A Breach of the Law, a Betrayal of Autonomy — No Way for a University to Act!

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


Gao Quanxi 高全喜, the author of the following essay of protest concerning the persecution of Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 by Tsinghua University, is a chair professor in the Koguan School of Law, Shanghai Jiao Tong University 上海交通大學凱原法學院講席教授.

Gao is a specialist in constitutional law and history, legal principles, as well as the history of Sino-Western law. He has also written on late-Qing and early Republican era debates related to constitutionalism 憲政, a topic of renewed interest since Xi Jinping’s 2012 rise to power and the affirmation of the Communist Party’s monolithic dominance over China’s Constitution, the law more broadly and every aspect of the public sphere.

I am grateful to Reader #1 for spotting typographical errors and also for suggesting some elegant improvements to the draft translation.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
18 May 2019

Further Reading:


The rebuilt formal entrance to Shanghai Jiao Tong University emblazoned with calligraphy in the hand of Mao Zedong


Latitude and openness are intertwined with acceptance and cooperation. Without professors who can pursue their academic explorations and give expression to their intellectual emancipation, without an ambience that embraces different points of view, without a discursive environment that is tolerant and harmonious, and if teachers are found to be at fault at every turn, if their ideas are repeatedly interdicted, then university life withers and the very culture that these institutions are supposed to support and nurture will be stifled.


Gao Quanxi 高全喜

The Brutish Treatment of Mr Xu Zhangrun
Contravenes the Law & is
A Betrayal of University Autonomy



Gao Quanxi

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


There has been widespread discussion of the news that Mr Xu of Tsinghua University has been relieved of his duties, removed from the lecture theatre and forbidden from pursuing his research. People are riled up about it and there is widespread disbelief about what has happened. The action taken by Tsinghua has added an element of uncertainty to life on Chinese university campuses that, even before this, was increasingly unsettled. [As the Tang-dynasty poet Xu Hun 許渾 famously wrote, it is ] ‘As though the halls are being buffeted before a looming storm’. When I contemplate the repeated acts of repression witnessed on university campuses in recent years, I experience a deep sense of foreboding, one suggesting that we may well be facing the kind of [anti-intellectual] political movement that was experienced so often in the past. It is a shocking realisation for it presages the unfolding of a situation that none of us wish to see repeated. After all, anyone familiar with modern Chinese history knows about that raft of previous incidents that are simply too painful to recall. They are also profoundly aware of the critically important role played by the Intellectual Liberation Movement in our universities over the four decades of the Open Door and Reform era [1978-2018].

I have no doubt that it is completely inappropriate for Mr Xu to have been suspended from his job and banned from teaching. It’s a decision that runs counter to the progress made by China’s universities over the years. Moreover, it is completely out of keeping with the mainstream of an official national policy that advocates and supports the push for the ‘Rule of Law and Civilised Behaviour’ during the unfolding New Epoch of Socialism.


But let’s first consider the matter from the angle of legal principles. Everyone is aware that as it presently stands the Chinese Constitution stipulates that all citizens have the right to express themselves freely. As a famous legal scholar with an international reputation, Mr Xu is entirely within his rights to give voice to his views. Indeed, no organisation or individual should be permitted to strip him of basic rights that he enjoys as a citizen; indeed, only the law courts may determine whether his publications have in some way contravened the Constitution.

According to the Teachers Law promulgated some time ago [in 1993], as an educator Mr Xu may be sanctioned if his behaviour or utterances are indeed found to be in breach of specific provisions in that law vis-à-vis his professional responsibilities. But, at the same, the Teachers Law also protects the rights of educators [like Xu Zhangrun] to teach, taken on new students and pursue their research work. It is illegal to strip them of these rights arbitrarily.

