China's War on Thought is Being Waged in Western Universities (Op-Ed)
Xu Zhiyong, jailed for four years. for inciting public disorder.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

In the past decade, US and UK universities have embarked on a program of developing formal relationships, exchanges, and partnerships with their counterparts in China.

No scholar interested in promoting knowledge could argue against some kind of educational exchanges between China and the west. On the other hand, the architects of most of these exchanges – primarily academic administrators and trustees – have avoided asking tough moral questions about the repression of freedom of thought and expression in China, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that such repression is intensifying under the new regime.

Many have gone out of their way to avoid such questions, preferring a kind of academic realpolitik approach: China is a world power and a force to be reckoned with, and therefore we must “do business” with them. These new partnerships are lucrative for colleges and universities, especially those who are strapped for cash; therefore ethical considerations are subordinate to economic ones.

If there is any moral argument, it is that new partnerships will help liberalise the Chinese environment and hasten the realisation of progressive ideals there. This is, at best, a hypothesis, easily disproven by the fact that bloody Tiananmen Square massacre occurred after a pronounced period of heady liberalisation.

Since Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, freethinking intellectuals and activists have increasingly been repressed. Many leading dissidents have been detained, harassed, or jailed since Xi took power.

The most prominent recent case is that of Xu Zhiyong, the leader of the New Citizens Movement, which calls for the establishment of the rule of law, civil society and public disclosure of party elite’s assets. Xu has just been sentenced to four years in prison for the crime of “inciting public disorder”.

In a welcome gesture, the US State Department pointedly criticised this move, saying:

We call on Chinese authorities to release Xu and other political prisoners immediately, cease restrictions on their freedom of movement, and guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments.

Another of these dissidents, the liberal economist Professor Xia Yeliang, has a special relationship to my home institution, Wellesley College. In June 2013, Wellesley College signed a memorandum of understanding with Peking University. The memorandum included a call for exchanges between the faculties of the two institutions.

Economist Xia Yeliang was expelled from Peking University for his outspoken political views.
Economist Xia Yeliang was expelled from Peking University for his outspoken political views.
Credit: Voice of America.

In that spirit, a group of seven Wellesley faculty members from different disciplines invited Xia to come to Wellesley College in July 2013. We had heard of his difficulties with the regime in China: he was a drafter and signer of Charter 08, the foundational document of the modern human rights movement in China, and was an outspoken critic of the regime.

At the time of his visit, he was under intense pressure to renounce his political views and activities and keep quiet. Soon after he left, the seven faculty members drafted an open letter to the president of Peking University, asking that the university not fire Xia. It was signed by 140 Wellesley faculty members, and expressed the view that we would call for a reconsideration of the partnership if Xia’s position was terminated.

Xia was fired in September, as expected. The grounds were that he was a “bad teacher”, though there was no publicly available evidence that this was so, and Xia himself did not even have access to his student evaluations. No scholar of his standing had ever been released for bad teaching.

Before his break with the regime, he was regularly called on to appear in official news outlets. It was as clear a case as one could imagine of political repression of dissent. This was confirmed by a memorandum sent in August 2013 to Xia by the party secretary in charge of the School of Economics.

The memo (now public) threatened Xia with expulsion if he did not retract his public criticisms of the party, cease his activities with civil society associations, and keep his mouth shut in the future. The memorandum said nothing about teaching.

Xia’s story took a Kafkaesque turn at this point. A small, but resolute, faction of faculty members at Wellesley College began a negative campaign against him. The cornerstone of this campaign was amplification of the party’s argument that Xia’s termination was due to “bad teaching”. In one case, one of Wellesley’s China experts (who had actually been a principal author of the letter on Xia’s behalf), changed course and claimed that he had “evidence” that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Xia was fired for bad teaching. Inexplicably, he stated that he could not share this.

Another faculty member, a Chinese national with strong ties to China, repeated that charge. He also claimed the faculty signatories were ignorant about China. A professor of English with no expertise in China railed in the college’s Academic Council about faculty support of Xia as a form of “cultural imperialism”, claiming that “academic freedom” was a Western value not to be imposed on China.

Yet another English professor chimed in with the accusation that we were engaged in “orientalism”. Still others turned on Xia when they discovered that he would be supported as a visiting scholar at Wellesley by funds from a foundation with libertarian, free-market inclinations (an article praising Xia in the Wall Street Journal did not help his case).

What can we learn from this that has general relevance for professors who work at institutions that have relationships with China? Certainly people had the right to have any view whatsoever of Xia. One would expect, though, that progressive, critical intellectuals in academe would support academic freedom and civil society or, at worst, fall into the default mode of indifference.

These new partnerships actually depend on the avoidance of public, critical examination of the Chinese regime. It is hard to read intent into silence, and to be sure, the strong point of academics is not civil courage. In these cases, qui tacit, consentit: he who remains silent, consents.

What is hard to bear, and what we all must come to expect when we consider any partnership between Western and Chinese institutions of higher education, is that there are those who are willing to work actively against the liberal forces of civil society, and to serve as mouthpieces for a regime that is the enemy of the basic values and freedoms of liberal democracy. Whether they do so wittingly or unwittingly, and for whatever reason, the effect is a devastating blow to freedom and civil society and a victory for repression in China.

Academic institutions that have relationships with China are easily corrupted by such relationships, either through the development of the generalised cowardice of self-censorship or the with active complicity of various interests in a regime that is at war with the mind.

Thomas Cushman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.