‘Flamboyant’ Peking president replaced by physicist

The naming of physicist Wang Enge as president of China’s top Peking University came as a surprise to many academics in China when it was announced last month by the central committee of the Communist Party, with almost immediate effect.

Wang (56), who became executive vice-president of Peking University in June 2012, is considered by colleagues to be low key and reserved, and is rarely seen in public.

He replaces the more flamboyant Zhou Qifeng, who had been president of the institution since November 2008. Peking University leadership is an influential official position that carries with it the rank of government vice-minister.

In announcing his replacement, the official Xinhua news agency said Zhou (65) was being retired because of his age.

But political observers who spoke on condition of anonymity said the demise of Zhou may be related to a visit to Chongqing in November 2011, where he described the work of Bo Xilai, the disgraced Chongqing former party secretary, as “creative reforms”.

Zhou, who was a National People’s Congress deputy, also caused widespread anger – expressed on social media sites such as Sina Weibo – over comments made in December 2012.

He said during a visit to elite secondary schools in his hometown of Changsha in Hunan province: “From the point of educating outstanding US citizens, the US education system is absolutely the best one. However, from the point of view of educating the global citizen, I think that the US education system is a complete mess.”

Widely reported, and passed around on social media sites, the statement was seen by many as an attack on ordinary Chinese who send their children abroad – particularly to the US – for higher education, as well as hypocritical, since top Chinese party officials also send their children to the US for education.

Zhou himself did his PhD at the University of Massachussetts, Amhurst, in the 1980s.

By claiming that China’s education was good, and education in the US was a “mess”, Zhou's utterances were regarded by netizens as similar to old-style anti-Western party propaganda while also turning a blind eye to the problems of China’s unequal higher education system.

One irate netizen wrote: “Our education is indeed successful. When our children go to kindergarten, the battles begin; enrolment in elementary school relies either on the family’s household registration status or money; in high school, they have to study for more than 10 hours daily; in universities, it’s all about money again because many people cannot afford the tuition.”

In the past two weeks, there has been considerable delight expressed on social media sites at the demise of Zhou, who was seen to be espousing conservative values.

In particular, pictures of Zhou kneeling in front of his mother as a role model of filial piety went viral on the internet in July last year. Many questioned why he had sought to publicise a personal family event – it was his mother’s birthday – and noted that a TV camera crew had been invited.

Such displays were common in the past when officials sought to show their adherence to party principles, particularly during times of political uncertainty.

Hu Xijin, chief editor of the Global Times, an offshoot of the People’s Daily official Communist Party newspaper, said on his Sina Weibo account: “Filial piety should be a basic moral requirement for a Peking University president, not something to show off. It is meaningless for a revered Peking University president to publicly show off a personal virtue.”

His comment was re-posted over 16,000 times and received more than 8,000 comments, according to monitoring organisations in Hong Kong.

The South China Morning Post wrote that the new Peking University president now faced the challenge of restoring strained ties between the university and the public while leading the institution in its bid to achieve global recognition as a top university.

Wang was a researcher at the University of Houston in the US for some years before he returned to China to work at the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences.

According to reports in official media, Zhou will continue to teach at Peking University.