How the Humanities and Social Sciences Are Holding China Back

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


Gong Renren (龔刃韌, 1954-), the author of the following essay, is a professor (retired) in the Law School of Peking University (see here for details) and the head of the Institute for Human Rights 人權研究院.

On 21 June 2019, Professor Gong published an essay that is nothing less than an indictment of China’s academic culture, an accusation of mediocrity and a critique of a cowed and compliant intelligentsia. In his analysis of the ever-deepening crisis in the Chinese humanities and social sciences, Gong contrasts the failures of today with the achievements of the country’s universities during the turbulent and war-torn decades of the Republic of China.

The following essay is thus an elegy for the long-lost world of pre-1949 Chinese academia, a warning about the bedevilled state of the country’s universities under a reinvigorated Party ideology and a caution about the global blight of metrics- and ranking-driven, industrial-scale for-profit education. In particular, the author skewers the Chinese academy for having barely sloughed off the Maoist past only to become a laboratory for a dual experiment: one in which the culture of neo-liberal metrics in line with the concocted laws of the global educational marketplace is combined with stifling ideological controls that serve the policy shifts of a monolithic party-state.

The author also deftly encapsulates the dilemma of Global China. The People’s Republic has the economic and intellectual heft to contribute to the betterment not only of its own people but to humanity as a whole. Over recent decades, mature policy makers have developed ways for the country to engage creatively with the world, but resurgent Party dominance also demands every greater, and absurd, levels of fealty to its inward-looking dogmas. As a result, higher education is a battleground on which China’s best angels and worst spirits tussle. There may be no clear winners, yet, for many, the struggle itself is of great significance.

It is sobering to consider that the kinds of control that Party committees at Chinese universities exert over their ‘employees’ is the envy of tin-pot managers and academo-crats in many international universities for whom global rankings and budgets are the ne plus ultra of the educational enterprise.

Independent thought, academic freedom and the heart-mind unfettered by political interference are the main themes of this series — ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University’ — in which Gong Renren’s essay is the latest chapter. One can only hope that China’s today — with a marketised ideology and metrics-wielding overlords — will not prove to be the future for everyone. Reports from the front line of academia, however, do not augur well.


‘Warm spring summons us with misted scenes and the Great Lump of Earth lends us patterned decoration’, from the Tang-dynasty poet Li Bo 李白, ‘Preface for the Poetry from a Spring Evening Party for My Cousins in a Peach Blossom Garden’ 春夜宴從弟桃花園序 (c.733 CE), trans. Elling Eide and written in the hand of the noted Republican-era educator Monlin Chiang (蔣夢麟, 1886-1964), President of Peking University (1919-1927) and Minister of Education (1928-1930)


In recent years, the Chinese academy — like many other areas of civic, intellectual and cultural life in Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic —  has been subject to a further narrowing of intellectual vision as well as a revival of authoritarian politics. Careless commentators both in- and outside China blithely observe that these developments are a form of revived Maoism, or merely some kind of Cultural Revolution redux. As we have been at pains to point out in China Heritage, however, the roots — as well as the well-established practices — of the repressive policies in the People’s Republic today lie in the transformation of higher education in the early 1950s: to wit, the destructive thought reform movement launched ‘at the request of’ academics at Tsinghua and Peking universities in 1950, which featured in Homo Xinensis (China Heritage, 31 August 2018). It was during that ideological purge when the Yan’an Model of the early 1940s — one used to impose mind-numbing compliance within the Communist Party itself — was applied to the thinking people of China, and not just academics, en masse. (For more on this, see Drop Your Pants! The Party Wants to Patriotise You All Over Again (Part I) — Ruling The Rivers & Mountains, China Heritage, 8 August 2018)

Again, as we have repeatedly noted, although 1978-1979 was a watershed for China’s economy and society, it was also a salutary moment for the future of intellectual and political life in the country. The obdurate refusal by Party elders, in particular Deng Xiaoping, to reject entirely the 1957 Rights Movement, a mass purge used to crush all opposition to Communist domination of the society, and the constant re-affirmation of the policies of the 1950s have mean that repressive intellectual and cultural policies have remained the bedrock of national policy. To this day the dark legacy of the early 1950s continues to blight China’s intellectual and cultural life.

That over the past four decades so many academics, students, cultural creators and others have flourished to a smaller or greater extent is evidence not so much of the Communist Party’s reformist ethos or liberalism but rather of the indomitable energy of individuals and institutions that have often fed off, worked around or subverted the very power that has so often threatened to betray them.

Gong Renren’s indictment below should also be regarded as a caution to the international universities cum-businesses that have eagerly enmeshed themselves with China’s People’s Republic. His analysis of the glaring disparity between the advances being made in the sciences and the paucity of achievement in fields of the humanities and social sciences brings to mind comments that the journalist and investigative historian Dai Qing (戴晴, 1941-) made during the extended conversation about her work on independent intellectuals and the state that we had in Beijing during the month of August 1990.

