Published in December 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
In late October, when news erupted on Chinese websites of the dismissal of a university professor in Beijing, I found myself surprised by a series of messages posted by a close friend from high school. Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Beida university, lost his job after making repeated, bold calls for political reform. My friend, now a graduate student at Beida, had been one of his students.
“I don’t understand why western media only chooses to focus on Xia’s politics, and says nothing about his academic ability, or his unpopularity among students… Firing him brings more benefit than harm to us at Beida,” my friend wrote on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform.
Xia’s poor teaching and academic research is the university’s explanation for letting him go. This claim failed to convince any foreign reporters and received widespread ridicule from the Chinese public, but was fiercely defended by some Beida students. On Weibo, some rejected the notion that Xia’s dismissal had anything to do with politics. Others agreed that it may have been politically motivated but argued that the university had nonetheless made the right move in firing a seemingly incompetent teacher. “Outsiders care more about free speech,” my friend wrote, “but insiders care more about the quality of the academic environment.” (Whether or not Xia was actually a bad teacher remains the subject of debate—certainly there are students who rated him badly in evaluations.)
Beida has a similar standing in China as Oxford or Cambridge in the UK. Its students are justified in their hope for the best teachers. But what troubles me, when skimming through their online comments, is their lack of concern regarding the limits the university places on free speech. Even those students who believed politics played a role in Xia’s dismissal saw little problem with it.
“Free speech should always have a boundary,” another classmate argued. “Xia’s case is no evidence of the lack of free speech at Beida, and in any case, students and teachers don’t consider this to be an issue.”
That may be true for the majority of Beida students, but others who look into the university’s freedom of speech policies are likely to draw a different conclusion. Xia described to me his experience of being reported to school authorities by “student informants,” a network of students used by the university to monitor the political sentiments of their classmates and professors. (“The principal objective of the student informant system is to ensure campus stability and to control the debate and discussion of politically sensitive issues,” said a 2010 CIA report.) Meanwhile, student groups are subjected to close scrutiny from Beida’s Communist Youth League Committee, and those who engage in activities deemed too politically subversive have faced warnings and intimidation. As if China’s Great Firewall, which blocks many social networking sites and international news outlets, is not enough to keep students away from free speech online, the university charges a fee to access any foreign website.
Students grumble about such policies, but grow inured to them over time. “We don’t check foreign websites anyway, except for maybe Gmail,” several have told me. Others have learned to rationalise and defend the rules. “If a teacher preaches Falun Gong to his students, should he be allowed to continue teaching?” asked one student on Weibo in regard to Xia’s case, comparing the professor’s fiery political appeals to the spiritual movement banned by the government.
These days, this kind of pragmatic, conservative attitude prevails among the students at Beida, which has historically played a leading role in China’s political reform. In recent years, its graduates have opted for cushy jobs at state banks and government-owned enterprises, and aimed to join the nation’s vast bureaucratic apparatus by acing the civil servant examination.
The universities’ suppression of dissent is perhaps not the only reason for the students’ readiness to accept political orthodoxy. Most students in China’s elite universities come from newly minted middle-class families who have prospered under the current system. Unlike their less privileged peers, whose everyday challenges require them to make political demands to improve their situation, these students feel they have little to gain, but much to lose, by challenging authorities or making their political views public.
In October, as Beida students’ defence of their university’s decision to fire Xia grew louder, foreign reporters took notice. A correspondent for a prominent US newspaper asked if any of my friends would discuss the case in an interview. I asked a number of students who had fiercely defended their university on social media to speak to the reporter. None agreed. After two weeks of silence, one of my friends finally got back to me.
“I’d prefer not to,” read her one-line response. “I am a little afraid of reporters.”