daughters were flying out of China, a deputy director of the university’s foreign-affairs office requested a meeting. The official told me that the university would have been happy if I had stayed, and that I was welcome to apply for a position with a different college. He said that the refusal to renew my job had been made by Dean Chyu alone. “He did not know the whole situation here,” the official told me. (Later, when contacted by a fact checker, the official denied saying this.) It impressed me as another way in which the system functioned effectively: in the hybrid arrangement, the decision to get rid of the American teacher could be blamed on the American institution.
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