Beijing signals tighter control over dissenting scholars

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Originally published by University World News on November 1, 2018

A change in the highest echelons of China’s top university in Beijing is being seen by academics as a new tightening of control over dissenting thought among scholars as well as stronger oversight by the Communist Party of top universities in their role as influencers of young people. 

This comes as academics say the atmosphere within China’s universities has become even more repressive since late last year, with many saying they must sign pledges to abide by party rules.

China’s State Council – roughly equivalent to cabinet – announced the appointment of a party stalwart, Hao Ping, as the new president of Peking University (PKU) to replace current president Lin Jianhua, who comes from an academic background and “who was removed from his position”, the official Xinhua news agency said in a brief notice on 23 October. 

Hao was previously party chief at the university. The new PKU party chief will be Qiu Shuiping, a former party secretary of Beijing’s State Security Bureau from the end of 2013 to the end of 2014, according to his résumé. The bureau acts as the local branch of the ministry responsible for espionage and counter-espionage, which is causing some concern among academics at the likely use of counter-terrorism surveillance methods to control academic free speech.

The official English version of the release on the announcement led with Hao being appointed president, while the Chinese version from the Ministry of Education led with Qiu, “in a clear sign of who really is in charge of the school”, according to China-watcher Bill Bishop, editor of the Sinocism newsletter.  

“Authority in universities is devolving into the hands of party bosses,” notes Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). In the past, university leadership has been “an uneasy division of labour” between the political bosses in every university and the presidents, who are generally distinguished professors selected from the academic community, Lam says. “But more and more the pendulum is swinging towards the party.”

Now party appointees “pretty much have full authority to run the university”, says Lam, who adds that the move to shore up party control of the country’s top humanities and social science university, which is often seen to be close to the Chinese leadership, will have major repercussions on other universities in the country. “It is sending a signal.” 

Concern over security background

More concerning for PKU academics themselves is Qiu’s state security background. “This is the secret police in China so people consider it to be direct control of the university by the security police,” says former PKU economics professor Xia Yeliang.

“For the education ministry to send someone from the ministry of state security to control Peking University is a very obvious signal to intellectuals in general,” Xia, who was sacked from the university in 2013 for being outspoken, told University World News

“When I was fired [from PKU] it was actually under the instruction of the top leadership more than four years ago, but now they have even more direct and more strict control over Peking University as the new party secretary is actually number one in power at the university,” said Xia, who now lives in the United States.

The new university president is a professor of history and is pleasant and amiable, according to Xia, who says he knew Hao personally. But he notes that whenever anyone in power gives instructions Hao “is very obedient. So in the Chinese situation he is probably the very person to be favoured by the top leadership.”

“I doubt now that any serious criticism will come from any scholars, they dare not challenge,” says Xia. “And Peking University is the top. If they won’t challenge no one else will either.”

Keeping students in check

Commentators have noted that the university reshuffle comes at a sensitive time, and could be a bid to ensure that students are kept in check in advance of the 30th anniversary of the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when the army put down the student-led movement in Beijing. That movement began on the PKU campus, and also involved prominent PKU academics. 

The campus administration under the outgoing university president this year was seen as not moving swiftly enough to control the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment on campus, though it sent activist students home out of fear that protests would spread and ‘destabilise’ the campus. 

More recently, the university administration moved to shut down the campus student Marxist society, which had been conducting investigations into the rights of workers on the university campus. Some society members were part of a group of students from more than 20 Chinese universities in support of labour unions at a Jasic Technology factory protest in Shenzhen in July, leading to the arrest of some 40 students. Independent trade unions are banned in China.

The society was refused registration as a campus society in August. “The message is that Xi Jinping thought takes precedence over Marxism at Beida [PKU], and that it will be under the control of the party,” said a PKU student who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

Stepping up ideological purity campaign

Leadership appointments at the university, colloquially known in China as Beida, have traditionally been closely watched as an indicator of internal party power struggles or the prevailing ideological direction. Currently it is being seen as a stepping up of Xi Jinping’s ideological campaign within higher education institutions. 

A number of professors have been fired in recent months. Xi’s ideological clampdown began in 2014 with an anti-corruption campaign within universities and evolved into an ideological campaign to  root out Western thought and values, to the extent that overseas travel by university academics for international conferences has now been severely curbed by the Ministry of Education.

Chinese Human Rights Defenders network, in a report posted in October on its website, pointed to “worsening conditions for free speech in China as universities aggressively implement Xi’s ideological assault on university values, including against freedom of expression”.

