Project 211

Demolition of Democracy Wall criticised

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 November, 2007, 12:00am

Past and present students of Peking University are up in arms over the demolition of the university's famed Democracy Wall, a focal point of protests throughout the institution's history.

Critics say the destruction of the site is an assault on the university's century-old tradition of free expression, but administrators insist the wall had long ceased to function as a marketplace for ideas.

The Democracy Wall, also called the Triangle, was a jumble of bulletin boards erected around a triangle of land in the centre of the campus, a place students passed almost daily.

Despite its understated appearance, it was the site of many political events. During the Cultural Revolution, it was a hub for gatherings and the posting of big-character posters.

Throughout the 1980s it attracted youths inspired by western democratic ideals and demanding political reform.

The area became a centre of student protests in 1989 when the death of ousted Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang triggered pro-democracy demonstrations.

In 1999, students gathered there when anti-US sentiment surged after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

More often, the area was a marketplace for information and promoting academic events, and was regarded a symbolic space for free expression.

The divergent opinions expressed on the boards underpinned Peking University's reputation as an institution tolerant of different ideas.

But the bulletin boards were suddenly demolished by the university administration on Sunday night as part of efforts to clean up the area in preparation for an inspection trip by the Ministry of Education, according to mainland media reports.

'The bulletin boards were plastered with commercial advertisements, and the triangle doesn't function any more as a platform for exchanges of academic opinions because the online bulletin board service is widely used by students,' university spokesman Zhao Weimin said.

Mr Zhao said the demolition had nothing to do with the ministry's visit, and the university had not decided whether to landscape the area or put up new bulletin boards.

'There's no need to make the issue political or link it to the assessment by the Ministry of Education,' he said.

The demolition has been the most-discussed issue on the university's online bulletin over the past week, and most student and teacher postings on the service said the move was a worrying erosion of the school's democratic tradition.

One student, the leader of a campus society, said the university administration's assumption that today's students did not care about the wall was wrong, and the boards should not have been removed without a hearing or consultations with students. 'It's insane to remove such a symbol of freedom of speech in the name of an environmental upgrade or in preparation for an inspection,' the student said.

He said the school administration secretly called all the student society leaders on Sunday to order the hushing up of discussion of the demolition.

Peking University Law School professor He Weifang said he disagreed with the demolition: 'All the teachers and students would love to see the maintenance of the Triangle as a platform for free expression.'

University alumni, especially students from the 1980s, also opposed the destruction of the boards.

Exiled Tiananmen Square student leader Wang Dan , a student at Peking University from 1987 to 1989, said he was 'deeply hurt by the demolition of the Triangle, which is an unforgettable place for every student inspired in the 1980s by the democratic spirit'.

'It's a stupid abandonment of the school's democratic tradition, and will besmirch the university's international image as China's top school,' Mr Wang said.