Digesting the Tsinghua Protests

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Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance (XII)

 

In recent weeks, voices of protest have been raised in response to the persecution of Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, a professor of law Tsinghua University in Beijing. From early 2016, in a series of pointed and increasingly urgent essays, Professor Xu had launched his own protest, and he has been uncompromising in his criticisms of the ‘New Epoch’ of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. In his essays, in particular those published from July 2018 to January 2019, Xu has alerted readers to the significance of the Party’s political revanchism, warning about what it means for China, as well as what it may well mean for the world (see The Xu Zhangrun Archive on this site).

Since late March 2019, when Xu was suddenly suspended from his teaching duties at Tsinghua and placed under formal investigation pending disciplinary action, friends, colleagues and concerned individuals have also protested, both in connection with ‘The Xu Zhangrun Incident’ and in relation to the broader threat to education, research, publishing and civic life that it represents.

China Heritage has been publishing some of this material in translation under the title ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University — Voices of Protest & Resistance’ (an up-to-date list of these works is appended below). Samuel Wade, deputy editor of China Digital Times, has compiled an initial digest of the series and we reproduce it here with the kind permission of China Digital Times 中國數字時代.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
14 April  2019


Xu Zhangrun at the stele commemorating Wang Guowei — a scholar celebrated for ‘A Spirit Unfettered and a Mind Independent’ 獨立之精神, 自由之思想 — on the campus of Tsinghua University

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‘Tsinghua’s Pond Too Shallow for Real Fish’: Responses to Xu Zhangrun’s Suspension

Samuel Wade

At China Heritage, Geremie Barmé has translated a stream of responses to the recent suspension of Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun from teaching and other duties. The move was an apparent punishment for Xu’s essays criticising moves toward “the comprehensive return of totalitarian politics” under Xi Jinping. Among the China Heritage posts is an open letter to Tsinghua president Qiu Yong, for which signatures will be collected until April 19:

Dear President Qiu,

, one of the most highly ranked in the world, has suffered severe damage to its academic reputation as a consequence of the university’s punishment of Professor Xu Zhangrun.

As members of the international academic community, we urge the university to restore Professor Xu’s normal status in the university, including his teaching and research duties, and to refrain from any further sanctions against him. [Source]

An earlier petition to Qiu, now signed by more than 300 past or present Tsinghua staff or students and more than 500 others, was also translated at China Heritage. It reads, in part:

Your act is a blatant betrayal of Academic Independence, the spirit of which enlivens Tsinghua University’s scholastic traditions. Moreover, it is at odds with the university’s own motto of ‘Self-Discipline and Social Commitment’ 厚德載物, 自強不息. Your action has led a broad constituency of Tsinghua graduates, as well as the men and women of China’s intellectual and academic worlds, to resile in a mood of grievous concern and dejection. With this act you give us all just cause to be fearful for the academic and humanistic environment of China today. [Source]

Like numerous other pieces of sensitive content, this earlier letter is hosted on the U.S.-based codesharing site Github, whose economic value for now appears to offer some protection against censorship.

On Wednesday, Barmé posted a recording and transcript with his translation of “There’s Just No Shutting You Up,” a Shaanbei folk-style protest song recorded for Xu by Peking University economist Zhang Weiying:

Flowers planted on flag stones can never strike root;
No matter your learning, who is even there to listen?

Tsinghua’s pond is far too shallow for real fish;
A most dread injustice, but who will hear the lament? [Source]

On Monday, Barmé posted a pair of essays by supporters, including Gu Wanming’s retort to a condemnation of Xu “published by some newspaper [Global Times] under the name ‘Shan Renping’ [Global Times editor Hu Xijin]”:

Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun’s essay ‘Protect Reform and Openness’ published early last year [early 2018] was both extremely timely and relevant. It was a powerful rebuttal of the Extreme Leftist Thinking current at the time and a defense of Deng Xiaoping’s policies. I had a similar response upon reading Professor Xu’s subsequent essays and that’s why I couldn’t believe it when I heard the recent news that he had been suspended from teaching by Tsinghua University. How could such a thing happen to a senior professor who defended the policies of China’s Economic Reforms and Openness to the World? What’s happening: is Deng Xiaoping’s banner no longer to be held high?