Dai had only recently been released from Qincheng Prison where she had been incarcerated for her role in the 1989 mass Protest Movement. Originally trained as an engineer, Dai Qing become a prominent writer in the 1980s, an early advocate of the kind of independent humanistic spirit that features in this series, ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University — Voices of Protest and Resistance’. (For a full list of works in this series, see our Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 Archive.) Through her work on figures such as Liang Shuming, Wang Shiwei and Chu Anping, she is credited with having revived the concept of the ‘independent intellectual’ 自由派知識分子.

In early 1986, Dai Qing made the following observation about zhishifenzi 知識分子, ‘intellectuals’ and their conflicted existence in socialist China:

We presently confuse the expressions ‘intellectual’ and ‘mental worker’ [腦力勞動者]. The accepted interpretation of zhishifenzi as intellectual, or a member of an inte­llectual elite, is of a person familiar with the intellectual culture created by humanity, and therefore is a person who is capable of independent thought, who is concerned with society, has a sense of purpose and can play the role of ‘society’s conscience’. But zhishifenzi as it appears in our newspapers and documents means a person who has received specialized training and is a mental worker … .

True intellectuals do not take power. They often remain independent of all groups. Their destiny is to live in the society, to think and speak out inspiring others with their views, the example of their personality and their actions. They are a rare commodity.[1]

In Dai’s opinion, when intellectuals become officials or apparatchiki they abrogate their role as independent thinking people, for they can no longer maintain an autonomous view of society or act according to their personal convictions, and therefore they cannot effectively enhance the level of intellectual discourse in the society.[2] This is equally true, she argued, in the case of scientists and technicians whom she likened to Vulcan 匠神, the god ordered by Jupiter to forge the chains that would bind Prometheus, whose creative genius and inspiration for the arts defied the heavens.

They are as loyal as you could want and carry out their tasks with admirable skill, whether it be to launch missiles or manufacture atom bombs. Sorry, that still doesn’t make them intellectuals.[3]


  1. 戴晴,  薛勇, ‘知識分子,作家及文學’, 《文匯月刊》, 1986, no.1: 52 
  2. Here Dai Qing named Fei Xiaotong 費孝通, the sociologist and head of the China Democratic League, one of the ‘democratic parties’ under communist super­vision, as a typical example 
  3. For a time, Dai was just such a technician, employed by the Ministry of Public Security from 1972 she helped develop directional video cameras for use in surveil­lance operations. (These were deployed when the police monitored the activities of protesters during the April 1976 ‘Tiananmen Incident’.)

from Geremie Barmé, ‘Using the Past to Save the Present:
Dai Qing’s Historiographical Dissent’
East Asian History, vol.1 (June 1991):
141-181, at p.147, with revisions


In his discussion of the reduced state of university achievement in the humanities and social sciences, Professor Gong lists a number of academic luminaries from the Republican era, in particular Wang Ch’ung-hui 王寵惠, John Ching Hsiung Wu 吳經熊, Chao Lung Yang 楊兆龍, Ken-sheng Chou 周鯁生, Wang Shih-chieh 王世傑, Tuan-Sheng Ch’ien 錢端升 and Li Hao-p’ei 李浩培. It’s a roll-call of China’s outstanding modern legal experts, as well as being a tragic reminder of the senseless despoliation of the life of the mind and of the spirit, not to mention the devastation of civic norms under the Communists. (From 2004, Xu Zhangrun edited a series of sixteen books — see《漢語法學文叢》— aimed at (re-)introducing Chinese readers to some of these thinkers, as well as to major Republican-era debates concerning ‘democracy vs. authoritarianism’ and ‘nativism vs. westernization’, which still resonate in Chinese intellectual life. For an overview of that series, see ‘The Forgotten Legal Thinkers of the Republican Era’ 被遺忘的民國法學家, an interview with Xu Zhangrun published on 25 February 2011.)

Readers should follow the links provided along with these names and be careful to note that, contrary to official propaganda, as well as all-too-often commonplace academic analyses, the Cultural Revolution and even the Anti-Rightist Movement that preceded it in 1957 were but political crescendos in an operatic drama that began with the May Fourth era (or, one could argue, even earlier with heedless revolutionary spirit from the mid-nineteenth century).

Many of the academics Gong Renren mentions chose to stay on the Mainland and serve the nascent People’s Republic. After 1949, they were almost immediately subjected to vilification and heavy-handed bureaucratic abuse. From the very birth of the new state, the official policy towards such professionally independent minded and ideologically untrustworthy men and women was summed up in a chilling ‘Sixteen-syllable Diktat’:

Demote yet allocate work, strictly supervise, absorb locally and eliminate gradually.

By the time people were encouraged to participate in the Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956 and to speak out partly as a way to allow for the release of the pent up fury over years of draconian Party misrule the war-torn society of China had become a different kind of inescapable ideological battleground. Encouraged by the authorities, many took the chance to speak out about the six long years through which they had already suffered, but their candor only led to further, harsher persecution. For those who survived, the ignominy would continue until the late 1970s. Even then Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues baulked at suggestions that the intellectual and cultural purges of 1949 to 1957 should be re-evaluated honestly and amends made. The dark legacy of that ideological obstinacy is at the heart of Gong Renren’s plaintive account. 


