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Has China Failed Key Test?

October 21, 2013

A faculty panel in the School of Economics at Peking University, in Beijing, has voted 30-3, with 1 abstention, to dismiss a professor who has been an outspoken critic of the Chinese government. Xia Yeliang said he was told on Friday that the university will not continue his contract when it expires Jan. 31. He has taught in the School of Economics since 2002.

Though the university has said that the reason for terminating Xia is his poor teaching record, suspicions that it is a consequence of his political speech have fueled a media storm around his case. The decision to terminate Xia has been widely watched as a test of academic freedom in China, one with implications for Western universities collaborating with institutions there. Xia has been a critic of the Chinese Communist Party and is an advocate of free markets and political reform. He is one of the signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto that called for the end of one-party rule in China and its replacement with a democratic, constitutional government with guarantees of human rights and individual freedoms.

Xia said that he was told by the school leadership that the dismissal is based on academic, not political, reasons.

But the pieces don't add up for him. He said he was up for a vote on his qualifications, based on his teaching and publication record, in Oct. 2012, which he passed. He said in a subsequent ballot his colleagues voted 11-11, with one abstention, on the matter of whether to continue his employment at Peking. On the grounds that last year's tie vote was inconclusive, a second vote on this question this month resulted in the 30-3 tally, with one abstention. 

“My logic is if I was considered qualified they should employ me, but why they should have another round of voting to decide whether I should be employed or not?” asked Xia, who spent the 2012-13 academic year as a visiting scholar at Stanford University and whose two books focus on economic reform in China. “Their answer is, I’m qualified, it’s O.K., but it’s still up to them as to whether to continue to employ me or not.”

“I think that everyone understands the reasons they fired me,” Xia said, but added that he has been warned that if he keeps telling his suspicions to foreign media his situation will be worse.

"They’re angry about the international response to me," he said. "They think that I intentionally manipulated this issue to ruin the image of the School of Economics and Peking University. They think that they have sufficient academic freedom.”

For weeks, administrators at Peking have largely been mum when contacted by Western media outlets. However, on Friday the School of Economics finally released a statement (in Chinese) indicating that Xia's teaching was at issue, and saying that the university had received more than 340 complaints from students about Xia's teaching methods, lectures, and "work attitude" since 2006. 

The dean of the School of Economics declined to comment further, referring Inside Higher Ed to the written statement. Multiple faculty members in the School of Economics did not return requests for interviews. However, Yang Yao, the dean of the National School of Development at Peking, said he does not believe that political pressure was a factor. Rather, he said his understanding, based on a conversation with a colleague in the School of Economics, is that Xia failed a regular triennial review on the renewal of his contract. 

“My own opinion on Xia Yeliang is that he’s not a qualified researcher," Yao said. "If you look at his publication record, it’s not up to the standard." 

“He’s making this a huge case, and trying to use external forces to try to force the university to keep him. I think that's a really bad strategy."

Standing up for a Colleague

In September, 136 Wellesley College professors signed an open letter saying that they would urge the college to reconsider its institutional partnership with Peking if Xia were fired. The faculty action was unprecedented in that the letter did not merely iterate vague principles of academic and political freedoms, but rather attempted to make the outcome of a specific test case a precondition for collaboration. 

Writing that academic freedom is “the very foundation of our liberal arts institution,” the letter says, “We believe that dismissing Prof. Xia for political reasons is such a fundamental violation of academic freedom that we, as individuals, would find it very difficult to engage in scholarly exchanges with Peking University.”

In June, Wellesley signed a memorandum of understanding with Peking to include faculty and student exchanges, joint research and virtual collaborations -- making Xia a colleague of Wellesley faculty members, as some have argued.

Now that Xia has been dismissed, Thomas Cushman, a professor of sociology who spearheaded the letter-writer campaign, said he is trying to arrange for Xia to get a visiting lectureship at Wellesley. A college spokeswoman said only that the institution is in the process of identifying “next steps” and will share more information as it is available.

As for the implications for the broader (and brand-new) Wellesley-Peking partnership, Wellesley's president H. Kim Bottomly said in a September statement to Inside Higher Ed that she would be following the faculty's lead, even while she espoused the value of the partnership as she sees it.

"I don’t think anybody here at the college doesn’t want to have an exchange with Peking University in principle,” said Cushman.

“But we think it’s a real mistake to enter into arrangements with authoritarian societies without any conditions whatsoever, without any kind of sense of basic rules of engagement. If they can fire him, they can fire anybody.”