As for Tsinghua University, it is a legal entity with a duly formulated university charter of the kind that is generally thought of as being akin to a ‘mini constitution’. Such charters stipulate the autonomous operation of tertiary educational institutions and specify the various rights and duties of their teachers and students. Such ‘mini constitutions’ have been regularised as part of the overall national effort to establish an integrated modern university system that can foster the efforts of educational institutions to continue to grow autonomously.


As Mr Xu is a noted scholar, an educator and a Chinese citizen, his public utterances and actions, his writings and the thoughts that he expresses therein, his moral probity, and the validity of his research may all be liable to suitable forms of sanction, but only if it can be determined that he is in actual breach of particular stipulations and articles contained in the three bodies of law that I have outlined in the above — that is, the Chinese Constitution, the Teachers Law and the University Charter. Only then can the relevant bodies determine the extent of the presumed particular damage that he has occasioned. I would hasten to add, however, that according to what I have been able to ascertain to date the administration of Tsinghua University has failed to comply with the basic procedural principles or processes outlined in any of these laws. Instead, they have concocted a ‘special investigation’ into Mr Xu and, regardless of the fact that even this ‘procedure’ has yet to reach any definitive conclusion, they have proceeded unilaterally to impose a series of sanctions on him by suspending him of his professional university role, imposing an interdiction on his teaching, banning him from taking on new students and freezing his research work and writing. It goes without saying that such behaviour is in serious violation of all three legal parameters described in the above, as well as being in contravention of the ‘Spirit of Legality’ that is consistently advocated by our government. Moreover, these actions also infringe upon Mr Xu’s basic rights.


In saying all of this, we are not suggesting that Mr Xu is without fault; after all, to err is but human. Nonetheless, punishments imposed on a citizen, let alone on an educator at a prestigious educational institution, must conform with the appropriate legal procedures and existing regulatory norms, and they must be pursued in a completely transparent manner. The treatment of Mr Xu begs the question: What article of the Chinese Constitution has he contravened? Furthermore, which provisions of the Teachers Law has he violated through in his teaching, his training of graduate students or his research work? It is incumbent upon Tsinghua to provide details of his infractions. Thereupon, it must then follow the procedures that are duly outlined in the University Charter. In other words, it must hold open hearings both to collect evidence and to allow the person in question an opportunity to argue their case. It is by means of such a process that a full range of professorial and student opinion can be collected and gauged. Then, and only then, can some determination be reached and a punishment imposed.


In my opinion, the official formulations that advocate the ‘Spirit of Legality’ and the need to ‘Administer Universities According to the Law’ are not empty rhetoric. To the contrary, they underpin the administrative life of any modern university worthy of the name. For many years now our tertiary institutions have aspired to enjoy the status of world-class universities. Despite the significant investment both of human and physical capital dedicated to achieving this goal, to date the results have been negligible. A fundamental reason for this is the failure to implement the rule of law in universities, and a spirit of autonomy cannot be vouchsafed in university life if it is constantly undermined by various forms of external pressure. The upshot is that the vaunted aims of fostering a spirit of ‘freedom and openness’ as well as all that talk of ‘serving society’ are frustrated. The manner in which Tsinghua University has punished Mr Xu is an egregious example of underhand behaviour. It will have exactly the opposite of the desired effect, eliciting in the process widespread concern and broad-based social obloquy. It will become thereby an embarrassment to a university that likes to think of itself as the model of a modern, civilised institution.


As for the University both as a place and a concept, apart from the analysis of the situation from a legal perspective as outlined in the above above, we should note the far more ambitious brief of such institutions, one by which they seek to play a crucial role in the fostering of a nation’s culture or ‘civilisation’. It is why people hold them in such high regard. Unlike businesses or government instrumentalities, universities are a locus for the production of knowledge and creativity for humanity as a whole. They are also where ethical norms can find a clear articulation, a place in which ethical behaviour is also encouraged. These are the reasons why universities are the spiritual locus for nurturing of civilisation.