As ever, I am grateful to Reader #1 for finding the time to read over the draft of this translation and alerting me to embarassing typographical errors.

Gong Renren’s essay should be read in conjunction with ‘The Uselessness of Freedom’ (China Heritage, 22 June 2019), a graduation speech made by Professor Qu Weiguo 曲衛國 of Fudan University, Shanghai, on 17 June 2019.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
28 June 2019



  • In romanising the names of Chinese scholars, where possible I have used pre-Hanyu Pinyin English spellings, attempting thereby to avoid, or at least alert readers to, PRC-imposed anachronisms.


History has repeatedly demonstrated that in an environment lacking free speech or one in which true academic independence is absent, even though certain fields in the sciences may advance rapidly, the humanities and social sciences will remain seriously constrained.


Gong Renren


The Humanities and Social Sciences
Are Holding China Back


Gong Renren


translated by Geremie R. Barmé


Since 2015 China’s most prestigious universities have been clamorously touting themselves as being in the running to join the ranks of leading international tertiary educational institutions with the outstanding academic disciplines. It is part of the official ‘Double First-class University Plan’ [launched in 2015 and aimed at catapulting select tertiary institutions into the top rank of global bodies by 2050]. Given China’s burgeoning economic strength there is little doubt that, as long as the state is willing to devote the immense fiscal resources to achieve this goal, there is little doubt that in the short-term it is more than possible that various areas in the sciences and engineering will soon be able to make such a boast. 

The reason for this is that, when it comes to more technical academic research, if you just have enough money you can simply buy in top-of-the-range equipment and lure world-famous scientists with the promise of exorbitant salaries. Let me illustrate by noting that, in the recently announced 2019 budget for universities that are directly under the purview of the Ministry of Education, Tsinghua University led the pack with an allocation of 29.7 billion yuan. According to the commercial media THE [Times Higher Education World University Rankings], even though Tsinghua has never had a Nobel Prize Winner, it still enjoys first place among all Asian universities, far ahead of the three Japanese institutions that, between them, employ no fewer than five Nobel Laureates. 

Moreover, according to the latest QS company rankings, surprising though it may seem, Tsinghua is placed globally ahead both of Yale and Columbia Universities, schools that respectively have sixty-one and ninety-six Nobel Prize Winners, five Fields Medals [awarded to young scientists under the age of forty for outstanding contributions to mathematics] and three Turing Awards [the ‘Nobel Prize for Computing’ given annually by the Association for Computing Machinery which is named after the British mathematician Alan Turing who committed suicide in 1954 at the age of forty-two due to the persecution he suffered for being homosexual].

According to these rankings, Tsinghua is already in the very top tier of global educational enterprises. However, I would submit that if, one day, there are more Chinese nationals with Nobel Laureates than Japan — a country with only a fifth of our population — there certainly should be no need for this kind of boosterism from media and commercial organisations in the United Kingdom. For then, Tsinghua will be able to stand tall on its own and claim proudly that China has a group of top-tier educational institutions that are leaders in their fields. By that time, finally, lingering doubts as to why the People’s Republic has never produced Nobel greats like Hsue-Shen Tsien [Qian Xuesen] or Yang Chen-Ning can finally be put to rest.


However, the topic that I really want to address here is the state of the humanities and social sciences in China today. The funding model for these areas of academic pursuit is markedly different from the sciences, in particular since the research produced by scholars in these fields is born of the accumulation of knowledge and the formulation of unique insights over the long term. 

During the Japanese invasion of China from 1937 to 1945 many universities in Beiping [as Beijing was officially called from 1928 to 1949] and Shanghai relocated inland and set up campuses in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces (National Southwestern Associated University, for instance, was an amalgamation of a number of institutions from the Chinese littoral). Despite the deprivations endured by academics at the time, many scholars still managed to produce works of lasting value. One can cite, for example:

  • T’ang Yung-t’ung, The History of Buddhism During the Han, Wei, Jin and North and South Dynasties; 
  • Ch’ien Mu, A General History of China; 
  • K.C. Hsiao, History of Chinese Political Thought, 
  • Ch’en Yin-ko, A Brief Introduction to the Origins of the Institutions of Sui and Tang Dynasties; 
  • Fung Yu-lan, Six Books of Zhenyuan; 
  • Ho Lin, A Brief Exposition of Modern Idealism; 
  • Chin Yueh-Lin, On Tao; and,
  • T’ung-tsu Ch’ü, Law and Society in Traditional China. 
A stele with an inscription compsed by the philosopher Fung Yu-lan 馮友蘭 that commemorates the establishment of National Southwestern Associated University


After 1949, the Soviet educational system was imposed on China holos-bolus and the spirit of ‘Intellectual Freedom and Tolerance’ championed by the celebrated educational pioneer and president of Peking University Ts’ai Yüan-pei was swept away. In the wake of this, the humanities and social sciences went into long-term decline. At the end of the 1990s the majority of key Chinese universities were required to become general educational institutions. [Given that these universities engage in both teaching and research and cover all major disciplines] Now, however, the government’s grandiose ‘Double First-class University Plan’ may end up being frustrated by the fact that both the humanities and the social sciences are seriously lagging behind international best practice. Here I am by no means indulging in exaggeration.


