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.)