On a rainy morning in January, Yang Ting stood in front of 150 people in an auditorium at Shantou University and recited a poem called “Homeland, My Dear Homeland.” The poem, written by one of contemporary China’s most acclaimed poets, Shu Ting, is widely considered to be one of her best. But it was an unusual choice for this particular event: a two-hour recital in celebration of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Homeland” was published in 1979, amid a cultural and political outpouring known as the Democracy Wall movement. In the poem, Ms. Shu explores the relationship between the Chinese state and its citizens – touching on themes of oppression and exploitation – in a way that would have been unthinkable just years before, during the state-sponsored upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.
Ms. Yang, an undergraduate in faded jeans, said she picked “Homeland” simply because of its passionate tone. “I didn’t think about its meaning,” she said after the recital, as a group of children in gray People’s Liberation Army costumes streamed out of the auditorium.
Nearly 40 years since “Homeland” was first published, the political winds in China have shifted once again. At the instruction of General Secretary Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has launched the greatest campaign for party loyalty since the days of Mao Zedong. “Government, military, society, and schools; north, south, east, and west,” Mr. Xi, who is also China’s president, said during a gathering of top party leaders in October, “the party is the leader of all.”
Higher education is no exception. In fact, in 2016, Xi declared that universities should be strongholds of the party. Shantou University, which has long prided itself for its commitment to academic freedom, has been hit especially hard by the ensuing campaign – one that could have far-reaching consequences. China has built hundreds of universities in recent years as it tries to train a new generation of highly skilled workers, particularly in science and technology. As those efforts ramp up, critics question whether the country’s authoritarian political system can establish an educational system that fosters the kind of creativity and critical thinking needed in a modern economy. Xi’s crackdown on independent thought has only deepened their suspicions.
“Homeland,” like any artistic work, is a reflection of the time in which it was created – a time antithetical to the recital held at Shantou University. That the poem was recited nonetheless is no small irony. But even more striking is the possibility that no one in the auditorium that day recognized the irony at all.
Blazing a trail
Shu received a national poetry award for “Homeland” in 1981. That same year, Shantou University was founded with the help of a $38.5 million donation from a charitable foundation started by Li Ka-shing, a native of the Shantou region who had become one of the richest men in Asia.
Most universities were just getting back on their feet after being shuttered during the Cultural Revolution. But Shantou was a blank slate. The university came to represent a new China, one that strived to open to the outside world. That spirit of openness would soon transform the entire city, a southeastern fishing port that has since become a manufacturing hub of 5.6 million people. In the early 1980s, Shantou was designated one of China’s first special economic zones. By attracting foreign investment and technology, these zones helped kickstart the country’s economic boom. They also caught the attention of Mr. Li.
Li made his early fortune in Hong Kong, but was quick to see opportunity in the mainland’s reforms. Shantou became his focus, and Shantou University one of his most cherished projects. Li’s foundation has donated more than $1.28 billion to the school – making it the only privately funded public university on the mainland – and he serves as honorary chairman of its board of directors.
In 2001, the university launched a series of reforms that earned it a reputation for Western-influenced education. Julia Hsiao, who, at the time, was an assistant vice-chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley, was hired to lead the initiative. Under Ms. Hsiao’s guidance, the university brought in dozens of foreign teachers, overhauled its curriculum, and experimented with new teaching and management methods. It created a credit system – reportedly the first of its kind in China – and hired overseas architects for a campus upgrade.
Zhu Wang, a Chinese professor who taught English at Shantou University from 2005 to 2014, said the aim was to replace the Chinese tradition of rote learning with critical thinking and creativity. The credit system allowed students to decide their own curricula at a time when enrolling in a set of required courses was the standard practice. Ms. Zhu said free and open discussion was not only tolerated, but encouraged.
Peter Herford, a longtime CBS News producer who taught journalism at Shantou from 2003 to 2013, said no topics were off limit. The dean of the journalism school did advise him to avoid “the three Ts” – Tiananmen, Taiwan, and Tibet – but Mr. Herford ignored the warning, doubting that restrictions would be enforced. “I was right,” he said. “No one ever told me to stop.”
China’s Ministry of Education was eager to learn from Shantou’s reforms. On June 29, 2012, the ministry entered into an agreement with the Li Ka-shing Foundation and the Guangdong provincial government to co-develop the university. That same day, Li struck an optimistic tone in a speech he gave on campus.
“I would like to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to every member of our faculty and administrative staff for your dedication and commitment to advancing reforms in higher education,” he said. “I have great confidence in the future of Shantou University.”
The direction of higher education took a dramatic turn when Xi came to power in November 2012. One of the earliest signs came the following spring, when an internal party memo referred to as Document No. 9 was leaked. The memo called for the eradication of “seven subversive currents” in Chinese society, including “Western constitutional democracy,” “universal values” of human rights, and Western ideas of media independence and civic participation.