In the Inaugural Lecture that he made as president of Tsinghua University in 1931, Mei Yi-chi famously declared:

A real university is found not in grand buildings but in great scholars.
所謂大學者, 非謂有大樓之謂, 有大師之謂也。[See ‘Speaking Up for a Man Who Dared to Speak Out’China Heritage, 1 April, 2019]

Former Tsinghua President Mei Yi-chi’s credo

Readers may be familiar with the inspiring stories of the ‘Four Great Scholars of Tsinghua’ [Wang Guowei 王國維 (d.1927), Liang Qichao 梁啟超 (d.1929), Chen Yinque 陳寅恪 (d.1967) and Zhu Ziqing 朱自清 (d.1948), figures mentioned previously in our series on Xu Zhangrun]; today, however, they are little more than a distant memory. Moreover, the academic environment of lively diversity that had been encouraged under Mei Yi-chi at Tsinghua [from 1931 until the end of the Civil War on mainland China in 1949] disappeared long ago. Here I would also point out that it is revealing that the dozen or so outstanding professors and celebrated graduates chosen to exemplify that university’s achievements during its centenary year of 2011 had been all active during the Republican era [1912-1949]. If he were still alive, one can easily imagine what President Mei would conclude by look out at the veritable forest of grand buildings that has sprung up on his old campus.   


As for Peking University [PKU] nearby, it is an institution that was once renowned for its departments of literature, history and philosophy. During a Spring Festival New Year’s ‘tea-chat meeting’ held for PKU faculty a few years ago, I asked Professor Lou Yulie [a veteran member of the Philosophy Department], who happened to be sitting at my table, what he thought of the general standard of his department these days? Without a moment’s hesitation he said: ‘Far inferior to the past!’ Lou had graduated from the department in 1960 [not exactly the most glorious period in PKU’s history, we would observe] and he immediately counted off the names of the outstanding professors who were teaching there at the time. Their number included such luminaries as Fung Yu-lan, T’ang Yung-t’ung, Ho Lin, Chang Tai-nien, Chin Yueh-Lin, Tsung Bai-hua and Chu Kuang-ch’ien. Then there were the people who had taught in the department during the Republic — Tsai Yüan-p’ei, Hu Shih, Hsiung Shih-li and Liang Sou-ming — names that Professor Lou did not mention. Who in the Philosophy Department of PKU today has a reputation that in any way measures up to the standards of those scholastic greats?      



The logo of Peking University Law School

A yawning gulf also exists between present and past in my own field of Legal Studies. Many noted legal experts and jurists trained during the Republican era — and here one thinks of such names as Wang Ch’ung-hui, John Ching Hsiung Wu, Chao Lung Yang, Ken-sheng Chou, Wang Shih-chieh, Tuan-Sheng Ch’ien and Li Hao-p’ei — were not only outstanding academics, they were also fluent in any number of foreign languages. Take Wang Ch’ung-hui, for instance. He was awarded his PhD in law by Yale University in 1905 and, in 1907, he published an English translation of the [1896] German Civil Code which was subsequently used by American scholars of law for many years. Only with an in-depth understanding both of Continental Law and [British] Common Law — not to mention fluency in German and English — could such a translation have been possible. In 1923, Wang was the first Chinese national to be appointed to the Permanent Court of International Justice in the Hague. 

After graduating from Soochow University in 1920, John C.H. Wu pursued his studies at the University of Michigan, earning his doctorate in just one year. He published widely in English, German and French and his work was influential in international legal circles. Chao Lung Yang graduated from Soochow University in 1927 and gained a doctorate in legal studies at Harvard University in 1935 following which he went to Germany to study continental European law. Proficient in eight foreign languages Chao was the Chinese translator of the Charter of the United Nations [which was drafted in 1941 and signed in 1945]. After 1949, when the newly established People’s Republic of China adapted the Soviet legal system and rejected Western law out of hand, rather than being allowed to teach any of the languages in which he excelled such as English, German or French, Chao was assigned to teach Russian. Only after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party [in February 1956, at which the Party’s First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin and his personality cult] was Chao finally granted a ‘right of return’ and allowed to teach law. It is heart-rending to think now that, in 1957, he was classified as a ‘Rightist’ for [among other things] having urged the authorities to accelerate the process of establishing a proper new legal system, as well as for advocating the need for the principle of the presumption of innocence to be accepted as a legal norm in People’s China. Chao Lung Yang’s two sons, his daughter as well as a number of his students were incriminated in his ‘crimes’ and also denounced as ‘Rightists’. (These details are based on Shattered Dreams of the Rule of Law in Shanghai, a memoir by the ninety-three year-old jurist He Jixiang published in 2001.)


