Since then, Xia says he has endured bouts of house arrest or found himself trailed by state security agents. Yet he says he has been largely left alone. In recent years, university administrators have permitted him to spend long stretches abroad, including at Stanford until last month.
However, last year, after he posted his online letter calling for a public discussion of political reform, university administrators demanded that he return to China and then warned him to tone down his anti-government invective.
Since then, he has continued to criticize the CCP, while advocating Western-style democracy through microblog postings that are often deleted as soon as they go up. (His current microblog on Sina Weibo is called “Xiayeliang the ninth” because the previous eight accounts have been shut down.)
“I’ve never advocated revolution,” he said. “Just peaceful change.”
If he is punished, he will be the latest Chinese intellectual caught up in a growing campaign against dissent that has led to the detention of dozens of lawyers, activists and public intellectuals. The crackdown, which has escalated since the elevation last March of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has been accompanied by a drive to root out what party leaders see as subversive currents in society. Those were identified recently in a secret memo as the advocacy of electoral democracy, news media independence and “universal values” like human rights.
Chinese universities, already tightly run by party-appointed administrators, have also found themselves swept up in the push for ideological rectification. Students have been required to participate in essay contests on the “Chinese dream,” a centerpiece of Xi’s drive to rally the public around themes of national rejuvenation, and some professors have complained about an edict disseminated by the party’s Central Committee that bars discussion of seven topics in the classroom, among them civil rights, judicial independence and the failings of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東).
This summer Zhang Xuezhong (張雪忠), a professor at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, was suspended from the classroom after he wrote an article advocating greater adherence to China’s largely unenforced constitution. In an interview, Zhang said the move against him and other attempts to constrain academics reflected the party’s fear that its ideological sway over Chinese students was waning, in large part because of the Internet.
“Young people have come to realize that some of the problems affecting society have to do with the core system itself,” Zhang said. “The government can no longer ram ideas down their throats, and this has them in a panic.”
Zhang remains optimistic that university students can retain their independent thinking amid an assault on liberal ideas, a sentiment not shared by Xia. In contrast to a decade ago, he said few students were attracted to democratic ideas and fewer still seemed bothered by the shrinking public space for discussing politically delicate subjects. Party-appointed class monitors increasingly provide “guidance” to excessively opinionated classmates, he and others say, and e-mail traffic on university servers is closely scrutinized.