As Communist Party censors ban all criticism in China’s classrooms, what remains?
Audrey Jiajia Li says the Chinese ‘rectification campaign’ to ensure ideological purity is being exported beyond its borders, and is a cause for concern in being reminiscent of Mao-era zealotry
“Why have our schools failed to produce world-class geniuses?” This was the famous question Dr Qian Xuesen asked in 2005 when then premier Wen Jiabao visited him. Dr Qian was a prominent Chinese scientist who studied and worked at MIT/Caltech in the US in the 1930s and subsequently returned to China to help lead its nuclear and space programmes.
Just over a week ago, the Cambridge University Press (CUP) took down over 300 academic articles from a China Quarterly website, at the request of the Chinese government, to avoid having the entire website blocked in China.
The China Quarterly is a leading scholarly journal that has been in print since the 1960s. The materials removed included those related to a wide range of topics deemed politically sensitive by the Chinese authorities, from the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong to Taiwan and the Cultural Revolution.
The move triggered sharp criticism worldwide, mainly because such a reputable Western publisher had gone this far to bow to pressure for accessing the Chinese market, and that China is now exporting its notorious censorship.
Three days later, the CUP reversed its decision and informed the China Quarterly to repost banned papers immediately. Meanwhile, the Journal of Asian Studies, another academic publication of the CUP, also claimed it was asked to remove about 100 “politically sensitive” articles from its website hosted in mainland China: it had said no.
Cambridge University Press statement regarding content in China Quarterly pic.twitter.com/LbFWI21idD
— Cambridge Uni Press (@CambridgeUP) August 18, 2017
To those familiar with the status of academic freedom in China in recent years, this came as no surprise. This year alone, scores of professors have been sacked as a result of their online views. Li Mohai, for example, a faculty member at the Shandong Institute of Industry and Commerce, was the victim of a tip-off and lost his post because of his tweet: “‘People’ is a political term while ‘citizen’ is a judicial one. When you are willing to be a slave, you are just one of the ‘people’; but once you want to become a citizen, you might already be labelled as the enemy of the people”.
Earlier this month, Shi Jiepeng, assistant professor for classical Chinese at Beijing Normal University was fired because of his “improper comments” on social media, which were “not in sync with mainstream values”. Shi had called Mao Zedong a “devil who caused tens of millions of deaths”, and drew parallels between the ideological education and “brainwashing lectures”.
The Chinese authorities often cite “public safety” concerns over such online expressions. But if a teacher keeps his or her mouth shut online, is that the safer option? Not really.
What was China’s Cultural Revolution?
The “rectification campaign” began in late 2014, when the Liaoning Daily, a provincial party mouthpiece in northeastern China, ran an open letter accusing university lecturers of lacking ideological loyalty and being excessively negative about the country. The newspaper claimed that upon receiving a student’s complaint about having “heard a lot of negative things in her classroom”, it sent dozens of “undercover reporters” to 12 colleges in five cities to audit the situation. They concluded that scholars, especially in the social sciences, were inclined to “denigrate China’s image”. The article sent a chilling warning to the lecturers, demanding “objectivity” and a focus on the “bright future”.
At Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen University, once known for being liberal and open by China’s standards, a directive of “10 forbiddens” was announced early this year, prohibiting the faculty from criticising the party leadership.
When students are encouraged to snitch on their professors for “improper discussions” in class and professors are concerned about possible government monitors in the audience, the atmosphere in the classroom can hardly be conducive to great thought.
Then there are the textbooks. “Universities shall not allow teaching materials preaching Western values and concepts into our classrooms,” then education minister Yuan Guiren declared in early 2015. “Nor should slanders and smears against the party leaders and the socialist system be tolerated”.
Directives like this are apparently being carried out nationwide. Last month, a post on Weibo reported that Zhejiang University had instructed its Foreign Language School to reduce the use of original Western textbooks to 20 per cent. This is not a joke: the ideologues were so nervous about outside influence that they wanted foreign-language students to read fewer materials published in foreign countries.
The authorities, apparently not content with the ever so strict censorship at home, are making concerted efforts to export such control beyond China’s borders. In the past few years, Chinese students abroad have frequently confronted professors over China-related topics not fitting the narrative preferred by the Chinese government. And, more recently, the once-subtle overseas censorship has become blatant, as the CUP story demonstrated.
Meanwhile, inside China, the push for ideological purity is on full display. A doctoral dissertation published in a state-run scientific journal went viral as its authors claimed to have applied Marxism to environmental monitoring, ozone analysis and combating pollution. And this year’s list of government-funded national social science projects includes 50 about President Xi Jinping: from his governance theory to his thoughts on “community of human destiny”.
This awkward mix of ideological and academic language generates concern, as they are reminiscent of the political zealotry of the Mao era, when it was common to see headlines like “Undefeated Mao Zedong thoughts guide me to becoming a good butcher” and “Using Mao thoughts to cure mental illness”.
When any criticism is prohibited in academia, only adulation is left. I guess I’ve found the answer to Dr Qian’s question.
Audrey Jiajia Li is a freelance columnist and 2017 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow at MIT