When I was in high school in Shanghai, one of the popular supplementary textbook series we used featured biographies of past students who had excelled in the all-important National College Entrance Examinations (presumably as a result of using the books). The students posed in front of landmark locations at the two universities indisputably ranked as China’s best — Tsinghua and Peking University — and recited nearly identical stories of dream chasing and hard work.
Growing up, like millions of Chinese students, I idealized these two schools. I was particularly fond of Peking University — colloquially referred to as “Beida” — which, compared to the practical and engineering-focused Tsinghua, had a reputation for liberalism and openness.
Despite its continued appeal to China’s brightest students, today’s Beida is no longer the famed bastion of the liberal arts it was nearly a century ago. Nowadays, bureaucracy often trumps academics. The communist party leadership has sole control over the appointment of top school officials, including the president, and all faculty members are subject to a complex administrative ranking system that often distracts from teaching and research.
These problems exist at virtually every single university in China, although top schools like Beida and Tsinghua receive “special treatment” from the authorities. Shell-shocked by the student protest movement of 1989, many of whose leaders were Beida students, the Chinese government has been unequivocal about its need to enforce tight ideological controls on college campuses.
The recent controversy surrounding the dismissal of outspoken economics professor Xia Yeliang from Beida, widely reported in western media, appears to highlight once more China’s lack of academic freedom. Earlier in the year, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a new ideological campaign aimed at silencing dissident voices in public places through a central directive entitled “Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere.” Xia, who along with Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, was one of the initial signatories of Charter 08, a human rights manifesto advocating democratic reforms, seemed to be an obvious target for ideological repression.
Officials at Beida deny Xia’s claim that he lost his job for political reasons. Citing his apparent unpopularity with students and unproductive publication record, the school emphasized that Xia’s dismissal was purely the result of his lackluster academic performance. A quick glance into Weiming, Beida’s internal online bulletin board, reveals that the school’s accusations are not entirely unfounded. Students complained about his overt politicizing and criticism of the government in class. Accounts of Xia’s incompetence were widely broadcasted in the state media, while Xia’s own portrayal was largely ignored.
While Beida as Xia’s employer is legally entitled to discontinue his contract, it as an academic institution is ethically bound to ensure that decisions with regards to faculty appointments are made without external political influence. Universities should serve as bastions of academic freedom against external forces of repression. However, in Xia’s case the structure of censorship is aligned with the university itself. The reason why Beida’s decision to dismiss Xia has come under fire internationally is not that it shouldn’t be able to choose its faculty on its own terms, but precisely that it lacks the ability to do so in an independent and fair manner.
Due to the China’s tight controls over its universities, the divorce of politics and academia cannot be achieved without major structural reforms, which are unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future.
Yet that does not mean Xia’s dismissal should be ignored. In committing to the Yale-NUS project, Yale has committed itself to protecting academic freedom in authoritarian states. That commitment bounds it to take action in the Xia case. Armed with a global brand and a close relationship with Beida, Yale is in a unique position to influence the politically saturated environment that Xia finds himself trapped in.
In its Oct. 21 editorial, the New York Times Editorial Board called upon western universities that have collaborative relations with Beida — including Yale — to push for Xia’s reinstitution. Yale should put pressure on the Beida leadership, but not directly for Xia’s re-employment. Whether Xia deserves his position should not be decided by an external actor. Rather, it should pressure Beida to publicize its standards for renewing faculty contracts and to give Xia a fair opportunity to defend himself.
Xiuyi Zheng is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.