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

Thu, Oct 17, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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.

These days, Xia and other academics say, students largely value careers over ideals.

“They’ve been taught by their parents to avoid politics and strive to become civil servants,” he said. “Their goal is to land the kind of jobs that will allow them to buy an apartment.”

In interviews, several Peking University students said they were unaware of Xia’s case, and the few who were aware were unsympathetic, saying he had crossed a line by repeatedly provoking the party.

“I can understand why the government would sacrifice a little bit of democracy and righteousness,” postgraduate physics student Chu Yiqi said. “I think they made the right call.”

However, many of the students who attended Xia’s Institutional Economics class one recent evening said they appreciated his unfettered speaking style, even if some of his statements struck them as didactic. (At one point during the lecture, he said, “When communist values replace traditional values, the most severe consequence is that people lose their conscience, like during the class struggles of the past, when sons were told to kill their fathers.”)

As the classroom emptied out, postgraduate economics student Grace Zhang said she was appalled to learn that Xia could be fired for his public comments.

“It’s unthinkable that the university could stifle these kinds of voices,” she said. “Accommodating such voices is what a university education should be all about.”