On China's campuses, scholars battle ideology and red tape

More academics say their work is coming under a cloud that has Mao-era features as President Xi Jinping tightens the screws on independent thought. 

Carlos Barria/Reuters/File
Students attend their college graduation ceremony at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, July 2, 2011.

In the two years since China’s Communist Party put forth a sweeping new ideological edict, a deep chill has settled among many intellectuals and scholars.

New restrictions on freedom of thought at Chinese colleges – havens of relatively open expression – are taking hold. Scholars are experiencing an increasingly stifling academic environment.

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?”

The outcry by academics comes even as many economists in Asia argue that China needs greater openness to develop an economy that relies on innovation and knowledge.

Yet 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.

Universities are part of a new “ideological battleground” in China, says Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 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.

Forbidden topics

Since the promulgation in 2013 of Xi’s core edict, Document No. 9, academics are being harassed or fired for holding critical views, for introducing forbidden topics such as constitutional theory, or for openly airing subjects deemed Western or liberal.

Since all Chinese universities are under the control of the party, so far there is little visible pushback on campuses. 

Prof. Chen found the new interference by party officials so unbearable that he chose to quit in December 2013. He was one of few intellectuals willing to go on the record; many are fearful of reprisals. “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.”

A different law professor in Beijing who declined to be named says he can no longer teach or publish on subjects related to “constitutional governance.” The topic deals with government and state institutions as beneath the authority of constitutions and law. (In China, the party holds supreme power.)

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. 

In Document No. 9, 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."

Shortly after, Minister of Education Yuan Guiren told university officials that teaching materials “that spread Western values must not be allowed to enter our classrooms.” Around the same time, the minister wrote in a party publication that “colleges are the forefront battleground of ideological work and young teachers and students are the key target of infiltration by enemy forces.”

“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. Defying orders, he traveled to Hong Kong in late 2013 for an academic conference. Upon his return, he found his travel permit revoked. When he later applied for a passport, the university would not provide supporting documents.

“My road has become more and more narrow, and there is less and less space for teaching, exploration and academic exchanges,” Chen said.

Other prominent scholars who were dismissed include Zhang Xuezhong, a law professor at the East China University of Political Science, and Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at the prestigious Peking University. Both openly criticized the government and were sacked by their universities in 2013.

“This is an effective strategy,” Chen continues. “This way they can force out the people they don't like.”

Worst since Tiananmen crackdown

Lam, the CUHK professor, says Xi’s crackdown on free speech and academic freedom is the worst since the crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement in 1989. 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.”

Lam, whose book “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping” was published last month in Hong Kong, adds that, “Xi Jinping wants to establish an imperial dynasty and become the new emperor, so a tightly controlled society would be beneficial to him.”

One Beijing-based political scientist who was demoted from his department head status a few years ago after being attacked for liberal ideas, warns that persecution of intellectuals in China has in the past been a prelude to disasters such as Mao's Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s.

If people stop expressing their thoughts, he says, “the outcome may be grave.”

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