Fate of liberal Peking University professor still unknown despite support of US academics

More than 130 faculty members from Wellesley College in United States wrote a letter to Peking University, urging the school not to expel Xia Yeliang

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 September, 2013, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 September, 2013, 4:43pm

The fate of a liberal Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang remains in question days after more than 130 faculty members from Wellesley College in United States wrote an open letter to administrators at Peking University (PKU), urging the school not to expel Xia for political reasons.

In a phone conversation with on Wednesday, Xia from the School of Economics said while he appreciated the support from his western colleagues, it’s not clear how this letter will affect the decision of PKU.

“They told me pressuring the university with outside support was not going to work in my favour,”Xia said, referring to a recent conversation he had with Peking Universoty officials. Meanwhile, the school has yet to tell Xia when faculty members would vote on his expulsion, Xia said. The school had earlier threatened to hold a vote in September.

In an open letter addressed to the university’s president, dean of the School of Economics, and the university’s party secretary- dated September 3, Wellesley’s faculty members urged PKU to uphold its commitment to principles of academic freedom and not to fire Xia” based solely on his political and philosophical views”.

If PKU removes Professor Xia, who has been teaching at PKU since 2000, academics who signed the letter will ask Wellesley College to reconsider its institutional partnership with PKU, said the letter.

Wellesley College announced on its website in June the launch of an ongoing partnership with Peking University that encompasses “faculty and student exchanges, joint research, and virtual collaboration."

Xia visited Wellesley College on an academic trip in August, according to its website.

The support from the west managed to elicit a response from China’s  nationalist Global Times, which  published an editorial this week  titled “Pass the evaluation first if you want to be a PKU professor.”  

The harshly worded editorial, believed to be written by the paper's editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, accused Xia - an “extremist liberal" - of trying to seek “special treatment” simply because he’s "advocating freedom and democracy”.

“PKU should not give in to outside pressure and  Xia’s attitude,” said the editorial. Instead, it said the university should make an independent decision by going through “regular procedures.”

One of the first signatories of Charter 08, the call for personal freedoms that landed Liu Xiaobo in jail, Xia is among the most outspoken liberal voices among Chinese academics. In 2009, Xia wrote an open letter to Liu Yunshan, who until last year headed the Communist Party's propaganda department, calling for an end to censorship.

Xia said over the years he had been constantly watched and harassed by police as a result of his activism.

“Sometimes the plainclothes officers would sit outside my classroom and wait for me while I was teaching or having a meeting, ” he said.

In 2011, Xia decided to participate in a  visiting scholar programme at University of California Los Angeles partly to escape from the police harassment and pressures from PKU. In retrospect,  Xia said the time he had spent in the US was “free and relaxed.”

While overseas, Xia continued to advocate online for social reform in China. This upset officials of  PKU, who demanded he return to Beijing this year despite his intention of staying longer in US, he said.

On a popular “rate your professor” website widely used by China’s college students, Xia received positive reviews for his class “Principles of Economics.”

“This is one of the most popular elective courses offered by PKU,” wrote a student, “the class was crowded despite the 100 student limit - even the corridor was full of standing students.”

While some reviews said Xia was “charismatic” and “extremely concerned about the fate of the Chinese people," another student wrote less favourably of his teaching:

"Professor Xia, you spent 30 minutes of the three-hour session discussing economics, and you- the great democracy and freedom fighter- devoted the rest of the class attacking China's  system- I was more than disappointed."

A spokesperson at PKU's School of Economics declined to comment on Wednesday.