China Wages a New War on Academic Dissent

PAUL MOONEY – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Copyright The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 17, 2005
Aided by the Internet and the market economy, intellectuals are speaking out and paying a price
A year ago Jiao Guobiao was a little- known professor, quietly teaching journalism and advising graduate students at Peking University.
Then the former journalist decided to write a scathing, online attack against the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. Mr. Jiao said the department’s officials were as powerful and self-righteous as the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. “Anyone who touches them will get burned,” he wrote.
“What is the stumbling block in the cultural development of Chinese society?” he asked. “It is the Central Propaganda Department.”
Thanks to the long arm of the Internet, Chinese and English versions of the essay were soon being read around the world, propelling the gentle-mannered scholar into the international spotlight. At first the government took no action. But when classes resumed last September Mr. Jiao’s courses were abruptly canceled, and soon afterward, the university told him that he could no longer advise graduate students.
He was fired in April — right after leaving China to take a fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington.
Mr. Jiao is the latest casualty in the Chinese government’s war against academic dissent, a campaign that has caught many scholars by surprise. Shortly before a new, younger generation of Chinese leaders took office in 2002, intellectuals in Beijing were hoping that Hu Jintao, who is now the country’s president, would be a force for reform.
Since taking the reins of power, however, the new regime has launched a bitter attack on freedom of expression. Newspapers have been shut down, books banned, journalists and dissidents imprisoned, and scholars brought under increased pressure to toe the official line. The political situation is the worst it has been in years, many scholars say.
“I’m very pessimistic,” says Xu Youyu, a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “I’m sure that these harsh policies are not just for a short time.”
An Intellectual Shift
The crackdown comes as a growing number of academics around the country are speaking out, in part thanks to new channels of expression like the Internet that the government finds difficult to control. Scholars are also abandoning research in the humanities in favor of the social sciences, and are thus more likely to be critical of their own society. Mr. Xu says that change dates back to the student protests of 1989, when Chinese soldiers opened fire on student activists and citizens.
“The bloody massacre shocked us,” Mr. Xu says. “We realized we needed to study something more productive. There were too many things in Chinese society that could be resolved by the social sciences but not the humanities.”
While Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s discussed Hegel, Sartre, Heidegger, and Marx, in the 1990s they turned their attention to market economics, constitutional democracy, public policy, and social equality, he says. To prove his point, Mr. Xu pulls a scholarly journal from the 1980s from his bookshelf and runs his index finger along the names of a half-dozen contributors who have since switched fields. Mr. Xu himself focused on the philosophy of linguistics before switching to political philosophy after 1989.
“In the past, Chinese scholars and intellectuals were focused on ‘isms,'” says Mr. Xu, “but in recent years, they are paying more and more attention to practical matters, issues that are much more important to China’s modernization.”
Free speech was given a big boost in China in recent years by the commercialization of the news media and the advent of the Internet, two channels that gave scholars unprecedented ways to disseminate their opinions. Newspapers and magazines once controlled by the government are now scrambling to attract readers. The Beijing News, which has won a large readership with its bold reporting, devotes an entire page each day to articles written by prominent intellectuals.
However, nothing has been as important as the Internet. “It’s almost revolutionary,” says Jiang Wenran, associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, in Canada, and a native of China. “Without the Internet, how could they speak out?”
Anything important that has been written can be found online, and that, says Mr. Jiang, “gives intellectuals confidence that they have a voice and can use it to express their opinions.”
Academics have also set up numerous Web sites, though they have had to exercise caution. Some sites voluntarily shut down every year before the anniversary of the May 4th Movement, marking the 1919 student demonstrations on that day in Beijing against the Treaty of Versailles, and the 1989 crackdown that grew out of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. If they did not take that self-imposed break, China’s vigilant Internet police — said to number in the tens of thousands — might take more drastic action, forcing them to shut down permanently.
The sites normally reopen several weeks later. One popular site is, which was shut down by the government recently. (The numeral 9 referred to the ninth edition of the site, since eight previous ones were shut down.)
“It’s a very sophisticated game,” says Mr. Xu.
Wang Yi, a professor of law at Chengdu University, says economic development has also been a boon for academics. He notes that scholars can now get financial backing from nongovernment sources, both at home and abroad, and from the growing number of privately run newspapers and magazines. “Traditionally, intellectuals could have only survived in universities,” he says. “In the past, the government was the only market for academic research, but now the economic reliance of intellectuals on the government has fallen.”
Mr. Wang says he meets people from within China and abroad who have heard his name, either on the Internet or on such broadcasting services as the Voice of America, BBC, and Radio France, which beam news into China. “Even in my rural village, retired people are listening to overseas broadcasts,” he says.
Despite the latest crackdown, scholars agree that the government has generally treated university-based academics more leniently than independent critics, who are routinely arrested and jailed or roughed up. Rarely are academics jailed these days. After Liu Junning, another scholar at the social-sciences academy, gave a lecture in which he criticized the former top Communist leader Jiang Zemin, he lost his job, He was later allowed to resume work.
Banned from the Classroom
Mr. Jiao, the fired Peking University scholar, believes that academics have not been as bold as critics like Liu Xiaobo and Yu Jie, two of China’s most outspoken political commentators. They were detained in December and their computer files and papers were seized.
Mr. Xu came under pressure for being one of 65 signers of an open letter calling for a re-evaluation of the 1989 democracy movement, but he kept his salary and his job. However, like other outspoken scholars, he has not taught classes for years. That might not sound like much of a punishment to many American scholars, who often seek reduced teaching loads so they can focus more on research. But in China, such tactics are designed to isolate scholars.