[…] Professor Xu has had the courage to express views while others have been too cowed to speak out. Although what he talks about is protecting the policies of the last four decades, he is nonetheless being libeled and called ‘a radical anti-establishment figure’, one who has ‘purposefully used dangerous and extreme actions to damage the academic environment of Tsinghua University’. How is it that both Tsinghua and ‘Shan Renping’ have so easily forgotten that, at the Grand Ceremony held in the Great Hall of the People in late 2018, the Highest Leader himself revalidated the importance of raising high the banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory and the policies of Reform and Openness? [Source]

In another compilation of responses, Barmé included a concise three-point rebuttal of “Shan Renping’s” argument by “steely oppositionist” Zha Jianguo, whose activism was the focus of a recent New Yorker article by his sister Jianying Zha.

In his ‘Three Illiberal Principles’, Shan Renping declares that:

In China it is not permissible for critical works to contravene the Constitution or to direct negative comment at the basic political system of the People’s Republic.

China’s constitution is constantly evolving and this is reflected in the fact that major revisions were made to it in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2018. In the 2018 revision alone, 28 changes were made to 20 articles while 5 entirely new articles were added to it. So let me ask you this, if all of these changes were made on the basis of there having been no critique or discussion of the original articles, how in heaven’s name were these revisions mooted and made? […] [Source]

Another post presented three poems by Tao Haisu with “a short introductory essay on protest and poetry in the People’s Republic”:

In short verse did Du Fu decry cruel officials,
While Letian’s ballad would chide an emperor.
If these, too, had been thus eradicated,
All down the ages would mourn the loss. [Source]

In another essay, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences diplomatic historian and translator Zi Zhongyun offered a lament for Tsinghua and its gradual transformation into “a place that ‘brings together the outstanding talents of the world only to ruin them.’”

It must have been two years ago that Professor Xu Zhangrun told me that one of the students in his lecture was behaving in such a peculiar manner that he decided to question them [the student’s gender is not specified. — trans]. Eventually, the student admitted that they were appointed to report on the content of Xu’s lectures. They also admitted that they were paid a monthly stipend for this ‘service’ and, on top of that, they were given an assurance that, if they continued to ‘contribute’ in this way for three years, they were sure to secure a place in a research program. The job even had a title: they call such lecture-hall snitches ‘Information Officers’. What amazed me in particular was the fact that this student didn’t think that their behaviour was shameful in any way; it was just a ‘work-while-you-study’ gig!

From then on I learned that this was far from being an isolated case: ‘normal course content’ at Tsinghua now seems to include a requirement to report damning information about lecturers. […]

[…] Admittedly, many of the things that the present incumbents do is just about ‘carrying out orders’ from above so, in a sense, Tsinghua’s leaders are not solely responsible for what happens on the campus. But even such indulgent excuses as these are increasingly difficult for people to accept. Of course, it’s more often true than not that underlings are anxious to curry favour with their superiors or find ways to avoid taking responsibility for what is happening around them. Even in cases when passive resistance might work, they make no effort. Okay, you might ‘only be carrying out orders’, but surely you have a mind of your own, a sense of right and wrong; ultimately, you have the freedom to decide whether you could ‘aim your rifle one inch higher’. [A reference to a popular story circulating in China related to the trial of a soldier who was accused of murder following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The soldier said that he had shot people climbing the wall because he had been ordered to do so. The prosecuting lawyer asked: ‘Couldn’t you simply have aimed one inch higher?’, see also Guo Yuhua, ‘J’accuse, Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 27 March 2019.] [Source]

Another translation comes from researcher Wang Changjiang, “an important innovator involved in theoretical advances that have contributed to the Party’s claim that it has, can and should enjoy sustained political legitimacy in the People’s Republic.” Wang argues, in Barmé’s words, that “the mishandling of what could be termed ‘The Xu Zhangrun Incident’ […] does more than reflect badly on an international prestigious university like Tsinghua, it is symptomatic of a new wave of Party zealotry that threatens to undermine the hard-won political achievements of the one-party system over the past forty years.” (In his introduction, Barmé also highlights Xu’s own warning last July that “some university lecturers have been singled out and repeatedly punished for what they say. They now live in trepidation, ever fearful that Party ideological watchdogs or Student Spies will report them.”)

[… I]f, as it is being widely rumoured, things were indeed handled [in ‘The Xu Incident’] the way most people believe, the outcome is diametrically opposed to what was hoped for. To wit: the Incident has undermined rather than enhanced the Party’s Leadership.

