Tea Leaf Nation

A ‘Narrowing Path’ for China’s Scholars

A respected professor's open resignation has academics asking where Chinese government meddling will end.

Getty Images
Getty Images

It started with an ending. "Perhaps it’s a bad choice, but it’s one I made after much deliberation, a price I have to pay for a free and dignified life," Chen Hongguo wrote of his decision to quit. On Dec. 23, Chen — formerly an assistant professor at the Northwest University of Political Science and Law in Xi’an, a large city in central China — posted a public letter explaining his departure to his 57,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. In the process, he re-ignited grassroots complaints about the lack of academic freedom in China.

In the letter — which was shared more than 17,000 times within 12 hours before censors removed it — Chen expressed frustration over what he called the "narrowing path" of academic inquiry. A vocal advocate for strengthening the rule of law and civic responsibility, Chen accused his employer of working with the Xi’an government to obstruct his attempts to give speeches on legal reform, run book clubs featuring the works of prominent liberal philosophers John Stuart Mills and Max Weber, and attend academic conferences in Hong Kong, traditionally a freer place to discuss Chinese politics than the mainland. 

Chen wrote in his public letter that upon his return from Hong Kong, he faced disciplinary action for "having classes taught by substitute teachers." Chen acknowledged violating university strictures, but wrote that he had merely "invited practicing lawyers and noted legal scholars" to teach "several classes a semester." The university issued a statement on Dec. 26, saying that it had accepted Chen’s resignation and emphasizing that "everything was handled according to school rules." In response, Chen posted on his Weibo account later that day that his resignation was "a personal choice," adding, "I fully understand and thank the university for its decision."

The resignation letter went viral — and met a swift end — likely because it stirred concerns over further assaults on academic freedom. He Weifang, a preeminent law professor at Peking University and Chen’s mentor, urged Chen’s former university to "protect his basic rights" but also advised Chen not to resign, arguing that "justice needs compromise." (He should know; in March 2009 he was effectively exiled from Peking University, sent to a two-year stint at a school in the western region of Xinjiang in likely punishment for having signed Charter 08, a 2008 petition urging deep democratic reforms in China.) Chen’s missive also had appeal among the grassroots. "I read the letter with tears," read one of the most "upvoted" comments to the letter. "Whose fault is it that such a talented, dignified, and ambitious law professor left the teaching podium he loved? Is this a tragedy of the law? A tragedy of the system?"

It may have little to do with the law, and more to do with the Chinese Communist Party’s unwritten rules. Chinese academia has increasingly had to bend to the will of the party, which on Dec. 23 publicly announced a new wave of Marxist campaigns in schools and colleges which will incorporate "socialist core values" in the curriculum. In 2013 alone, several prominent Chinese professors have resigned or been fired for bucking the party line. In October, the prestigious Peking University in Beijing dismissed economics professor Xia Yeliang, a noted advocate for multiparty elections, because of what it insisted was poor performance, leading Chinese netizens to question whether Peking University’s motto — "Follow the principle of freedom of thought with an all-embracing attitude" — still held true. Zhang Xuezhong, an outspoken legal scholar who championed free speech and constitutionalism, was fired in early December by East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, one of China’s leading law schools. That ouster led netizens to ask how many more scholars the Chinese academy would lose if universities continued to cave to political pressure.

For Chen’s part, he claimed in his letter to have attended an academic conference at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in November despite repeated warnings from officials at his own school. Shortly after he returned, Chen wrote, he discovered that his Hong Kong visa had been revoked and that his university would not sponsor his reapplication. (Citizens of mainland China must apply for a visa to visit Hong Kong.) Chen claimed that he repeatedly sat down with university officials to ask why they had refused to sponsor his papers, but received no substantive response. In his letter, Chen asked angrily why all the parts of government work together efficiently when their objective is to "strip someone’s rights," while the opposite proved true when Chen sought to regain his right to travel to Hong Kong.

Perhaps in an effort to rouse sympathy among young readers, Chen also insisted upon a more important reason for his resignation: that he could no longer face his students. "How can a law professor who can’t even fight for such a common right" as a visa, Chen asked, "be qualified to teach his students about the value of procedure?"

The move appears to have worked; self-identified pupils of Chen took to Weibo to express support for their former professor. "I went to some of your lectures before and admire your ideas and the way you conduct yourself," one student wrote. Another commented that the university had "imprisoned" Chen, and his departure may be a blessing in disguise that gives the scholar "more room and flexibility." On the university’s online forum, students posted Chen’s teaching schedule for the remainder of the week. Unverified photographs circulating on Zhihu, another Chinese social media site, show heavy turnout for Chen’s final class on Dec. 25, with students leaving messages of support on the blackboard.

Those messages will not bring Chen back to his professorship, but they may send a signal that the party has gone too far in politicizing higher education. Chen himself wrote that some government meddling was inevitable: "I don’t ask for a perfect university, and I acknowledge that it’s the party’s and the government’s university," he argued in his public letter. But Chen insisted a line had to be drawn somewhere: "At the end of the day, it’s still a university."

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