This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China’s ruling Communist Party has appointed its own representative to head one of the country’s most prestigious universities, as the administration of President Xi Jinping continues its ideological crackdown on academic life.
“The State Council, China’s cabinet, on Tuesday announced the appointment of Hao Ping as the new president of Peking University,” state news agency Xinhua reported in a brief announcement.
“He will replace Lin Jianhua, who was removed from the position.”
The university held a full meeting of teaching staff on Tuesday to announce the change, telling staff that Lin was already past retirement age.
The personnel changes to a position that is ranked similarly to a provincial governor in China’s government and party hierarchy come after the university was dogged by a campaign from its own students to find out the truth behind a decade-old student suicide as part of the #MeToo movement.
It also comes after a signature campaign for Lin’s resignation by Peking University (Beida) alumni, who thought he had handled the #MeToo campaign badly.
But according to alumnus Yang Ningyuan, the move doesn’t mean the university is heading in a more progressive direction.
“This is a retrograde step, for sure, and this isn’t the only place this is happening,” Yang told RFA. “But paying attention to these things is of no use; [the leadership] steers wherever it wants to steer … if it wants to go backwards, then it’ll go backwards.”
Anhui-based former state prosecutor Shen Liangqing said Chinese universities have always been subject to control by the ruling party, but not usually total control.
“Our education system is already managed by the party, and has been for a great many years,” Shen said. “[Universities] are brainwashing tools.”
“But this move will probably step up controls over the university and over the students,” he said. “That means things could still get even worse.”
Since taking office in 2012, Xi Jinping has tightened ideological controls over all aspects of society, including universities, colleges and schools.
The approach stems from a 2013 article titled “Improving Ideological and Political Work Among Young Teachers in Colleges and Universities,” and from Xi’s reiteration of the “Seven Taboos” that mustn’t be discussed in public by servants of the state, including teachers.
They seven banned topics are: universal values of human rights and democratic, constitutional government; press freedom; civil society; citizens’ rights; the historical mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party; the financial and political elite; and judicial independence.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper reported last week that Chinese teachers are now being punished for discussing social issues like environmental protection, gender inequality, and the death penalty, citing the case of high-school teacher Liang Xin, who was demoted to cleaner after being reported by students.
‘Less and less room for public debate’
Tan Song, a former associate professor at the Chongqing Normal University now living in the United States, agreed that there is now less and less room for public debate and academic freedom on Chinese campuses, owing to two key features of university and school life.
“First, there are the cameras, which don’t just shoot video; they also record audio,” Tan said. “Once they are installed, everything that happens in the classroom can be recorded in detail and passed to a monitoring center.”
“If someone wants to know about your class, they don’t even need to go to the classroom. They can just call up the video feed from the monitoring station,” he said. “It’s similar to the way the police monitor traffic.”
“The other way of monitoring teachers is via student informants, which has been in place much longer,” Tan said. “The student information officer is a one-way contact, directly chosen by those in charge, and they are equivalent to informants.”
The effect of these controls puts huge psychological pressure on teachers and lecturers, he said.
“The moment the authorities hear something they don’t like … a corresponding punishment will follow,” Tan said. “Some teachers still dare to express their opinions and independent views … but I didn’t; I only said things that would be acceptable to the authorities.”
He said the atmosphere meant that students’ education was severely compromised. “It’s very difficult to get hold of genuine information,” he said.
Xia Ming, professor of political science at New York’s City University, said the ever-increasing ideological pressure could be pushing China towards a backlash on its campuses, however.
“China has a tradition of students being at the forefront in key moments of history,” Xia said. “The Chinese government knows this, and in particular, they still carry the political memory of the 1989 [student-led democracy movement].”
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Han Jie for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.