[…] Let me be brutally honest: if this situation does not change, I fear that sooner or later we really will fall into the ‘Tacitus Trap’ — the very thing that Party Central has declared to be one of the leading risk factors facing the Party and something to be avoided at all costs. [The ‘Tacitus Trap’ is a Chinese-manufactured tidbit of Western political wisdom summed up as follows: ‘Neither good nor bad policies can mollify the people if the government itself is unwelcome.’ […]]

I don’t want to be too critical of Tsinghua, after all it is also partly an alma mater of mine. But I do hope that, in dealing with this Incident, the leaders of Tsinghua University will show due regard for their university’s reputation, as well as for its future. They need to put far more thought into how they can meaningfully enhance the leadership of the Communist Party at Tsinghua.

So, I urge you: before taking any further action, just think about it, then pause and think some more and, when you believe that you have done enough thinking, Think Again! [Source]

In another translation, paired with an introductory essay on the dehumanizing  epithet “Cow Demons and Snake Spirits,” Feng Ling argues for the total abolition of university teachers, given the failure of extensive technological, bureaucratic, and covert student surveillance to effectively rein them in.

Since today is the 1st of April, April Fool’s Day, some readers may be tempted to think the title of this essay is a joke. But, let me assure you: it’s not. Year in year out we are subjected to all kinds of humour — be it black, white, red or yellow — and every form of sarcasm, from the most biting to the casually sardonic, as well as the laid back and pseudo disinterested. But, today, we need to get serious and admit it’s high time that universities got rid of professors.

[…] It’s glaringly obvious from all of this that university professors are simply relatively low-quality people. As a group they are not deserving of our trust because [by employing all of the above methods of control and surveillance] we are tacitly admitting that they are simply incapable of doing their assigned jobs in a professional and unsupervised manner. Furthermore, that’s exactly why, I believe, it’s wrong-headed to allow a group of people who are under constant surveillance the privilege of educating the young men and women of China, the very future of our Fatherland! The present system has got everything back to front. [Source]

One essay in China Heritage’s series on Xu’s case has now been removed at its original author’s request, with its original introduction and a single now-anonymous paragraph left intact.

As several of Barmé’s translations and introductions note, Xu’s is far from an isolated case. South China Morning Post’s Echo Hui reported this week that CASS scholar Yu Jianrong has been suspended from Weibo for 90 days, despite having reportedly avoided political content for the past two years in favor of posting about art. At the end of March, Radio Free Asia reported that Chongqing Normal University’s Tang Yun had been “stripped of his rank and teaching credentials after he made ‘comments injurious to the country’s reputation’” during a class on the writer Lu Xun. Also last month, SupChina’s Eddie Park reported that Tsinghua associate professor Lü Jia was under investigation by university authorities following complaints about his intepretation of Marxism by “patriotic students,” who echoed the “cow demons and snake spirits” rhetoric noted above. In a ChinaFile Conversation on Xu’s suspension, Yale Law School’s Taisu Zhang emphasized the breadth of the ongoing “assault on academic autonomy,” which combines punitive “sticks” with the “carrots” of grants and other incentives. (Donald Clarke, David Yeliang Xia, Sarah Biddulph, Teng Biao, Jerome Cohen, Margaret Lewis, and Orville Schell also contributed to the discussion.)

While it might be tempting to interpret Xu Zhangrun’s suspension and potential firing as part of an anti-liberal crackdown, that assessment grossly understates the extent of the problem. Foreign media reports may tend to focus more attention on liberal-leaning scholars, but the recent escalation in political control of the academy spans the entire ideological spectrum and affects nearly all social scientists and humanities scholars working on the mainland. Over the past several months, a number of prominent leftist scholars (the Chinese “right” is liberal-leaning, whereas the “left” is often more conservative and pro-government), including Feng Xiang, Xu’s Tsinghua Law School colleague, have also had their writing banned due to politically sensitive content, ranging from specific hot-button issues like worker compensation to general theoretical debates on the nature of socialism or nationalism. The chill’s reach is universal.

[…] The stick draws most of the criticism, perhaps justifiably, but the long-term erosion caused by the carrot is at least as dangerous: negative restrictions can be imposed or lifted at relatively short notice, but if academics begin to lose their sense of positive autonomy and purpose—of what truly and genuinely interests them as scholars—then the current miasma may very well become permanent. [Source]

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Source:


Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance

(March 2019-)