China’s social media users call for sacking of ‘triumphalist’ academic, as anti-hype movement grows

Open letter said to have been written by Tsinghua University graduates seeks dismissal of Hu Angang for his controversial claims

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 August, 2018, 3:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 August, 2018, 2:43pm

A leading Chinese academic known as an advocate of Chinese triumphalism has become a target on social media in recent days, part of a wider kickback against propaganda that exaggerates the country’s strength and achievements.

Professor Hu Angang, author of China in 2020: A New Type of Superpower and director of the centre for China studies at the prestigious Tsinghua University, has come under fire for his suggestion that China has already overtaken the United States as a world leader in terms of economic and technological power.

Is Beijing going back to the future with its much-hyped ‘Made in China 2025’ plan?

China’s efforts and ambitions to develop advanced technologies have become a cause for concern for some countries and are a key element of the trade dispute between Beijing and Washington.

But after Chinese telecoms giant ZTE came close to ruin after being blackballed by the US, and as tensions continue to rise over trade tariffs, Chinese officials and intellectuals appear to be reviewing their nationalistic stance.

Hu’s argument that China was now more powerful than the US attracted considerable attention earlier in the year, but the criticism has escalated over the past week, with online communities sharing comments and jokes and generally mocking and ridiculing the professor.

In an open letter said to have been written by a group of people who graduated in the 1980s from Tsinghua University – China’s equivalent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US – the signatories even urged their alma mater’s president, Qiu Yong, to sack Hu for his controversial claims.

The letter was published soon after an article, also said to have been written by a Tsinghua graduate from the 1980s, challenged the “self-serving criteria” Hu used in his research to exaggerate China’s greatness.

Hu’s personal secretary declined to speak about the latest controversy and directed inquiries to the university, which could not be reached for comment. As of late Thursday, Hu had also not responded to requests for comment.

Hu began airing his views last August at a time when China’s media was filled with propaganda promoting President Xi Jinping and his “Chinese dream” and ambitions for a national renaissance.

Xi Jinping tries to rally support for Chinese dream in nationalist speech

One example of the propaganda was a documentary titled Amazing China, shown by state broadcaster CCTV and at cinemas, that painted an idealistic portrait of the country’s achievements in the five years since Xi took office in 2012.

State media and the internet were filled with what David Bandurski, an analyst and editor at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, described as the “genie of hype and triumphalism”, and claims that the US was running scared and that Japan was in awe of China’s achievements.

Not everyone bought into the hype, however. Some diplomats and liberal academics were aware that such a nationalistic propaganda campaign would cause anxiety among China’s smaller neighbours and stoke resentment in the West.

In an interview with Phoenix TV’s affiliated online news outlet in February, Long Yongtu, a former trade negotiator who played an instrumental role in China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation, said that Hu’s view was misguided and would not only harm China’s foreign relations but also mislead the public.

And in June, Liu Yadong, editor-in-chief of Science and Technology Daily, which comes under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology, said in a public speech that China was fooling only itself if it thought it would soon overtake the United States as a world leader in science and technology.

Even People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, joined the chorus of criticism. In a series of three articles published on its website last month, it said that overexaggerated claims made by the media about China’s achievements and strength were “hollow and leave the country open to attack”.

This is not the first time Hu, who has long been seen a “New Left” scholar, has come under fire. In 2013, his public suggestion that Western-style governments were inferior to China’s one-party political system triggered widespread criticism from more liberal academics.

What does the 'Chinese dream' really mean?

In an opinion piece published by Global Times, a hawkish tabloid affiliated with People’s Daily, Hu argued that Beijing’s collective leadership was superior to either the US presidential or British parliamentary system. Being younger and more innovative, he contended, it was better equipped than rigid Western systems to deal with the complexities of the world today.

Additional reporting by Laura Zhou