Crackdown on academics in ideology campaign

A professor of constitutional law at a major Chinese university has been banned from teaching, after an article he wrote on constitutional reform was deemed ‘unconstitutional’. The move signals a continued tightening of ideological control in universities since China’s new President Xi Jinping and other politburo leaders took office in March.

Zhang Xuezhong, a lecturer at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, was told his article published in June was “in violation of laws on teachers’ behaviour”.

This was a reference to a directive from Beijing’s central propaganda department to universities in May, known as Document No 9, banning seven topics from being discussed in university classrooms.

Although that seven topics directive was never made public, many academics confirmed they had seen it. Discussion of ‘Western constitutional democracy’ heads the list of taboo topics.

Other taboos include discussions of universal human rights values and of social justice, criticism of the mistakes of the Communist Party of China in the past, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, debate over disclosing officials’ personal assets, and talk of a censorship-free internet.

Zhang revealed the list of seven topics on 10 May in a blog on his since-deleted Weibo microblogging account. He said the directive circulating at his university prohibited faculty members from speaking to students about the topics.

He added that in his view party and central government propaganda could not be influential in the era of the internet and new technology.

He was immediately attacked for “spreading false rumours” – a vague charge often used to clamp down on views disliked by the authorities. But Zhang’s blog about banned topics was confirmed by Wang Jiangsong, a high-profile philosophy professor at the China Institute of Industrial Relations in Beijing, and others.

Controlling political debate

“In recent months there have been certain developments which flagged a tightening of political debate, including at universities,” explained Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at Hong Kong’s City University.

But while the seven taboos refer to subjects that should not be debated in class, “this is not about debate, it has become a kind of crackdown, a form of oppression. It reflects the political position of the new leaders – they are reluctant to respond to reforms,” Cheng told University World News.

“Apparently the new Chinese leadership would not like controversial political debates to take place and there is a concern that these debates would generate instability and demand for political reforms,” Cheng said.

He described the crackdown on Zhang as the party “using a particular incident to generate a deterrent effect”. But it may not work.

Although the vast majority of professors and lecturers in China are focused on their careers and research, “there is still a significant minority of [academics] who are willing to stand up and fight for their ideals. Although they are disappointed by what has happened [to Zhang] they will continue to fight for their ideas, they won’t be discouraged,” Cheng said.

“I don’t think there has been a sharp deterioration in atmosphere, such as an increase in fear among [academics],” he added. Academics are generally used to ideological campaigns being waged on campus.

But the Zhang case is part of a wider, concerted attempt to secure ideological control over freewheeling debate and discussion among academics.

He Bing, a professor of law at China University of Political Science and Law, who had a huge internet following – over 460,000 followers on Weibo – had his account suspended in early May for “deliberately spreading rumours”, just after the State Internet Information Office publicised plans to crack down on internet “rumour mongering” using a list of taboos similar to the universities list.

The office has recently singled out those with the biggest online followings, including several prominent academics.

Patriotism and ideology

During a July visit to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, whose members are among China’s most eminent scientists and academics, President Xi said the freedom to be creative in science and technology must be respected to bolster innovation and invention. But he stressed that patriotism was the “first requirement” for Chinese researchers.

“Today, with a socialistic ideology on the wane, patriotism has become a tool for restraining people’s thought,” Zhang Xiaomao, a Shenzhen-based scholar, said in an opinion article published in the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong last week.

In late May official media made public a policy document drawn up by the party and the Education Ministry. It called on universities to step up ideological supervision of teachers and academics under the age of 40, to prevent them imparting information to students that could "harm national interests".

The official Xinhua news agency cited a ministry official as saying that teachers under 40 made up 60% of all teaching staff in China’s universities.

Apart from increasing funding to “enhance ideological education” of young lecturers, the document said the party would help improve their living standards, resolve their children's educational problems and provide opportunities for promotion for lecturers with “correct communist thinking”.

Zhang Xuezhong was quoted in Hong Kong's independent Ming Pao daily newspaper in May as saying that the party was targeting younger teachers because they are “closer in age and thinking to students”. He was not alone in saying this. Official media repeated the assertion.

Meanwhile, a number of activists were detained in April for demanding that government officials disclose their assets, among them Liu Ping. Her lawyer is Zhang, who said in a Weibo post on 7 May – after he unsuccessfully attempted to visit her in the Xinyu detention centre in Jianxi – that she was being “criminally detained”.

Zhang has also represented another citizen, who was among 10 arrested in mid-April on charges of illegal assembly after they called for a public disclosure of officials’ assets. He has joined other lawyers in calling for the charges to be dropped.

Although these specific cases occurred outside universities, the issues are the same as those included in the seven taboos.


But it is his article on constitutional reform, published in June, that appears to have angered the Communist Party most. In it Zhang warned that the party would stifle the propagation of constitutional values such as freedom of speech, democracy and rule of law, and urged China's leaders to build a constitutional nation.

This touches a raw party nerve. Although China has a constitution, it is secondary to the Communist Party. According to City University’s Cheng, divesting Zhang of his university teaching roles is part of an ongoing and highly charged debate on constitutionalism.

Conservatives among the Chinese leadership “have been arguing that constitutionalism is something Western, meaning it is inappropriate for China. Reformers insist that constitutionalism is universal and needed by China.

“There is disappointment at the reluctance of the present leadership to respond to these calls for reforms,” Cheng said.

A number of law professors in China approached by University World News said that constitutionalism and constitutional reform was a topic that was too sensitive to discuss openly. They confirmed that ideological education had been stepped up.

What is clear, said Cheng, is that the party still runs universities. “The party secretary is the highest authority within the university, not the university president. The party has more power than the university president on these issues.”

Last year, when Xi was still vice-president, he called on universities to give party officials an even bigger role in managing staff and students.

Characteristically outspoken, Zhang told BBC News in May, as the strengthening of ideological education was under way: “I have also been calling for party officials to retreat from the universities and schools.”