Thu, Oct 17, 2013 - Page 9 News List

China’s top colleges chafing under government intervention

Many see Beijing’s latest attempt to silence professor Xia Yeliang as reflecting its determination to stifle discourse at the nation’s leading universities

By Andrew Jacobs  /  NY Times News Service, BEIJING

It is hard to know exactly which transgression propelled Xia Yeliang (夏業良), an accomplished Peking University economist, from opinionated irritant to a marked enemy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There was his 2009 public letter that ridiculed the technical school degree held by the nation’s propaganda minister and the interview he gave last year to Radio Free Asia, describing China as a “communist one-party dictatorship.”

Yet Xia, a former teenage Red Guard turned free-market advocate, says he most likely crossed a line last year 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 recently.

It also apparently upset powerful figures in the CCP.

In the coming weeks, Xia says, he is likely to be dismissed from his teaching post at Peking University, one of the nation’s most prestigious, a move he and others say reflects the government’s determination to control intellectual discourse at the nation’s leading educational institutions.

Administrators have told him his fate will be decided by a panel of his peers, a feint he says is intended to head off criticism that his punishment is politically driven.

“I’m not terribly optimistic for my future,” said Xia, 53, an animated man whose classroom lectures on macroeconomics are often flecked with colorful jabs at the party.

The effort to silence Xia has thrown into sharp relief the challenges facing elite colleges and universities like Peking University, caught between political controls at home and their ambitions to gain international respect as grand centers of learning. In recent years, the university has waged a muscular and well-financed effort to raise its global profile through partnerships and exchanges with some of the world’s top institutions.

Last year, Stanford University opened a US$7 million research center on the Peking University campus and a growing list of other colleges and universities, including Cornell, Yale and the London School of Economics, have established dual-degree programs or enhanced academic collaboration.

Zhang Qianfan (張千帆), a law professor at Peking University, said punishing Xia would most likely harm the university’s efforts at elevating its stature abroad.

“It would send out a message that the university is not able to resist political interference and is unable to separate politics from academics, which is a basic requirement for those trying to carry out decent academic work,” he said.

The campaign to silence Xia has not gone unnoticed overseas. The Committee of Concerned Scientists has taken up his plight, and last month more than 130 faculty members at Wellesley College signed an open letter calling on administrators to reconsider their partnership with Peking University should he be fired.

Neither the office of Peking University’s president nor the economics department responded to interview requests.

A prolific author and once a frequent commentator on Chinese news programs, Xia first drew the ire of university officials in 2008, when he was among the first to add his name to a manifesto that demanded an end to single-party rule. The petition, called Charter 08, drew 300 signers and deeply unnerved top party leaders, prompting the prosecution of its primary author, Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), the Nobel laureate who is serving an 11-year sentence for subversion. A year later, Xia posted his open letter to China’s propaganda czar comparing his department’s efforts to that of the Nazis.

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