In some cases, universities attempt to transfer scholars to obscure departments. Mr. Jiao held onto his prestigious university job for awhile, refusing to move to the staid classical-texts research department. He says the university’s president put pressure on him to stop speaking out. “You can’t let the president lose face,” he says.
Wang Yi, the Chengdu law professor, was not allowed to teach classes for 18 months. He says the government is afraid that people like him “might spread unhealthy concepts among students.” He does not know why he was allowed to return to the classroom in March. “The cost will be higher for them if you leave,” he says. “They can control you better if you remain in the system.” If he were not assigned to a danwei, or official government work unit, he says, he could “write 24 hours a day.”
Intellectuals attracted a new wave of attention in September 2004, when Southern People’s Weekly, a Guangdong magazine, published a list of 50 public intellectuals that included both establishment and nonestablishment figures in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Among them: the economist Mao Yushi, the legal expert He Weifang, the environmentalist Liang Congjie, the exiled poet Bei Dao, and Cui Jian, the grandfather of Chinese rock. News of the list sped around the world via the Internet until it was banned; newspapers were ordered to stop discussion of the term “public intellectuals”; and periodicals were prohibited from publishing essays by Wang Yi, Jiao Guobiao, and others.
The magazine said it hoped more of China’s intellectuals — who it said had been pushed to the fringes of society by a market economy — would take an independent stand. It said that while China had as many intellectuals “as there are hairs on a cow,” those who were willing to stand up for the truth had become “the rarest of rarities.”
That same month, the government shut down the popular Yita Hutu bulletin-board service at Peking University, a channel for students and teachers to exchange ideas. Strategy and Management, a monthly magazine that carried articles by leading thinkers, was closed after publishing an article critical of the North Korean regime by a researcher at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.
On November 15, Shanghai’s conservative Liberation Daily continued the attack in an article that borrowed from the rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). It argued that the value of an intellectual “lies in serving society and the masses.” Ten days later the People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, reprinted the article verbatim, giving it the party seal of approval. According to senior Chinese journalists, the propaganda department then issued a ban on news reports on “public intellectuals,” as well as articles by leading liberal commentators. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, a group that fights for press freedom, called the decree “sanctions from another age.”
In March restrictions were placed on other bulletin boards at major universities around China, restricting access to campus users and forcing participants to register their true identities.
Suicide, or Castration?
Intellectuals are well aware of the danger of speaking out in China, which has a long history of persecuting scholars.
Paul Ropp, a Clark University historian who is working on a book on dissent, says that throughout Chinese history the Confucian literati — members of the scholar class who held positions in the imperial bureaucracy — believed it their sacred duty to rectify abuses in government, even at the cost of their own lives. He cites the case of the Han historian Sima Qian (145-85 BC), who was given the option of committing suicide or facing castration for criticizing Emperor Han Wudi. (He chose castration.)
“It is too seldom recognized that all of these traditions have survived to the present day in the Chinese popular consciousness,” Mr. Ropp says.
Intellectuals suffered bitterly when they were brutally denounced during the 1957 anti-rightist movement and the Cultural Revolution. During those “10 years of chaos,” as China now calls the period, universities were closed throughout the country, books destroyed, and intellectuals persecuted and killed. Mao even once gushed about his mistreatment of intellectuals, boasting that he’d outdone the infamous Qin Shihuangdi, who buried hundreds of Confucian scholars alive in 215 BC.
“Well, and what was so remarkable about Qin Shihuangdi?” Mao is said to have asked a Communist Party gathering. “He executed 460 scholars. We executed 46,000 of them.” The remarks were reportedly greeted with laughter.
In an article published in Foreign Affairs last year, Orville Schell, a China specialist and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, lamented the lack of free discussion in China today. He recalled a time — a century ago — when Chinese scholars reveled in a heady period of intellectual discourse. “Dipping back into the Intellectual ferment that marked the first half of the 20th century and comparing it to the stilted public dialogue today, it is easy to feel wistful for a time in China when debate was common, ideas and discussions mattered, and thinkers were open to the world and able to speak freely,” he wrote.
Some Chinese scholars working abroad are optimistic that the current trend will not last long. “Under Jiang Zemin it was not all that free, and there were still limits on how much you could say,” says Jiang Wenran, the Alberta political scientist. He insists that the amount of publications and information available today are “absolutely astounding” and are no comparison with the relative void of 10 years ago.
Jiang Wenran believes President Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are focusing on issues that threaten China the most. “It’s about regime survival,” he says. “If they can deal with rural and urban issues, the rest doesn’t matter. Intellectuals won’t rebel, but farmers and workers will.”
‘I Want to Write’
Despite the harassment, Chinese intellectuals continue to speak out via the media and the Internet, and while abroad. Recent months have seen a barrage of open letters and astute commentaries on issues the party would prefer to keep under wraps.
During his last days in Beijing, just before he was fired, Mr. Jiao reflected on his own reasons for speaking out, in a coffee shop on the Peking University campus.
“My career is not as important as this,” he said, his voice rising. “A lot of people can teach, but not many can talk like this, write like this, or express these opinions.”
He pulled out two Chinese language books on Martin Luther that he had just borrowed from the library. Tapping one book with his finger, he asked why the 16th-century theologian stood up against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
“It’s the same logic,” he said, not waiting for an answer. “Some people can accept such things, and some can’t. I’m the type who can’t accept.
“I want to write, speak out, and criticize.”

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