Conscience and compromise: The troubling case of Yeliang Xia

Earlier this month, faculty members at Wellesley College in the US took an unusual step to protect academic freedom in China: 136 of us signed a public letter addressed to officers of Peking University. The letter expressed grave concern over the fate of Yeliang Xia, a distinguished faculty member in the school of economics, who says he is being threatened with expulsion from the university. The reason? Arguing for freedom of expression, constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Xia is a longtime advocate for human rights and democracy in China, perhaps best known for writing a blog post in 2009 that attacked the rigid censorship policies of Liu Yunshan, who was at the time the head of China’s Ministry of Propaganda.

He says professors at the economics school may hold a vote soon to decide whether he is dismissed. Administrators at the university have been silent about the reason for this, but there’s little doubt that his political views are behind the move and that Communist Party officials are pressuring the university to fire him.

So, why did so many Wellesley faculty members – notably from all ranks and disciplines – sign this letter to support Xia? It is rare, and rightly so, for American faculty to get involved so directly in the internal affairs of a foreign university.

In this case, however, the situation was different.

In June the president of Wellesley College signed an agreement with the president of Peking University, one of China’s most prestigious universities. It called for, among other things, student and faculty exchanges between the two institutions. Few faculty members had been involved in the planning of the partnership, and it was formed without any direct consent of the faculty as a whole through its academic council.

In signing the deal, the college’s president entered the faculty of Wellesley College into a formal relationship with the faculty of Peking University, effectively making us all colleagues of Xia. (The faculty learned about Xia’s possible ouster after the agreement had been signed.)

The letter restates the importance of academic freedom as the fundamental principle of liberal arts education. This principle had not been mentioned in any of the public statements regarding the partnership. The Wellesley letter declared, unequivocally, that if Xia's contract were to be terminated, the signatories would ask the college’s president to reconsider the partnership with Peking.

In most cases, when faculty are critical of their institutions’ Chinese partnerships, concerns are directed at their own administrators. But we went further and addressed our concerns to the administration of Peking University.

Our intention was to speak to the Chinese authorities and ask them not to infringe on Xia’s academic freedom and his right of freedom of expression. For many of us, coming to his defence was no different a response than it would have been if it were one of our own colleagues at Wellesley.

This is the first time, to our knowledge, that a faculty at any American college or university has ‘taken the fight’ to a Chinese partner institution.

Problems and paradoxes

Our immediate concern is to save Xia from personal and professional destruction at the hands of the ideologues who continue to engage in ‘thought management' in Chinese universities.

His particular case, however, also illustrates more general problems and paradoxes that arise as American liberal arts institutions increasingly work in authoritarian countries. What are the rules of engagement when we enter into such partnerships? Have pragmatic considerations come to trump considerations of principle?

If we are trying to foster freedom of inquiry and pluralism in our students, what lessons do they learn when we then tell them that considerations of conscience are to be suspended for the sake of engagement and realpolitik? To what extent do we, as liberal arts institutions, lose our own dignity if we stand by while the dignity of our colleagues is effaced and degraded by our new authoritarian partners?

The best argument in favour of exchanges with China is that they give our students experiences in a nation that will decisively shape world events over the course of their lives. It is hard to argue that this experience, even under the pall of a kind of polite self-censorship, is valuable for students.

There is a strong argument to be made, and has been made by administrators, that our presence there might serve to influence more and more Chinese students on the path to freedom and democracy. And clearly, there are many valuable exchanges that can take place between faculty whose scholarship is on ‘permitted topics’.

Yet these positive possibilities need to be weighed against some of the unintended undesirable consequences of working with China.

Falling prey to propaganda

The leaders of China have courted American institutions as part of a soft-power strategy aimed at gaining legitimacy for the ‘Chinese Dream’.

This dream is a propaganda construction concocted by Xi Jinping, the president of China, and promotes a sanitised vision of sustainable economic progress in China. But it masks the fundamentally repressive nature of the Communist Party.

In their haste to engage with China, many leaders of American universities have fallen prey to these propaganda efforts and seem mostly oblivious to the continuing repression of freedom of speech in China and the lack of meaningful academic freedom in Chinese universities. It is hard to imagine that this is due to ignorance.

When Wellesley College representatives were in Beijing signing agreements with Peking University, China had just issued a new diktat forbidding the discussion of seven ‘dangerous’ topics in Chinese universities. These so-called speak-nots include: universal values, freedom of speech, civil society, and criticisms of the errors of the Communist Party.

Under this new regime of thought control and overt hostility to core liberal ideas and values, one wonders how it is that higher education partnerships aimed at fostering new ideas and understandings between our nations can be successful.

Xia is one of the original authors and signatories of Charter 08, the foundational document of the modern human rights movement in China.

Though there is some room for critical thinking in China as long as it is carefully managed and stays within the confines of small groups, Xia has been willing to take what most people actually think privately to the street and on social media, where his Weibo account is regularly hacked and censored. He says he has been harassed by police, put under surveillance, and maligned and slandered in the official news media.

Because many of our academic leaders have remained consciously silent on the repressive nature of their new partners, it is all the more important that the defence of Xia by American academics be vigorous and unrelenting.

Thorough examination needed

What is needed is a thorough examination of this new rush of American higher education institutions to work with China. It appears that many of these exchanges are fuelled by the political and economic interests of powerful alumni and trustees. Faculty members, in many cases, have been marginalised in the process.

It is not enough for faculties to orchestrate in-house campaigns expressing their discontent with administrative decisions. Instead, faculties have to organise, in opposition to their administrations if need be, to tell our new partners in China – through forms of direct action – that we wholeheartedly desire to have exchanges, but that we will stand for fundamental values of freedom of speech and expression.

If they harass, intimidate and repress our new colleagues, if they subject them to the whimsical vicissitudes of ideological repression, we will find it impossible to work with them.

Chinese universities and the regime that controls them have much to lose from persecuting intellectuals such as Xia.

If more American academics take a stand against such persecution, it might be possible to invest these partnerships with our fundamental principles and some degree of authenticity rather than have them stand as charades that work against the values and principles of the liberal arts.

* Thomas Cushman is a professor of sociology at Wellesley College.