Although Document No. 9 wasn’t explicitly addressed to universities, it became a harbinger for what was to come. In 2014, Xi urged universities to “cultivate and practice the core values of socialism in their teaching.” Two years later, he called for their loyalty to the Communist Party. Officials from its anticorruption agency fanned out to campuses all over China to investigate potential threats to this new mandate. Last June, the agency released a report accusing 14 top universities of infractions ranging from weak party leadership to inadequate adherence to ideology. (In 2015, China’s minister of education called for a ban on textbooks that promote Western values, and said criticism of the Party shouldn’t be allowed in the classroom.)
Kristin Shi-Kupfer, the director of research on public policy, society, and the media at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, said Xi’s disregard for notions like pluralism and freedom of expression has been clear since he first took office. She doesn’t expect him to change anytime soon. “There had been an expectation that once Xi Jinping established his power, he would be a little bit more relaxed,” she said. “This has clearly not been the case.” Instead, she warned, things are likely to get worse for those who don’t fall in line. Nonconformity has become a liability in Xi’s new era. Last January, to give just one example, a professor at a university in Shandong Province was fired for posting critical remarks about Mao on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms.
Shantou University’s own troubles started in the fall of 2016. On Oct. 12, a team of inspectors from the Communist Party’s branch in Guangdong Province descended on the university’s lush, tree-lined campus. For the next 50 days, they interviewed faculty members and students and examined syllabi and textbooks, evaluating party loyalty.
On March 2, 2017, Yang Hanjun, the head of the inspection team, shared its findings with university officials. The results were dismal. Mr. Yang accused the university’s party committee – every university in China has one – of weak leadership and of failing to implement provincial and nationwide party policies, according to a report posted on the university’s website. He said the committee needed to strengthen its supervision of foreign teachers, classroom discussions, and even online posts.
The university responded quickly. In early April, it hired a new president-cum-party-secretary named Jiang Hong. Then, on June 26, the university’s party committee released a 91-point rectification plan. The plan called for ideological and political education, including what has since been enshrined in the party’s constitution as “Xi Jinping Thought,” to become priorities in and outside the classroom.
News of the plan sent ripples through the Shantou community. Many people on campus were outraged; so, too, were alumni and former faculty. “That is the exact opposite of what a university is supposed to be,” said Dan Trotter, an American business professor who taught at Shantou from 2011 to 2016. “Universities aren’t meant to be propaganda centers. They’re meant to be places where people try to discover truth.”
At the start of the school year, in September, it didn’t take long for students to notice Shantou had changed. Dozens of billboards and posters around campus reminded passersby of the virtues of the Communist Party. The campaign intensified around the time of the 19th Party Congress in October. On the white-tile facade of a five-story dormitory, the 12 “core socialist values” were emblazoned in 24 Chinese characters. The university, observed one student, was becoming more and more red.
There were plenty of subtler changes, too. Zhu Haibin, a soft-spoken sophomore, said some of his teachers had started to avoid sensitive topics in class. Last semester, his law professor even warned students of a “red line.” “When it came to the situation of civil rights in China, the teacher didn’t dare speak,” Mr. Zhu said. “He would talk about things in theory, but not in practice.”
As the Party tightens its control over Shantou, the influence of the Li Ka-shing Foundation has started to wane, according to dozens of teachers and students interviewed for this story. On a recent visit, its on-campus offices were empty: lights turned off, desks and cabinets bare. Across from the offices, on the other side of the courtyard, a conference room now seemed to be a 19th Party Congress study room. Stacks of party handbooks were spread across a long wooden table. Against the back wall was a floor-to-ceiling poster board with party slogans printed in red and yellow characters.
When reached for comment, the Li Ka-shing Foundation said it was still involved with Shantou University and that it moved its offices to the nearby city of Shenzhen to comply with a new Chinese law regulating foreign nonprofit organizations. “Mr. Li is well known for his commitment to education in China,” the statement said. “Since 1981, he has understood that the delicate nuances of navigating the maze of changing regulations can be difficult. But he has never shied from his commitment.”
In November, the foundation announced that it would donate an additional 2 billion Hong Kong dollars (about $255 million) to Shantou University. Yet for some of the university’s 10,000 students, no amount of money could ease their concerns about the Party’s growing presence on campus: the ubiquitous propaganda, the required lectures on the 19th Party Congress, the quiet fear of being reported by a classmate for crossing an invisible line. Bella, a senior who gave only her English name, said that she had become resigned to most of it. But she still felt sad. “I’m going to study in Shanghai next year,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t think it will be any different there.”
Xie Yujuan contributed to this report.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Peter Herford’s role at CBS News. He was a producer.