The most famous legal scholars in China today were born in the 1950s and 1960s. However, their education and subsequent research careers were derailed by the Cultural Revolution. That original deficit has been added to by the overwhelming pressure to churn out large numbers of papers, despite there being no requirement to engage with foreign-language material — in fact, some of their number don’t know any other languages. Nonetheless, quite a few of their number enjoy a formidable local reputation for their voluminous publications and glory in an array of dazzling titles. One is hardly surprised to find then that any number of ‘legal experts’ in this country can’t even explicate such a basic legal proposition such as the distinction between ‘rule of law’ and ‘rule by law’ [as Victor Mair has observed: “ ‘Rule of law’ implies fairness and predictable application. ‘Rule by law’ would include, for example, rule under Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws (Nürnberger Gesetze), which were neither fair nor predictably applied.” Quoted by Josh Chin in ‘ “Rule of Law” or “Rule by Law”? In China, a Preposition Makes All the Difference’, The Wall Street Journal, 14 October 2014.]  

Legal scholars born after the 1970s may not have been blighted by the Cultural Revolution but they too suffer from being required to publish copiously in ‘key academic journals’ and, as a result, have little time to mature intellectually or to acquire the foreign languages necessary [for them to pursue meaningfully in terms of international standards their work as researchers and teachers]. The following example reflects the present state of affairs in the world of Chinese legal scholarship:

Influenced by German legal thought, criminal law doctrine has been much touted in China. However, according to the revelations of Liu Renwen, a criminal law specialist in the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, in an article he published in Legal Daily on 27 December 2017, although such imported German concepts as ‘legal good’ [Rechtsgut] and the theory of objective imputation [Objektive Zurechnung] enjoy something approaching adulation in our legal world, in their land of origin ‘legal good’ is regarded as being a vacuous theory, while ‘legal good theory’ is seen as fostering a dangerously spurious reliance on evidence. Moreover, the theory of objective imputation has been criticised for confounding mens rea [criminal intent] with actus reus [the objective element] of a crime.    

目前,國內知名法學者多數是上世紀50、60年代出生的,由於「文革」的耽誤,再加上法學界只求發表文章數量不注重閱讀外文原始資料的風氣,有些人甚至連一門外語的閱讀能力都缺乏,儘管其中不少人已「著作等身」並擁有各種耀眼的頭銜。難怪在中國許多法學者連「法治」(rule of law)與「依法而治」(rule by law)之間常識性區別都分不清。上世紀70年代以後出生的法學者,雖未受「文革」耽誤,但受「核心刊物」發文數量壓力,沒有時間學術積累並多學幾門外語。以下這個例子反映中國法學研究的現狀:在中國大受追捧的「刑法教義學」主要受德國的影響,但據社科院法學所刑法研究員劉仁文在《法制日報》(2017年12月27日)載文透露:儘管近年從德國引進的「法益理論」和「客觀歸責理論」在中國刑法學界備受推崇,但德國刑法學者卻指出「法益」在內容上是空洞的,用「法益理論」作為限制犯罪化的依據是自欺欺人。「客觀歸責理論」在德國也被批評混淆了客觀要件和主觀要件。

It is evident from this single example that Chinese legal scholars rely far too heavily for their understanding of legal questions on second- or even third-hand material, or, for that matter, on texts translated into Chinese that can readily lead to a misinterpretation of the particular German legal theories that they regard with such reverence. Let me offer another example, one that should by all rights embarrass any scholar of the law here in China: not only have Japanese specialists long excelled in their research into the history of Chinese law — far ahead of their colleagues in China, one would point out — since WWII, Japan has actually produced a number of world-renowned specialists in the field. Their number includes Niida Noboru, Shiga Shūzō and Terada Hiroaki. There are also any number of Japanese scholars whose work on specialist areas of European and American law far surpasses that of non-Japanese researchers. Not one Chinese name has the same kind of resounding reputation. Regardless of these facts, the QS university rankings company in England has for five years running listed the PKU Law School among the top three universities in Asia. 

Here we should make the obvious point that the only reliable way to assess academic quality is by means of peer evaluation; it is patently absurd to put any store in the rankings of some commercial interest like QS. If truth be told, far from being within reach of the top tier internationally, China is a far cry from even ranking in the second tier. What I mean by ‘top tier’ is that researchers in a particular discipline are able to make the kind of original and creative contributions to the field that are universally recognised both by fellow specialists in China and internationally. As for ‘second-tier’, this means studies in a particular field or discipline that utilise primary materials and that engage with the best practice of the field internationally while offering accurate, systematic and in-depth research and conclusions.  


History has repeatedly demonstrated that in an environment lacking free speech or one in which true academic independence is absent, even though certain fields in the sciences may advance rapidly, the humanities and social sciences will remain seriously constrained. Let me illustrate this by noting that, although China’s universities were in a state of paralysis during the Cultural Revolution, the country’s nuclear weapons industry and aeronautics, as well as various fields in the natural sciences enjoyed nonetheless international levels of success. In 1967, for instance, China successfully tested its first hydrogen bomb and in 1970 it launched its first satellite. It is also noteworthy that Tu Youyou — the country’s only Nobel Laureate (awarded in 2015) — made her research breakthrough during the Cultural Revolution. 

