University teachers fired on say of student informants

As China tightens ideological control of universities, an increasing number of university teachers in China have been suspended or fired after students informed on them for making politically inappropriate remarks in class.

Academics say in recent years it has become commonplace for Chinese universities to monitor whether teachers are conforming to ideological diktats handed down by the Communist Party of China. But even official newspapers in China have noted as “relatively new” the increase in the numbers of professors being reported by their own students for comments deemed politically sensitive or inappropriate.

Many institutions assign ‘student information officers’ to also monitor students’ opinions on teachers, sometimes under the guise of ensuring teaching quality. Sometimes the identity of the student information officer is kept secret “to ensure authenticity”, according to officials.

The role of student information officers is to report any statements that contradict the official party line, an academic in Southern China told University World News on condition of anonymity. There has been more reliance by the authorities on such informants after widespread censorship of the internet curbed the spread of “non-ideological” views on social media platforms, he said.

Previously universities relied mainly on closed-circuit cameras installed in classrooms by local education bureaux who monitored the content and ensured teachers conformed to party ideological guidelines, which have been tightened dramatically in recent years.

With the notorious Document Number Nine, circulated in 2013, officials responsible for education and ideology were told to ban campus discussions on a range of topics, including Western constitutional democracy, human rights, press freedom and the rule of law.

Shortly after, then minister of education Yuan Guiren told university officials that teaching materials that spread Western values “must not be allowed to enter our classrooms”.

The Ministry of Education has also issued ethical guidelines for university teachers, banning them from “infringing upon” the national interest, violating the principles of the party during teaching, as well as prohibiting plagiarism, corruption and sexual harassment. Penalties range from administrative sanctions to dismissal.

Recent cases

China’s Global Times newspaper, under the auspices of the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, reported last week that the trend of students informing on teachers had been growing.

Zhai Juhong, a former associate professor at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Hubei's provincial capital Wuhan, was removed from her research and teaching posts, and expelled from the Communist Party after students reported remarks she had made in class on 25 April. Her punishment was approved in late May by the university’s Communist Party committee after she was found to have been in breach of Ministry of Education guidelines on conduct.

Zhai had allegedly made comments about changes to China’s constitution that allows President Xi Jinping to remain in his post indefinitely, as well as other remarks about the National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber-stamp parliament.

Also in April, Xu Chuanqing, a mathematics teacher at the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, was penalised after students accused her of saying Japanese people were superior to Chinese. Student posts on WeChat and Weibo social media platforms were reportedly reposted many times and attracted indignant comment. Xu’s punishment has not been specified.

Xu denied the accusations and in a written response earlier this month said the incident occurred in September 2017 when she noticed students were looking at their mobile phones in class and she remarked on a former hardworking Japanese student of hers. She told her class: “If you don’t work hard, Japan will become a superior nation and we will become an inferior one,” according to reports carried by official media.

Support for teachers

Xu in Beijing also received some support on social media with commentator Qi Liang writing that it was “morally wrong” for a student to report the teacher, even though Xu should not have compared Chinese students with the Japanese.

“The student can voice opinions or even criticise the teacher, but not exaggerate the seriousness of the incident and label the teacher,” Qi wrote.

Though some believe it is fair for teachers in public institutions to be held accountable for their remarks, Global Times highlighted the case of You Shendong, a professor teaching international trade and world economy at Xiamen University Tan Kah Kee College, which caused uproar among students who rallied around to support the professor.

You, who Global Times said “has long been known for his boldness and outspokenness”, was suspended for undisclosed remarks, after an unnamed student reported him to the college administration. However, in an unusual move, students and alumni at the college launched a Weibo campaign last week to prevent him being fired.

Their unofficial account of what happened at the college received more than 400 comments and almost 100 reposts, most of them calling for the professor to stay.

Not all student informants are official informants. University teachers say there are many “overzealous” students who take it upon themselves to publicise instances where teachers do not adhere to the party line, sometimes with major consequences for teachers. This is particularly the case in departments of history, law and social sciences where many topics are deemed sensitive, and where party officials are particularly concerned about controlling the official versions of past events.

Some students, according to academics, have been “brainwashed”, or were simply too narrow-minded to see beyond the exact wording of party tenets.