An ideological crackdown in China’s universities, promoting Communist Party allegiance and slamming any adherence to ‘Western values’, accompanied by a heightened suppression of freedom of speech, has fuelled concerns about the future of higher education, academic freedom and liberal academics in the country.
At a late January gathering of university chiefs, including the heads of the country’s top institutions, Peking and Tsinghua universities, Education Minister Yuan Guiren urged a tightening of control over textbooks that spread ‘Western values’.
Institutions and teachers were urged to avoid remarks that “defame the rule of the Communist Party, smear socialism or violate the constitution and laws”, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
University teachers were also forbidden to complain in the classroom and to transmit “all kinds of harmful moods” to students, Yuan reportedly said.
The moves represent a tightening of China’s rules, with recent announcements also saying that universities should step up propaganda and teaching of Marxism on campus.
A new directive from the State Council, China’s cabinet, and the Party Central Committee published in January said applicants for jobs would be assessed on their political views and teachers would lose their posts for violating ‘teaching ethics’.
With their words and actions under close watch by spies on campuses, this could lead to the sacking of professors who openly espouse Western concepts or refuse to toe the party line, Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies, told University World News.
“The party secretaries of various institutions have blacklists of academics who espouse Western ideas, or are openly discontented with issues such as damage to the environment,” Lam said.
“This is disturbing. It is the first time since the months after the June 4 massacre in 1989 that similar ideological control was imposed on academia.” It showed that President Xi Jinping cared more about total allegiance to the party than innovation made possible by freedom of thought, said Lam.
Christoph Steinhardt, an assistant professor at the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, or CUHK, also sees the restrictive tone as part of a broader effort to redraw the boundaries between acceptable and non-acceptable discourse, as defined by the party, ongoing since 2013, when Xi came to power.
“I don’t think the leadership cares much about what liberal intellectuals think. It does care about what they say and write though, because that has potential to influence youngsters and the broader public,” he said.
A top-level document issued by the party’s Central Committee in April 2013 and later leaked to the media, identified “seven perils” that could undermine party rule.
These were: advocating Western constitutional democracy; promoting “universal values” of human rights; Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation; ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism”; and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s past.
Back in June last year, a senior party discipline inspector criticised the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, or CASS, as being “infiltrated by foreign forces” and “conducting illegal collusion during [politically] sensitive times”.
The Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily said in July that CASS scholars should be judged mainly on their loyalty to the party ideology. “CASS will list ideology as a criterion for the assessment of cadres and [those who] violate political discipline will be fired without exception,” according to People’s Daily.
On China’s campuses, there are bound to be dissenting voices – openly or not, analysts said. Liberal-minded academics can almost certainly expect challenging times ahead, and a tightening of fora in which to air their views, they said.
“It will be a disaster if we fail to set up standards and a bottom line to prevent high school and university teachers spreading Western values through internet platforms to defame our communist ideology,” a party official Xu Lan in Qiushi Journal, a party magazine.
In the latest move to rein in free speech, China last week announced a new regulation requiring its 649 million internet users to register their real names. The users will have to submit identity details to website administrators for all online accounts, including blogs, Twitter-like microblogs and forums.
A leading academic at the University of Hong Kong, who requested anonymity, pointed to increased pressure on academic freedom in China, and the likelihood of ‘dissident’ academics being penalised.
What is ‘Western’?
But some see the attempt to separate Western and Chinese values as problematic in itself.
Shen Kui, a professor and former vice-dean at Peking University’s law school, was quoted in a recent blog as saying the very idea of Communism was a foreign one.
“The Marxism that our current Constitution stipulates we must uphold, and the education in internationalism, communism, dialectical materialism, and historical materialism that the current Constitution stipulates we must undertake, are all from the West and have influenced China. There are countless examples of Western learning travelling East,” he said.
On Yuan’s directive for universities not to defame or attack the Party, he questioned whether the minister could provide the standard for distinguishing between “attack” and “reflect”, and between “blacken” and “expose darkness”.
“How do we distinguish ‘attacking and slandering the Party's leadership and blackening socialism’ from ‘reflecting on the bends in the road in the Party's past and exposing dark facts’?
“No political party would dare to declare that it never did and never would make errors, and no society, whether socialist or capitalist, would dare to declare that it has no dark side.”
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