As for the humanities and social sciences: during those same years the scholars in these fields were reduced to chanting hosannas in support of the politics of the day. That’s why the articles produced by Liang Xiao — the ‘two universities’ big criticism writing group [梁效 = 兩校,或‘兩所學校’] made up of academics from PKU and Tsinghua — enjoyed such a level of national attention, were widely reproduced in the official media and endlessly quoted in academic work. Those ‘achievements’ are nothing less than a permanent stain on the record of Chinese scholarship. [For more on this, see the section titled ‘Two Universities 梁校’ in Homo XinensisChina Heritage, 31 August 2018.]

歷史證明,沒有言論出版自由和學術自由,自然科學某些學科仍能快速發展,但人文社科必受嚴重束縛。例如,中國「文革」期間,儘管大學教育處於癱瘓狀態,但在核武器、航天以及自然科學個別領域也不乏世界級水平成果。如1967年中國成功地爆炸了第一顆氫彈,1970年中國第一顆人造衛星發射成功, 中國本土唯一諾貝爾科學獎得主(2015年)屠呦呦的研究成果也是「文革」時期做出來的。但由於沒有思想言論自由,人文社科工作主要是歌功頌德和政治宣傳。所以,以「梁效」為筆名的北大清華「大批判組」的系列文章獨領風騷,被官方媒體廣為轉載和學界頻繁引證,在中國學術史上留下極不光彩的一頁。

As the famous Soviet dissident academic Roy Medvedev noted [in his account of Stalinist Russia]: 

In most of the social sciences Stalin alone had the right to make discoveries and draw major conclusions; everyone else was assigned the role of a popularizer or a commentator. Dogmatism, rote learning (nachetnichestvo), stagnation, and inertia were the results. Between 1946 and 1952 no less than six hundred books and pamphlets, in a total printing of twenty million copies, were devoted to Stalin’s speeches and articles.

[— from Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge:
The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism,
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971, p.499]


The deification of Stalin, the creation of stories about his infallibility and omniscience, generated a quasi-religious perception of reality in the scholarly community. The truth was not what corresponded to facts, to empirical research, but what Comrade Stalin had declared to be true. Quotations from “the classics of Marxism-Leninism,” and above all from the newly canonized classics of Stalin, became the main proof that a given proposition was true. Inconvenient facts were juggled, distorted, or simply ignored. (ibid.) — translator’s addition]

又如,蘇聯時期在航天、武器以及自然科學某些領域世界領先,但人文社科被置於黨的宣傳框架之內,只能充當政策的奴僕。蘇聯著名持不同政見者羅伊•麥德維傑夫(Roy Medvedev)指出:「在大多數人文社科領域,斯大林壟斷了’發明權’和做出結論的權利,而所有其他人只能是推廣普及和進行注釋。由此而來的是教條主義的統治、死啃書本、停滯僵化和惰性。歌功頌德和注釋性的書籍成為了蘇共黨史著作的基本類型」(《讓歷史來審判》1983年中譯本)。

The result? Although the Soviet Union was a major presence on the world stage for seventy years, apart from the scant but precious intellectual and cultural legacy of a handful of repressed dissidents that remain, it produced virtually nothing worthy of note in either the humanities or the social sciences. Indeed, one can think of no major Soviet social scientist or theoretician, let alone of a world-class university that existed in that era. What remains is the contemptible and noxious record of humiliation that has been bequeathed [to Russia] by generations of tenured academo-crats and their ilk who for years enjoyed the largesse of the state. 

Take for example the case of the authoritative Soviet jurist and academician A. Vyshinsky [Андре́й Януа́рьевич Выши́нский, 1883-1954]. As Procurator General Vyshinsky played a key role in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1936-1938. He oversaw a process in which the NKVD secret police, the state procuracy and the courts conspired to fabricate facts and extract forced confessions [from the accused] to justify three show trials [of enemies of the state]. These generated numerous cases of injustice.

I would also note that most people are unaware of the fact that Roland Freisler [1893-1945], State Secretary of the Nazi Reich Ministry of Justice and President of the People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof) — the main organ of legal repression in Hitler’s Germany — made an in-depth study of the techniques employed during Vyshinsky’s show trials [Freisler even attended some sessions of the trials as an observer], so much so that Hitler declared: ’Roland Freisler is our Vyshinsky’! 

Vyshinsky’s ‘legal theories’ [and his Theory of Judicial Evidence in Soviet Justice, which was awarded a Stalin Prize in 1947] were not only orthodoxy in the Soviet Union for many decades they also underpinned the legal system of the People’s Republic of China. Vyshinsky’s ideas negated judicial independence and denied the importance of procedural integrity; instead they advocated the class nature of the law and the central importance of Partiinost’ партийность, that is, unswerving partisan loyalty to the Communist Party.