A significant number of elite American universities have partnerships with Peking -- among them Columbia, Cornell, and Stanford Universities and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania. Stanford, for example, opened a research center at Peking in 2012 at a cost of $7 million. The director of that center did not respond to inquiries Friday about Xia's case.

The Broader Context in China

Xia's dismissal comes at a time of increased restrictions on political speech in China. A widely reported government memo known as Document No. 9 identified seven “subversive currents” that are not to be spoken of, including “universal values” like human rights, press freedom, judicial independence, economic neoliberalism, and historic mistakes of the Communist Party. And there’s been a broader crackdown on bloggers, lawyers, and activists. Human Rights Watch has reported on the detention of more than 55 activists since February, as well as increased controls on social media and online expression. 

Xia said Saturday that his own personal micro-blog has been blocked, impeding his ability to inform his followers of the outcome of his case.

“There is no doubt about it: if you talk to the reformers and liberals among the intelligentsia in China, they will all tell you that the political climate is tightening,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. The general interpretation, he said, is that Xi Jinping, who assumed China’s presidency in March, is either unwilling to tolerate political reforms at this stage or unable to until he consolidates his power.

“We should recognize that in China there’s a huge internal debate raging right now” about the future of the political system and economy, said Mary Gallagher, an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. “Things like Document 9 signal that there’s a tightening, at least temporarily.”

Gallagher said that Document No. 9 "was clearly a sign that this crackdown was not just going to be about social activists, NGOs, political dissidents, that it was also going to be involving general academics -- including telling people what they could or could not talk about in the classroom. I would say for the last several years at least there’s been a feeling that you could pretty much say what you want in the classroom. That seems to be changing, which will be a huge challenge to Western universities as they begin to open facilities in China and do more collaborative programs with Chinese universities.”

Nora Bynum, the vice provost for Duke University’s new campus in Kunshan, China, said she hasn’t seen a copy of Document No. 9:  “We read about it in the paper, but we have not had any contact with any ministry official, at the provincial or national level, about these seven taboo subjects.”

What she has seen, she said, is a statement signed earlier this month by leaders of nine elite Chinese universities – including Peking – that among other things affirms the value of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. The Consortium of China 9 Research Universities joined with three other international associations in issuing the statement, known as the “Hefei Statement on the Ten Characteristics of Contemporary Research Universities.”

Bynum said that the articles of association for Duke Kunshan University stipulate the freedom of students and professors to present and publish their research as they see fit and to have open access to information. She said that Duke hasn’t gotten any pushback either from its partner institution, Wuhan University, or the government on these core principles. The campus recently gained formal approval from the Ministry of Education and will accept its first students in 2014. 

“I think that the most important thing for us to do as we get our doors open is to monitor the situation,” Bynum said. “We have agreed that the executive vice chancellor [at Duke Kunshan] will be the primary point person for monitoring any kinds of challenges coming up around this issue, and we’ll make an annual report to the provost, who will also inform the Academic Council as to how things are going.”

“We think it’s very important to take an active and engaged response to these kinds of issues.”

Actions vs. Words

It’s still to be seen whether the newly inked Hefei Statement will prove in any way significant.

Qiang Zha, an associate professor of international education at York University and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, said there’s reason to be optimistic that it might represent a step forward. He compared the language of the Hefei statement -- which calls for “[t]he responsible exercise of academic freedom by faculty to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching and service without undue constraint” – to more obscure language regarding academic freedom in a higher education planning document released in 2010.

The latter document, the "Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development" for 2010-2020, also talked about academic freedom, but more vaguely. It includes the stipulation that “[a]ll kinds of higher educational institutions should…respect academic freedom and furnish a friendly and relaxed academic environment….”

“The Hefei statement is another step forward because the statement uses very explicit wording about academic freedom,” Zha said. But there’s one big caveat, he added: the use of the adjective “responsible,” as in, “the responsible exercise of academic freedom.”

You would never find such a modifier in a Western document on this topic, Zha said.

Cushman, of Wellesley, is unimpressed with the Hefei Statement. “Right after signing it, they [Peking] take a high-profile dissident and turn him out,” he said. “What does that say about the authenticity of that document? It has zero authenticity. It means nothing. In fact, it actually is more dangerous because if you look at the language of that document closely, it says they cherish the responsible exercise of academic freedom. Who’s going to decide what’s responsible? Who runs the university? The Communist Party of China.”

For his part, Xia sees the document as merely a “performance” by Chinese universities intended to burnish their international image. They say one thing, he said, and they do another.

 

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