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…