所以,儘管蘇聯作為一個大國存在70多年,除了少數受迫害的不同政見者留下了珍貴的精神遺產外,人文社科學術成就乏善可陳,沒有產生傑出的社會科學家和理論家,也沒有一所世界一流大學!而備受官方賞識的御用文人或文科院士留傳下來的,則多是人所不齒的劣跡和毒素。如蘇聯法學權威和院士、擔任過總檢察長的維辛斯基(A. Vyshinsky)在1936-1938年斯大林大清洗運動扮演了關鍵角色。在莫斯科三大審判中,秘密警察與檢察院、法院串通一氣,通過捏造事實、刑訊逼供、公審表演(show trials)等卑鄙手段製造了一系列冤假錯案。鮮為人知的是,納粹德國的政治鎮壓工具——人民法院(Volksgerichtshof)的院長法賴斯勒(R. Freisler),就專門研究過並效仿維辛斯基在莫斯科審判的手法,因而被希特勒稱贊說「法賴斯勒是我們的維辛斯基」!維辛斯基的「法學理論」——鼓吹法律的階級性和黨性、否定司法獨立、蔑視程序正義,不僅是蘇聯法學的正統,也支配了中國法學數十年!其毒害影響至今。


At the moment, there are many areas of the humanities and social science in which China’s universities are increasingly falling behind global leaders. A few examples must suffice:


In the first place, tertiary educational institutions have become the launching pad for bureaucratic fame and fortune [for an echo of this view, see Zi Zhongyun 資中筠, ‘My Tsinghua Lament’China Heritage, 3 April 2019]. There’s something particularly noteworthy about Chinese universities: anyone who has held a position in the [party-state] bureaucracy, be it in or outside the institution in question, or, of that matter, if they have merely been the recipient of official recognition and largesse, they can stake a claim on greater amounts of academic resources than others or achieve a particular academic status [without being subject to the usual processes of evaluation]. In 2006, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences named forty-seven Academicians (people who henceforth enjoyed a status equivalent to ‘Humanities and Social Science Academicians’). Of those, forty-four had previously been the managers of academic colleges or institutions, or had been in Party leadership roles. More recently, a similar situation has seen key universities conferring special titles or working conditions on a select number of professors in the humanities and social sciences.  


Secondly, ‘anti-intellectualism’ is on the rise. This is immediately evident merely by scanning the titles of research topics that are being official promoted and the scale of funding allocated to such projects — proof can easily be found in the indexes of ‘key journals’ [in recent years, there has been a preponderance of major funding for research topics and ‘centres of excellence’ initiatives focussed on Xi Jinping Thought]. Of course, it has long been the case that university lecturers are little better than ‘piece workers’ [that is, like factory workers they are paid according to the volume of the work they produce] (for more on this, see my 2005 study ‘University Professors, Piece Work and Academic Freedom’ [published in the Hong Kong journal Twenty-first Century, May 2005, Issue 38《二十一世紀》, 二00五年五月號, 總第 38 期].) A university environment that indulges the frivolous and the superficial has spawned the proliferation of academically light-weight articles produced by the ambitious. This is the ethos that now reigns instead of the kind of scholastic probity and seriousness evident among Republican-era scholars. Their work was the outcome of due consideration and with an eye to self-regard. Back in the day, the head of the Faculty of Arts at Peking University — the [May Fourth student leader turned noted historian] Fu Sinian — cautioned younger scholars against publishing anything for the first three years of their careers. Such wise counsel has been replaced by an assumed US-inspired academic practice summed up in the glib expression ‘publish or perish’.

第二、大學「反智主義」愈演愈烈,即以國內「核心雜誌」發表論文數量和申請官方課題經費的等級/金額作為衡量「學術」主要標準。大學教師早已淪為「計件工」(筆者文章《大學教授、計件工與學術自由》2005年)。民國那一代學者惜墨如金與厚積薄發的嚴謹學風已被「薄積厚發」的浮躁風氣所取代,當年北大文科研究所長傅斯年對新任年輕教師「三年內不許發表文章」的要求,也早已被從美國道聽途說和誤讀的「不發表就出局」(publish or perish)所取代。

Thirdly, we have moved away from being open to the world back to protecting ourselves behind closed doors. It is now standard practice for faculty [Party leaders] and the university to vet all foreign university teaching materials. [In the field of law] Anything that contains too much information about constitutional government, for example, is now banned. Some universities have even imposed restrictions on foreign academics presenting lectures. Take for instance the case of Professor Murase Shinya. During a distinguished career he was a member of the UN International Law Commission and a Special Rapporteur for the UN. Following his retirement from Sophia University in Tokyo Professor Murase chose to teach Chinese research students in English as an unpaid professor in the Faculty of Law at the China Youth University of Political Studies. He event went so far as to donate to that institution his personal library on international law, a collection that contained some thousands of volumes. Professor Murase said that he enjoyed teaching in China and he even expressed the hope that, eventually, his ashes would be interred on the campus of the China Youth University. However, after that school was placed under the aegis of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2017, non-Chinese lecturers were banned from teaching subjects in their own areas of academic specialisation. Henceforth, it was announced, they would only be allowed to teach foreign languages. Professor Murase felt that he had no alternative but to leave.   


