J’accuse, Tsinghua University!

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


On 21 March, the same day on which President Bacow of Harvard delivered a powerful lecture at Peking University in which he extolled the virtues of academic inquiry, independence of thought and the pursuit of excellence, ‘next door’ on the campus of Tsinghua University, Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, a noted scholar of law with an international reputation, was formally notified that henceforth he was banned from all teaching activities. Xu was also told that, on Monday 25 March, the university would launch formal disciplinary action against him for his recent writings, some of which have been translated and published by China Heritage (for a list of these, see below). Xu was to be taken task for exemplifying the very qualities that President Bacow advocated when addressing his audience at Peking University.

On hearing of Xu’s suspension, the celebrated independent writer Zhang Yihe (章詒和, 1942-) published a short note in which she expressed outrage and demanded answers from Tsinghua University. In her comments Zhang listed eight major essays that Xu Zhangrun had published in recent years, unique in that they publicly question the country’s rulers and the political direction of the nation. Meanwhile, Geng Xiaonan 耿瀟男, a film critic and publisher, declared in an online post that Xu’s essays were:

直擊七寸, 劍指廟堂。

Blows directed at their Achille’s Heel;
A sword pointed at their Sacred Heart.

On 25 March, Xu Zhangrun was informed that, apart from the suspension of his teaching duties and research work, he would be subjected to the ministrations of an ‘Investigation Team’ 審查組 shěnchá zǔ, which he dubbed a ‘Special Case Investigation Group’ 專案組 zhuān’àn zǔ (short for 專案審查小組 zhuān’àn shěnchá xiǎozǔ), set up to establish the basis for further disciplinary or legal action. Henceforth, he would be required to make himself available to assist the ‘task force’ in its inquiries. (Special Case or Investigation Groups — thuggish mechanisms working at the behest of the Party and its security organs — have a notorious history. In the past, they were used with devastating effect to amass material on, interrogate and persecute prominent individuals. To quote Mao Zedong writing in a different context, there is nothing about these groups that is ‘temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.’ 溫良恭儉讓). For an account of these developments, see Chris Buckley, ‘A Chinese Law Professor Criticized Xi. Now He’s Been Suspended’New York Times, 26 March 2019.

On 26 March, the Chinese-language edition of the Financial Times published the following essay by Guo Yuhua (郭於華, 1956-), herself a prominent scholar in the Sociology Department of Tsinghua University (see Ian Johnson, ‘Ruling Through Ritual’: An Interview with Guo YuhuaNew York Review of Books, 18 June 2018). Guo’s title — ‘When Do Scholars Not Have Something to Say?’ 哪有學者不表達? — is a reference to Xu Zhangrun’s earlier essay 哪有先生不說話 ?!, published in an annotated bilingual version by China Heritage as ‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!’ (China Heritage, 10 November 2018).

On 27 March, Hu Xijin 胡錫進, editor of The Global Times 環球時報, China’s version of Der Stürmer, offered an observation that was as ridiculous as it was disingenuous:

Radical scholars like Xu will find it difficult to keep their professor position at top university in any country. Imagine a professor in Harvard or Yale openly attacks US democratic system and advocates communist thoughts, can he continue teaching?


Guo Yuhua’s essay is the first of a series of works — comments, satires, analyses and cultural works — that are part of the Xu Zhangrun Archive in China Heritage. The series is titled:

Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest and Resistance

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
27 March 2019


  • The text of Guo Yuhua’s essay is reproduced as it first appeared, despite our distaste for the ‘Crippled Characters’ 殘體字 of the People’s Republic. This bilingual translation is archived both in The Best China and the Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 sections of China Heritage, under Projects.


Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance (March 2019-)

Translations of Xu Zhangrun in China Heritage:

On the New Patriotic Indoctrination of Intellectuals:

Further Reading:

Tsinghua Has Got Some Explaining to Do


Guo Yuhua 郭于华

translated by Geremie R. Barmé


Tsinghua University’s administrators have worked out how to they are going to handle Professor Xu Zhangrun — my friend, my colleague, my paragon and a man rightly regarded as the pride of this university. It is now known that they will delay decisive action against him until there’s been a formal investigation. In the meantime, Zhangrun is suspended from all teaching duties, forbidden from pursuing any research work or writing, prevented from taking on new research students and relieved of all other duties (whatever that is supposed to mean).

To the best of my knowledge I believe that the reason for this decision is that Xu Zhangrun has published a series of articles in the last few years, the most profoundly thoughtful being essays such as:


Now, I’d like to know just what article in the Chinese Constitution Professor Xu is in contravention of? I certainly don’t know the legal basis of the university’s treatment of him. Where’s the evidence? In my opinion, as a professor of law it is nothing less than a professional responsibility for Xu Zhangrun to advocate constitutional democracy and stress the need for the rule of law. Where’s the crime in that? Just how is he at fault? 

For many years Xu Zhangrun has worked on these issues with an unrelenting focus. Why? For the sake of this country, its people, our society: advocating constitutionalism, supporting the rule of law, striving for freedom, criticising the shortcomings of contemporary society and politics. It can be said of him with unflinching candor that his is a heart of absolute honesty and courage; his untainted spirit of concern is a testament to integrity. In Xu Zhangrun’s own words: ‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!’, — that is, they speak out and express themselves. How can you justify condemning a person for expressing their views? Even if those opinions are erroneous or ill-conceived, they have a right to give voice to them. This is a commonplace, a kind of general knowledge in contemporary society. How can one be ‘dealt with’ simply for exercising one’s justifiable rights? In an era that respects and advocates the rule of law, no individual or organisation can place itself above the constitution or the law.


