The head of China’s Peking University said plans to build a new elite academy on its picturesque campus was up for debate, constituting a small victory for students and scholars who fear the prestige project would sow divisions and elitism.
On Friday, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s top newspaper, quoted university president Wang Enge as saying that details about the establishment of the Yenching Academy, set to host a prestigious fellowship programme, would be discussed with students and staff before plans would be finalised.
Yenching Academy would become a symbol of elite privilege, said one graduate student majoring in the English language.
“These 100 Yenching students will live on the school’s best plot of land, have the best teachers, they will have bright and spacious class and dorm rooms,” the student said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They will be the privileged elite and all the other Peking University students will be second-class citizens.”
Modelled on the Rhodes scholarship programme, the new international institute is set to offer one-year programmes in “Chinese studies” for 100 publicly funded visiting fellows starting next year at the university that is often dubbed China’s equivalent of Harvard.
Scholars and students told the South China Morning Post that they feared the prestige project would divide university students into two tiers: the privileged few with access to a historic venue and a fast track to a university degree; and the many ordinary students kept out of the loop.
Last year, the university said its Jingyuan Park, the biggest green open space on campus, surrounded by six picturesque houses with courtyards dating back to 1926, will be “upgraded” to house the academy. Departments, including those for history, philosophy and Chinese literature, have already been moved out to make room.
Many students have reacted by saying the new Yenching Academy would destroy “the soul of Peking University”.
Public dissent at Chinese universities is rare as disciplinary measures can easily dampen academic or career prospects.
Risking their hard-won places at the prestigious university, students and faculty at Peking University have chosen to launch a campaign against the Yenching Academy, openly challenging the university’s leadership over the project.
The dissent comes at a particularly sensitive time when China’s university students deal with bleaker employment prospects and perceived rising inequality.
It also comes a year after a Communist Party internal circular banished the ongoing debate about social privilege from classrooms, reining in academic freedom in the Chinese mainland.
Students formed a “Jingyuan Small Group” to mobilise support. Sharing their message through social media, they have had managed to hold public meetings discussing the project with the university’s leadership.
More than 160 students and staff signed up for a meeting with university planners on Wednesday, at which Wang, the president, made an appearance. A survey  of more than 3,000 teachers and current and former students by the group found that 88.5 per cent of those surveyed opposed setting up the new school at Jingyuan Park.
Students said they were also concerned about losing the only green space they had left for picnics and reading outside. The university now promised that the park and the outside appearance of the six buildings would be preserved. Access to the venue would be guaranteed to all Peking University students, it said.
The university should have consulted faculty and students before making a decision to dedicate the ancient space to the elite school, said Gao Fengfeng, the dean of the Department of English Language and Literature. “This could have been avoided had they asked us first,” he said.
Gao also said that many students were dismayed that Yenching fellows would receive graduate degrees after only one year of classes, while ordinary students would have to complete programmes that lasted at least two years for an equivalent degree.
Students said they did not expect the project to be cancelled because of their opposition to it, because it was simply too high-profile to disappear.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and American first lady Michelle Obama congratulated Peking University on the establishment of Yenching Academy earlier this year.