Fourthly, strictures on academic freedom are getting tighter. On 3 April this year [2019], I published an essay on academic freedom in Japan in the online Chinese edition of Financial Times. In it I noted the case of Professor Fukase Tadakazu [of Hokkaido University]. Although he was involved in two prominent cases involving constitutional law and acted as an expert witness in a third in which the Japanese government was indicted for anti-constitutional behaviour, he was not subjected to pressure by his university. 

Following the hysteria of 1950s McCarthyism in the USA, academic freedom in that country came to be regarded as a right. Readers might recall that, on 10 February 2017, US President Donald Trump used his Twitter account to mock a federal judge for temporarily placing a ban on one of his executive orders. On 17 February, Martha Minow and Robert C. Post —  famous legal experts in the law faculties of Harvard and Yale universities respectively — co-authored an article titled ‘Standing up for “so-called” law’ [The Boston Globe, 10 February 2017] in which they criticised Trump for holding the law in contempt law. As they wrote: ‘If Trump believes he can make an enemy of the law and of the Constitution, then he has truly become a foe of the Republic, despite the oath he swore at his inauguration.’ [In that article, Minow and Post characterised the Law thusly: ‘We are deans of respected law schools. We have dedicated our professional lives to the proposition that law overrides violence with reason. Law stands for what we have in common, not merely what divides us. Law respects disagreement; it patiently considers evidence and advocacy; it engages with the views of all. Each person — not just each citizen — is equal before the law. Created in ancient times to terminate endless cycles of vengeance and retribution, law substitutes official, publicly justified sanctions for animosity and enmity.’ — trans. addition] Needless to say, China is a very long way indeed from enjoying anything approaching that kind of academic freedom.

Following the introduction of the Economic Reform and Open Door policies [from 1979], Chinese universities began to enjoy a limited degree of academic freedom; but even those hamstrung freedoms are now imperilled. If a complete taboo is placed on voicing opinions about political issues there will be a concomitant increase in university lecturers who are penalised for the untoward things that they may say during lectures. Moreover, students will be further encouraged to act as snitches on behalf of the authorities. It is as though the painful lessons of our recent history are purposefully being forgotten: remember, countless people were persecuted as a result of the blanket use of informants during the Cultural Revolution. In East Germany, I would also note, one of the underlying causes of mass disaffection which contributed directly to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall, along with collapse of the regime itself, was that the party-state employed a vast network of informants controlled by the Staatssicherheitsdienst, the Stasi.

第四、學術自由越來越受限制。今年4月3日我為FT中文網撰文提到日本大學的學術自由,如兩次組織憲法訴訟並作為鑒定人在法庭論證政府違憲的深瀨忠一教授,從未受到官方壓力。美國上世紀50年代的反共狂潮消退之後,學術自由也得到了保障。2017年2月10日美國總統特朗普在推特上嘲諷暫停執行總統令的聯邦法官。2月17日,美國最有名的兩個法學院(哈佛、耶魯)的院長,米諾(M. Minow)與波斯特(R. Post)聯名撰文指責特朗普蔑視法治:「如果特朗普認為他能以法律和憲法為敵,那麼他將成為共和國的敵人。」可見,真正的學術自由在中國還遙不可及。改革開放後,中國大學有了一定程度的學術自由,但近年又面臨著喪失的可能。如在中國政治問題上提批評意見成為禁忌,大學教師因課堂言論受處分現象明顯增多,甚至鼓勵師生告密。並不久遠的中外歷史教訓已被刻意地遺忘:「文革」期間告密之風盛行造成無數人慘遭迫害;斯塔西(Stasi)的龐大告密體系正是1989年柏林牆倒塌及東德政權垮台的深層次原因。

And, Fifth, despite the lack of academic freedom in our universities, academic malfeasance is enjoying a heyday. The academy in China is rotten: this has been a widely-known and well-established fact for some time. But there’s also something rather unique about our tertiary institutions: while there is Zero Tolerance for ‘Political Incorrectness’ [that is, non-conformist or ‘dissident’ ideas and opinions], there is a seemingly boundless indulgence for the most egregious abuse of academic standards. That’s because for the university leadership, if the former [that is, political aberrance] isn’t dealt with in an adroit manner it may well have a direct impact on their own official positions, while academic malfeasance merely influences the reputation of their institutions negatively. So long as the mainstream media doesn’t get wind of things and expose any particular wrongdoing, all manner of things can simply be covered up. Let me share a recent example: one of my colleagues wrote a letter to the PKU leadership in which they pointed out in detail instances of grave professional misconduct on the part of certain professors. But the university decided against taking any action. Evidently, despite repeated injunctions issued by the Ministry of Education calling for ‘Zero Tolerance’ of professional misconduct, in practice they are simply reduced to ‘Zero’.       


If the situation outlined in the above continues, and if the Humanities and Social Sciences at China’s universities continue to lag behind, they will remain a drag on the ‘Double First-class University Plan’. They will also hold back our society as a whole and the very civilisation that it professes to support.