In the modern world humanity as a whole recognises the fundamental importance of such things as constitutional government, basic freedoms and the rule of law; these concepts are also central to the Chinese government’s Socialist Values System. Constitutional government is a path that ensures dignity and true advancement. In China, however, in the much-troubled and frequently frustrated process of bringing about Constitutional Rule, the very concept is willfully distorted, cynically misused and so sullied that all too often people have only the most vague appreciation of its true significance and import. In his work, Professor Xu Zhangrun has made a factually clear, intellectually compelling case for Constitutional Rule, be it in terms of legal and theoretical abstraction or in regard to practical implementation. His is a powerful and clarion voice; his is an undeniable contribution. Are you really telling me that he is at fault?


The mission of any university worthy of the name is, within an environment of scientific inquiry and humanistic affirmation, to train and cultivate citizens, that is men and women who are independent individuals possessed of free will, critical awareness and a sense of moral responsibility. A university community is not merely a collection of specialists in various fields, much less is it a place for sclerotic minds and handicapped souls, let alone is it suitable for those with tireless ambition to train wannabe bureaucrats and the pusillanimous.

Teaching and research are creative forms of labour, they comprise an enterprise that values the pursuit of excellence. Above all they require ‘A Spirit Independent, a Mind Unfettered’. They call for an open mind and a generous spirit. Those with personalities distorted and corrupted by slavish compliance with The Powers That Be, those with petty, mean souls, those mean-spirited and short-sighted individuals — how can they possibly be adequate educators?

Outstanding teachers are essential for the pursuit of the estimable mission of the university. To force an outstanding teacher like Xu Zhangrun to ‘suspend teaching’ and ‘cease all research work’ (in other words, to stop thinking!) — these demands flagrantly betray the essential mission of this institution.


If you are clear about the basic mission of a university then you certainly should be able to tell the difference between education and propaganda. But let me remind you: Education is about studying and transmitting the achievements of humanity in regard to various fields of knowledge, technical knowhow and with respect to social awareness. By doing so it enables the social maturation of the individual while also contributing to the evolution of a society of individuals. Moreover, university education is a formal process aimed at inculcating rationality, banishing ignorance, enriching the individual’s emotional and spiritual life while inducting them into modern civilisation while also contributing to the process of self-actualization.

And propaganda? That’s about government machinations or the workings of various politically affiliated organisations, somewhat akin to the PR or advertising efforts of a particular industry or business. The aim of propaganda is to garner people’s support for or opposition to identified targets; it has no truck with objective reality. Its role is to use whatever means it has at its disposal to influence opinion.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon responsible university administrators to make a crucial distinction: what is Education about? And what is Propaganda for? It is an absolute taboo to impose propagandistic methods when pursuing the tasks of teaching and research.


So, in light of the above, let me now pose some questions to those in charge of Tsinghua University:

  • What is the legal basis for the determinations you have come to regarding Professor Xu Zhangrun?
  • Are you really aware of the historical precedent your actions set for Tsinghua University?
  • Do you remember, or are you aware of President Mei Yi-chi [president of Tsinghua from 1931 to 1948]?
  • Don’t you know about the Four Great Teachers of this institution and the tradition that they represent [that is, the thinker and reformer Liang Qichao 梁啓超; the scholar Wang Guowei 王國維; the historian Chen Yinque 陳寅恪; and, the linguist Yuan-jen Chao 趙元任]?

Okay then, you can be as mediocre as you want, you can even be guilty of mistakes: but you cannot and should not do evil! I appeal to you to be respectful of basic morality and ‘aim your gun 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 only shot people climbing the wall because he had been ordered to do so. The lawyer asked: ‘Couldn’t you simply have aimed one inch higher?]


In conclusion, let me suggest that you join me [and visit the stele on the Tsinghua campus that records] Chen Yinque’s epitaph for Wang Guowei [a noted scholar who committed suicide in 1927 and was commemorated in 1930 with a stele inscribed with Chen’s eulogy]:

The future cannot be known; indeed there may come a time when this Gentleman’s work no longer enjoys preeminence, just as there are aspects of his scholarship that invite disputation. Yet his was an Independent Spirit and his a Mind Unfettered — these will survive the millennia to share the longevity of Heaven and Earth, shining for eternity as do the Sun, the Moon and the very Stars themselves.




An Update by
Guo Yuhua 郭於華

My Dear Ones, I have just received a phone call from the Party Secretary of the Faculty [of Law at Tsinghua University] in which they conveyed a Formal Opinion formulated by the University administration:

  1. My essay has been read; you have expressed your opinion. Matters remain as they presently stand, so don’t say any more and make sure you do not give interviews to ‘outside media’ [that is, the Hong Kong and International media];
  2.  The University has yet to make a final determination in regard to Professor Xu Zhangrun. We are presently still engaged in a process of ‘discovery’ (is this an indication that the school is in retreat?).

My response: I believe that it will benefit both parties if  the University can resolve this matter with all the best of intentions, and in a rational and peaceable manner. If that is possible then, of course, I won’t need to say anything more. However, if the University continues to pursue this line of action in an obdurate fashion, and gives cause to an escalation of the situation, I cannot give any undertaking to remain silent or to continue to turn down interviews requests from the foreign media.

Guo Yuhua 
27 March 2019