By Xuyang Jingjing
Xia Yeliang, an associate professor at Peking University, had until January 31 to complete all the paperwork for his termination. But Xia, who was fired in October, has refused to go ahead with the procedure, claiming he was a victim of a wave of tighter ideological controls.
“Because I don’t accept the school’s decision to terminate my contract. I still consider myself a teacher at Peking University,” said Xia. The school asked Xia to move his personnel files by the deadline or bear any consequences that might come.
He is suing the school for “wrongful termination” and the case has already been accepted by a court in Haidian district, Beijing.
Xia is one of several university professors who have been fired or forced to leave in the past few months. While outspoken scholars often run into difficulties with school authorities, it’s still rare for them to be forced out of the system. Xia’s case, among others, has prompted a debate over whether the noose on academic freedom is being tightened or if it simply means it’s easier for scholars to win acclaim from critics with a hypocritical and uncompromising position.
In the past, Xia, a liberal economist, openly criticized the government for stifling freedom of thinking and speech, a stance hailed by critics. At the same time, Chinese Net users reacted with shock and indignation to his remarks on Weibo on September 14, 2012 that the Japanese occupation was better than Communist rule.
The School of Economics at Peking University said Xia was fired because of poor evaluations and had nothing to do with politics. It explained in another statement that the decision was in no way a political one.
The statement, obviously, has not won credibility with the West. Over 100 members of the Wellesley College faculty in the US called for an agreement it signed with Peking University in June to be reconsidered. The university has been criticized for not being tolerant and inclusive, which is supposed to be the university’s core value.
Gong Fangbin, a professor at the PLA National Defence University, commented in a blog article that if the university hadn’t fired Xia, it would have established a much more open and tolerant image for China and Peking University.
“There are other ways to deal with this, such as transferring him to another post, or letting him evaluate himself and make his own choice, and so on,” wrote Gong.
Some other outspoken scholars have also run into difficulties with the school authorities but are able to or choose to stay in universities. He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, has openly criticized the education system and advocated rule by Constitution. He had his run-ins with the school but is still teaching there.
“Professor He often said to me, ‘Don’t be too aggressive. If you are too aggressive, it’s going to be dangerous,’” said Xia. “I guess he’s more rational. I think I’m rational too, but it’s just that it would be sad that not one single person dare speak up in Peking University, which is known for inclusiveness and free thinking.”
For scholars like Xia, their friction with university authorities may serve as a blessing in disguise.
Since the termination of contract, Xia has had two offers from companies that offered him positions including chief economist or vice president with an annual salary of a million yuan ($165,200). “They told me that as long as I stay away from politics in the future it’s going to be fine,” said Xia. “But I’m still worried that if the authorities intervene, there’s little they can do either.”
The financial rewards in the corporate world were tempting, admitted Xia, but he said he is more interested in academic pursuits.
After receiving the termination notice from the school, Xia took to Twitter, hoping that among the 2,000 or so colleges and research institutions in China, someone could offer him a teaching or research position, but no one has stepped forward.
Several foreign institutions have invited him to be a visiting scholar given his new-found fame, but Xia said he has not decided yet. Most programs last only a year, which means he would soon have to figure things out again.
After Chen Hongguo, an associate professor of law at Northwest University of Politics and Law in Shaanxi Province, announced that he was resigning in December, some predicted the high-profile resignation would acquire a reputation for Chen.
“Chen Hongguo will earn a greater professional reputation because of the resignation,” read an opinion piece of Nandu Daily. “It is a coronation for the teacher.”
Chen has tried to invite prominent scholars to give lectures to his students but ran into difficulty with the school authorities. In 2012, Chen started organizing a book club among students called Citizens for Self-governance and Cooperation, to read and discuss works such as On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, and Science as a Vocation by Max Weber, among others. The school ordered Chen to shut it down, but Chen’s teaching position remained intact.
The fracas escalated when the school tried to stop him from attending an academic conference in Hong Kong. Chen went anyway, and when he came back, his exit-entry permit was revoked. He tried applying for a new one but the school stalled the process, Chen wrote on his Weibo.
Chen posted his resignation letter on the Internet, citing his “fear of being institutionalized.” He had spent almost 20 years studying and teaching at the university.
The main reason for his resignation was that he felt that space for academic exchanges and teaching was getting narrower, Chen wrote in the public letter.
Chen’s emotional tirade has met with cynicism as well as respect. “Their rebellion wins rounds of applause from outside the institution and enhances their value,” wrote Wenbei, a political commentator on his blog. “For most of them, it’s easier to evoke sympathy for a while than turn the temporary attention into resources for their career.”
For Chen, life after resignation was “quiet.” He gets to spend more time with his family and to reflect on his eight years as a teacher.
Since his public resignation, law firms and private schools have offered to take Chen on board. Chen went to a private school for a job interview but in the end couldn’t stand the thought of going back to teaching. “The moment I went back to the podium, I realized I was too deeply hurt to go back to the system. It’s too hard,” said Chen, 40.
“I think 10 or 20 years ago teachers probably had more choice. For instance, they could leave the system to do business.
“But for someone who has been in the system for so long, there’s a deep fear and anxiety about survival.”
Despite the number of prominent outspoken liberal scholars, not many have left the system. Many are able to continue teaching and write articles critical of the education or political system, although they receive warnings from the authorities from time to time.
University authorities have always argued that it was not what the teachers taught that made them lose their jobs. In the statement issued by Chen’s school in response to his public resignation, the school said that it was normal to criticize and correct Chen’s breach of university regulations. It said the school tried to persuade Chen to stay in vain.
In December, Zhang Xuezhong, an associate professor at East University of Political Science and Law, was fired. The school said Zhang had used the school e-mail system to spread his own political views among teachers and students.
Zhang had proposed in the past that universities stop teaching Marxism and Leninism. He has also more recently written a book warning of the consequences of one party rule, contradictory to the Constitution.
Although the disputes have brought the teachers acclamation from critics of the government, they still see research and teaching in China as their ideal career path. The most important thing for Xia is to be able to continue his research and writing, he said. He wants to continue his research into contemporary China’s economic history, which is connected with politics.
He also plans to write a book analyzing the future of systematic reform in China. “I want to compare the different paths that different people have proposed,” he said. The book would almost certainly not be published on the Chinese mainland, but he has already been in contact with publishers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Xia also plans to write his own story from birth to his high school years, which was the same period as the Cultural Revolution. “That’s only part one. I’ll continue to write about for instance the time we are in now,” he said.
Chen loves teaching. But for the moment, he said he is going to take some time away from the job.
“I want to review my experience in the past few years as a teacher and write about my thoughts and concepts about education,” he said.