At least six professors have been affected since April, four of whom were fired. They include Guizhou University Professor Yang Shaozheng, fired in August for posting an online article in 2017 critical of the party. His appeal was rejected on 30 September. 

Xiamen University dismissed two professors – Zhou Yunzhong on 1 September, and Economics Professor You Shengdong in June, the latter after students reported supposedly ‘politically inappropriate’ comments he made during class. Students informing on teachers has become a common phenomenon.

Hebei University of Engineering fired Professor Wang Gang reportedly because he frequently criticised the government on two WeChat groups. Zhongnan University of Economics and Law suspended an associate professor, Zhai Juhong, from teaching in May after she criticised the  constitutional amendments in February abolishing presidential term limits, which has allowed Xi to stay on indefinitely. 

Academics note that campus dissent is all but eliminated, with just a few notable exceptions. 

Some intellectuals speak out

Some of these exceptions occurred during the period June-August when a number of top Chinese scholars, including at PKU, dared to openly criticise Xi’s policies on the trade war with the United States, which is causing havoc in China’s export-led manufacturing economy.

Most went against the official narrative that the trade war is an unprovoked US attack on China’s emergence as a global economic power, that itself has been fuelled by China’s ‘superior’ economic policies.  

“China should adopt a lower profile in dealing with international issues,” Jia Qingguo, a PKU professor of international relations, said at a recent forum in Beijing. “Don’t create this atmosphere that we’re about to supplant the American model.” 

Others criticised party officials for over-egging China’s achievements, including overstating major economic indicators – often seen to be fabricated – and in scientific research where scholars in June and July this year criticised official propaganda that China had surpassed the US in technological prowess. 

One of the strongest critiques came from Xu Zhangrun, a law professor at Tsinghua University, in an essay published in July that slammed personality cults and the extension of two term limits for the Chinese leadership. 

“People nationwide, including the entire bureaucratic elite, feel once more lost in uncertainty about the direction of the country and about their own personal security, and the rising anxiety has spread into a degree of panic throughout society,” he wrote in an essay for Unirule Institute of Economics, a Beijing think-tank that was recently thrown out of its Beijing premises. Xu called for the reversal of the abolishment of the presidential two-term limit. 

Xi’s moment of weakness

According to CUHK’s Lam, Xi is widely seen in China as not being able to handle the US-China trade war, which is seen as an assault against China on all fronts – trade, economic, political, military and technological.

“Xi was on the defensive, and some intellectuals took the opportunity to criticise him,” says Lam. “But the other perspective is that precisely because Beijing doesn’t have as big a war chest as the US to counter the multi-pronged attacks by [US President] Donald Trump, Xi Jinping is again appealing to nationalism and to people’s loyalty to the party and will impose a stranglehold on public opinion, including tighter controls on the media and on academics.” 

The June-July attacks were a short window of opportunity for scholars. But now Xi is reasserting himself. “These academics are now being penalised,” said Lam. 

Nonetheless, last month Zhang Weiying, an economics professor at PKU’s National School of Development, who was last year appointed assistant president of the university, argued that China’s economic development had occurred in spite of and not due to the ‘Chinese economic model’. 

The speech by Zhang, a highly regarded economist, was initially posted on the PKU website and attracted a great deal of social media comment within China before it was removed. Former PKU professor Xia said: “Zhang Weiying is very brave to speak up [about] some home truths. Now they say he is in a bad situation because the authorities will not place much more trust in him.”

Effect on quality of research

The ideological crackdown in universities is already having a major effect on the quality of research in top universities, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. PKU’s school of economics is trying to “invent” a theory of Xi Jinping economic thought, according to Xia. 

“This is nonsense as Xi Jinping knows nothing about economics.” And not just economic thought, but political, military, diplomatic, cultural thought. As a result, “there is no independent research going on [in universities]”.

Funding for national social science or humanities research “is controlled by the National Office for the Social Sciences and Humanities, which is located in the department of propaganda of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]”, says Xia. “That means they should obey the instruction of the CCP. Thousands of research projects have Xi Jinping in their titles.” 

It is seen as doing great damage to a world-class university.

PKU said in a statement in October its new party secretary Qiu hopes PKU can “seize the opportunities in the new era and grow into a world-class university with Chinese characteristics”.

However, Kevin Carrico, lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University, Australia, who recently took an online course in  Xi Jinping Thought run in English by Tsinghua University on the edX platform, says “one cannot simultaneously have world-class universities and rigid ideological servitude”.

“Nowhere is this contradiction more glaring than in this course on Xi Jinping thought, which gives a global community of learners an unprecedented opportunity to observe the poverty of China’s state-enforced ideology.”

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