An associate professor has been suspended by his university in southwestern China for causing “vicious social impact” by belittling the four great ancient Chinese inventions of papermaking, printing, gunpowder and the compass. Zheng Wenfeng was suspended from teaching for 24 months by the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, Sichuan province, for his comments in June to a student in an online group discussion on Chinese social media platform WeChat. Zheng told the student, who wanted to choose the four great inventions as a thesis topic on innovation, that “ancient China did not have any substantial innovations” and that the four great inventions were “not advanced in the world and did not generate any productivity or cooperation in reality”. The four inventions are extolled in China as important contributions to the development of world civilisation. The student’s boyfriend put a screenshot of the conversation on Zhihu.com, a Quora-style knowledge-sharing website, where it generated wide attention. First day at university in China now means a face scan to enrol In July, the university issued a statement saying that Zheng had expressed mistaken opinions in the online chat room which had “caused vicious social impact”. The university went on to say that its teachers’ ethics committee had determined Zheng had violated ethics regulations and he would be suspended from teaching, recruitment of master’s degree candidates, and promotion for the next 24 months. Academics began speaking out in support of Zheng last week, with some university teachers alleging on social media that Zheng had been ambushed by his students. Others felt his punishment went too far. Huang Shaoqin, an associate professor of the Antai School of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, called for a boycott of Zheng’s university in response to his treatment and demanded a public apology from the students involved. “Until you rectify your wrongdoings, I cannot have any academic communication with you,” Huang said. “I call on teachers at Chinese universities to boycott this university.” College entrance exam boot camp accused of fake advertising In an editorial on Saturday, GMW.cn – a news website targeting China’s intelligentsia – defended academic debate, saying people could provide their own evidence on the significance of the four great innovations, and this was how academic issues should be argued. “Students ignored the basic rules of academic discussions and they exaggerated the teacher’s errors. They released the private chat record to the public, no doubt with an intention of making a fuss,” the editorial said. “Their meticulous thought is really horrible.” Chinese state broadcaster CCTV addressed the issue in an editorial on Friday, saying schools should distinguish correctly between politics and academic issues, and should not magnify the seriousness of the teacher’s opinions. “This kind of case involves how freely university teachers can talk and the boundary between academic freedom and political red lines,” it said. “The university should give a clear explanation about its punishment so that the public and the teacher involved will be convinced.” The Ministry of Education promoted 10 principles for university teachers at the end of last year, with “sticking to correct political direction” at the top of the list. Zheng said he accepted the university’s punishment and did not need to make any clarification or self-justification, according to online news portal Sohu.com last week. “I will focus on scientific research. This incident is over, is my attitude,” he was quoted as saying.