From ancient times the university as a center of learning has enjoyed a high degree of freedom and openness, this has been even more so since the dawning of the modern era during which universities have been accorded legal protection for their autonomy and independent research activities and have, as a result, garnered widespread respect. Universities can’t just be operated as business concerns, nor are they Party schools. This fundamental awareness informs the rationale of why our nation has [in recent times] championed the adoption of university charters.


Enjoying as they do unique institutional arrangements universities act, therefore, as vehicles for knowledge and civilisation; in fact, the life of a university is a direct reflection of the level of civilisation of the society in which it operates. This then is why these institutions are seen as weathervanes, both for the nation and for the society as a whole. In its endeavour to further our embrace of the world, and so as to be able to catch up with and surpass the technical and cultural achievements regarded as global best practices, in recent times the Chinese State has allowed its tertiary institutions considerable latitude. This has particularly been the case in the era of Reform and Openness during which universities have enjoyed much greater levels of freedom and openness. Such progress has made it possible for Chinese universities to enhance their practical engagement with first-rank international institutions of higher learning.

Latitude and openness are intertwined with acceptance and cooperation. Without professors who can pursue their academic explorations and give expression to their intellectual emancipation, without an ambience that embraces different points of view, without a discursive environment that is tolerant and harmonious, and if teachers are found to be at fault at every turn, if their ideas are repeatedly interdicted, then university life withers and the very culture that these institutions are supposed to support and nurture will be stifled. The brutal and unreasonable fashion in which the administrators of Tsinghua University have sanctioned Mr Xu are a manifest abuse of the spirit of tolerance native to university life. Not only have they been roundly criticised for it by the broader society, their behaviour will also inevitably raise questions internationally. Moreover, it flies in the face of the strategy of national renewal and internationalisation advocated by our State Leaders.


Small although university campuses may be, they bring into focus the knowledge, ethical standards, concepts of legality and cultural norms of society. They are emblematic of the nation as a whole. Although the number of academics at universities may also be relatively small, they too carry within themselves the spirit of an age. Mr Xu has shared his sincere views at a time of national transformation. In his writings he has articulated in detail his analysis of the state of law in China today, given voice to the passions and concerns of the people, offered a perspective on the broad historical context of our present situation and limned the vistas suggesting a possible future.

Xu Zhangrun has given expression to his sincerity with moving clarity and in an heroically undaunted manner, eliciting thereby deep reflection throughout the society. He has been rewarded with widespread praise for having done so. He has held true to the sacred tasks of a true scholar and professor. Who among us is not moved by such a model? Tsinghua University, however, detects no grandeur therein and has chosen instead to resort to punitive behaviour. Everyone is mocking you for your narrow-minded folly and your clumsy stupidity.


Universities are embedded in society; professors are guardians of conscience. In ancient times it was said that ‘Zichan [has the wisdom] not to destroy local schools’ and Socrates was sent into exile. In more modern times, Johann Fichte produced his ‘Addresses to the German Nation’ and Chen Yinque composed an epitaph for Wang Guowei’s Commemorative Stele [at Tsinghua University; see ‘The Two Scholars Who Haunt Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 28 April, 2019]. These are also timeless examples of human endeavour that flew in the face of tumult and change; they are an integral part of the arduous record of human advancement. They remain a source of inspiration to this day. As university administrators you should by all rights observe legal proprieties and abide by your public responsibilities, encouraging thereby the intellectual creativity and tolerance of your institution. Only such actions can contribute meaningfully to a cultural flourishing and such is a strategy that will support national rejuvenation.

In this present New Epoch in Chinese life, at a juncture when our nation is dealing with a major transition, your behaviour casts Mr Xu as a criminal deserving of punishment. It is not merely emblematic of a retreat, it is also having a deleterious impact on the further advancement of the grand current of Reform and Openness and the fostering of a peaceful environment [in China]. It is for this reason that I must protest in the strongest possible terms:

This is No Way for a University to Act!




Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance

March 2019-

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