New research exposes power of classroom informant system

A recently published academic study notes that the use of student informants in university lecture halls has become “more systematic and institutionalised” since Chinese President Xi Jinping came into office in late 2012, with more professors being punished for breaking the rules.

And while the publication of official media reports about academics being sanctioned has become less frequent, academics have noted that informants have become bolder, more confrontational in class and online, and are willing to post their allegations on social media under their own names.

Cases in the media

Several important cases have filtered out in recent months, sometimes posted by academics themselves on social media, and occasionally by the universities conducting investigations.

Earlier this month authorities in the eastern city of Nanjing were reportedly investigating a university lecturer for “inappropriate remarks” after he told his class that China was currently dependent on food imports from the United States and Europe. He also allegedly made other comments considered pro-US that contradicted the official line of the Communist Party.

Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Communist Party committee said in a statement on 9 March they had immediately started an investigation into the lecturer, Chen Saibin, who is based in its school of economics and management.

“The lecturer’s classes will be suspended for the duration of the investigation,” the university statement said. The university said it had a zero-tolerance policy towards “moral misconduct” among faculty, a term often used for teachers who do not toe the party line in class.

Students in Chen’s class had reportedly posted the remarks deemed problematic on social media.

On rarer occasions, professors have revealed they were informed on by snitches who were not even members of the class. A social media post last October by Xu Songyan, a professor at Southwest University in Chongqing, China, and an expert in Greek history, said he had been named by an “informant” student lurking in the classroom.

“I taught undergraduates last night (27 October). After the third class, a student who claimed to be an ‘information officer’ eavesdropped on the class without my permission and notified me to prepare a report.

“I did not expect that it is becoming more and more difficult for professors to participate in classes, and [they] face so much scrutiny and reporting,” he said in a social media post at the time, later deleted.

In 2019 You Shengdong, a professor of economics at Xiamen University, said he was removed from his job for making statements that university officials did not agree with.

The 71-year-old professor maintained he was removed after a student reported comments he made in class to the university administration. His comments were to the effect that the Chinese dream of Chinese leader Xi Jinping was a fantasy rather than rational.

Education Ministry guidelines on “moral misconduct” among university lecturers dated 8 November 2018 call on universities and colleges to take action if faculty fail to toe the party line. Such action ranges from public criticism and demerits affecting promotion and research funding to dismissal and the revocation of teaching credentials.

“Those who are members of the Chinese Communist Party will be sanctioned under party disciplinary processes at the same time,” the guidelines state. “Those who are suspected of breaking the law and committing crimes will have their cases transferred to law enforcement and judicial agencies.”

Students as ‘key information nodes’

“In addition to the high-tech cameras that are already installed in classrooms for monitoring lectures and discussion, student informants are viewed by authorities as key information nodes for a bottom-up, masses-based form of surveillance and control,” writes Jue Jiang, teaching fellow at the school of law, gender and media of SOAS, University of London, in a chapter in a book New Threats to Academic Freedom in Asia, published this month by the Association for Asian Studies.

She says that although student informants have been known to be operating at some Chinese universities since 2000, the use of student informants has become “more systematic and institutionalised”, with more professors punished for breaking the rules.

“There is no official document detailing the initiation of the system of student informants nationwide or in any region. Various online resources show that this system was established in some Chinese universities at the beginning of the 2000s,” Jiang notes in her academic study of the student informant system in China.

Since the inception of the system, reward for informants has included money, the reimbursement of book or tuition fees, credits to join the party and other certificates of honour, she says, adding that before Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, recruitment, operation and compensation for informants was done covertly.

For example, the Regulation of the System of Student Informants at Jilin University provides that “student informants are responsible directly to the department and the Office of Educational Administration (jiaowuchu), and the department and the Office of Educational Administration should keep the information reported by student informants confidential”, according to Jiang.

In addition to secrecy, another feature of the informant system before 2013 was the “general and vague” subjects about which to inform.

At that time, the purpose of student informants’ reporting was still rather broadly characterised as “collecting feedback on teaching from students for supervising teaching”, Jiang notes, but the punishment or disciplining of professors after they were reported by student informants was still “sporadic and rare”.

A more systematic and institutionalised approach

In some cases professors accused of “anti-Party, anti-socialism or counter-revolutionary” activity did not necessarily know which precise comments had led to them being reported by students, Jiang says.

After Xi took over as leader, the rules on what can and cannot be taught and the recruitment of student informants became “more systematic and institutionalised”, according to Jiang. More professors have been punished for allegedly breaching these rules.

“Currently, the increasingly frequent and even routine proactive responses from the authorities to the informants, which has taken the form of disciplining and punishing those being informed on, along with some state-launched online platforms for much easier reporting, have helped to cultivate the atmosphere that the informants are officially acknowledged and promoted as ‘activists’,” Jiang notes.

“This may also explain a current trend where students are now publishing and circulating their reporting on professors online, doing so with pride, using their real name, and demonstrating their (officially approved or commended) ‘right political sense’,” she writes.

Interviews with professors

In interviews with 10 professors of social sciences and the humanities in February and March of 2021 that Jiang undertook as part of her study, two of the mainland Chinese professors had been reported by their students and disciplined by their universities, yet their stories were not covered by any media, according to Jiang.

One professor who teaches the Chinese Constitution was reported by students after having commented privately on revisions of the Constitution by Xi Jinping. He was demoted from professor to lecturer in an experience that clearly left him traumatised. He reported that students in his class now record and photograph him and take pictures of his PowerPoint slides, which he perceives as intimidatory.

According to anecdotal information, universities themselves do not care much about the truthfulness of students’ reports, Jiang notes.

“In the intensifying political climate, university leaders have to be extremely cautious. They are subjected to fear of being affected themselves if they do not deal with such reports or professors. Meanwhile, the professors who are reported have few if any effective ways to defend themselves,” she writes.

However, other professors justified the use of student informants as a system of “classroom management” related to the discipline and regulation of academics and academia, rather than academic freedom and freedom of expression. They often regarded cases where professors were punished after students informed on them as “exceptional”, Jiang finds.

Impact on the teaching relationship

Jiang’s research and other reports from academics indicate that the traditional relationship between professors and students is breaking down, with professors becoming more suspicious of students. Course content has had to be brought in line, becoming more subservient to the party line to avoid even a hint of irregular opinion.

Due to the chilling effect of the cases, there have been some informal, sometimes half-serious, “guidelines” that have gone viral to help university professors, Jiang points out.

Such “guidelines” include a scripted form of teaching. They recommend refraining from expressing personal opinions, not criticising people or systems, and, for sensitive topics, telling students, “I do not know” or “please check relevant materials” or “these issues should follow relevant documents issued by the authorities”.

Tan Song, who was fired by Chongqing Normal University in 2017 for his talks and research on the Communist Party’s land reform history, wrote about his feelings about student informants on the professional blogging network botang as follows: “It is disturbing: amid this nation’s some 2,879 colleges and universities, how many students will be turned into informants?

“There are tens of millions of college students across the country. What kind of ‘talents’ will they be cultivating after the last bit of independent spirit and free thought in the classroom is killed and the last few teachers who insist on telling the truth are swept out?”