Silence + Conformity = Complicity — reflections on university life in China today

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



On 30 March 2019 we received the text of a powerful article by an academic at Tsinghua University written in support of Professor Xu Zhangrun. We believed we had a clear understanding that China Heritage had permission to publish that text in translation. We were mistaken. Subsequent to publication, we were belatedly informed that the essay was, in fact, not intended for circulation outside the People’s Republic, nor indeed did the author want its existence to be reported. We were baffled by this surprising information, however, given the nature, and delicacy, of the situation, we are hardly in a position to protest ourselves, after all, it was impossible to determine what, if any, exogenous factors may have contributed to this untoward development.

We would reason that, the very existence of such a considered, quasi-public expression of support for a leading academic involved in an incident of major pubic debate in China and widespread discussion internationally merit the publication of that essay. It would also seem to make it inevitable that the author’s argument (one that is essentially a warning to students in the People’s Republic), or at least the gist of it, would become known over time. Nonetheless, we defer to the express wishes of the author and hereby unreservedly offer our apologies for any misunderstanding or offense that we may have unwittingly caused.

It is for this reason that we are removing the translation and original text of that now self-silenced voice from China Heritage. The original Editorial Introduction and Dedication to the piece remain, as a 有字碑, a ‘stele covered in writing’ (as opposed to the famous ‘un-inscribed stele’ at the Tang-dynasty Qianling Tomb 乾陵無字碑), placed here to mourn silently such an untimely evaporation.

When events move in a more positive direction at some unknowable time in the future, we hope that the original text of an important essay, and our translation of it, will re-appear either here in China Heritage or in some successor publication or outlet that shares a belief in the importance of the freedom from fear and the freedom of expression.

As 31 March 2019 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, I find solace in that author’s wise words:

So it goes.

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

Introduction to a Lacuna

In the early 1980s, I read Are We All Nazis?, a harrowing meditation on the experiments of the Yale sociology professor Stanley Milgram. It was even more disturbing to read so shortly after the formal end of the Cultural Revolution, in particular as in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong I was meeting many people who had variously been victims and victimisers not only during Mao’s last years, but from as early as the 1950s. Some had been both. Only a few short years later, it was even more heartrending to watch on helpless as such brave and outspoken people like Fang Lizhi 方勵之, Liu Binyan 劉賓雁, Wang Ruowang 王若望 and later a close friend Wu Zuguang 吳祖光 were betrayed once more. But, then, Deng Xiaoping’s 1987 purge of ‘Bourgeois Liberalism’ which swept these men up, was only a prelude to the denunciations, betrayals and cruelty that followed in the wake of the 4th of June 1989 Beijing Massacre.

Nearly sixty years after Milgram conducted his experiments, its conclusions remain controversial. For me, the translator of Lao Yandong’s essay, however, it is sobering to be confronted with a discussion of the Milgram Experiment nearly forty years after first learning about it — with horror — and little solace can be found in the fact that Professor Lao is discussing it today in the context of Xi Jinping’s attempts to forge a Silent China.

Previously, we have discussed the kind of ‘New Socialist Person’ that is supposedly being engineered in the People’s Republic of China. I have dubbed this latest iteration of new humanity ‘Homo Xinensis’, and in the China Heritage series devoted to thought-reform, education and new people we touched on the history of the New Socialist Person as well as its doppelgänger, Homo Sovieticus (see Homo XinensisHomo Xinensis Ascendant; and, Homo Xinensis Militant). We also offered an overview of the origins and methods of the Communist Party’s policies of suasion, patriotic grooming, forced compliance, thought manipulation and performative politics. Developments in China’s Party dominated educational sphere indicate that these are all essential lessons for any serious and morally alert student of contemporary China.

An Object Lesson
for China, and for the World

The following essay, now deleted, was an indictment as well as a sobering warning.

It was primarily addressed to student readers in China and it was a reflection on the increasing policing of university life not only by reinvigorated Party authorities but also by some teachers and ambitious students. As we pointed out in ‘Heads or Tails’, the second part of our ongoing account of Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 and his relationship with Tsinghua University, Tsinghua was once a hotbed of Red Guard incitement and mob violence. It arguably has the most tainted reputation of any other Chinese educational institution — and, make no mistake, regardless of all the fine talk of scholastic exchanges, international rankings and the rest, the reputations of all pre-1978 universities are all tainted to a larger or lesser extent, if not actually blood-stained, by thirty years of repression, violence and anti-intellectualism masquerading as patriotic class politics.

The message of the absent essay was salutary. Although addressed to a Chinese audience, and not just the university population, reading it would also have been unsettling for academics and students globally. Even in nations not dominated by one-party rule, the international neo-liberal industrial education system employs a vast cadre — a New Managerial Class whose ranks bristle with careerist academo-crats — to impose byzantine forms of institutional compliance and a vast array of deadening protocols developed to respond to the market-driven demands of for-profit education. Just as teachers and researchers have been reduced to the status of commodified ‘employees’ so too have students become ‘customers’.

In foreign climes, just as in China, people all too often feel ‘outraged but fearful of speaking out’ 敢怒而不敢言. As a result, over the years a new system of servitude has evolved, its subjects disciplined to comply as a result of what the original essay referred to as the ‘Foot-in-the-Door Technique’, a tactic employed by a stronger party to bend the will of their intended target over time. It is not surprising that the various outlets of what is in essence a multivalent international educational behemoth — that is universities, colleges and other educational and research institutions — find much to admire in the educational autarchy of Xi Jinping’s China. Given the profitability of a Chinese system that also produces large numbers of cashed-up international students, one imagines that few international university leaders will have the courage of Chinese academics like Guo Yuhua to speak out on behalf of that nation’s increasingly beleaguered university community. After all, despite all the pretty talk about independent thought and free speech, as well as teaching and research excellence, who wants to disrupt the market or speak out in a precipitous manner on behalf of a handful of idealistic educators in a way that may imperil the profitability of doing business with China’s People’s Republic?

The message of the (now-removed) essay was as stark as it was incisive: silence + conformity = complicity.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
30 March 2019
(Revised 2 April 2019)


Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance

(March 2019-)


In Praise of Protests and Petitions

Petitioning is common enough in every country.
It doesn’t necessarily end in death —
except, of course, in China.

Lu Xun, 10 April 1926

trans. in New Ghosts, Old Dreams
Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds, 1992


The 30th of March 2019 marks the fortieth anniversary to the day since Deng Xiaoping announced the Four Cardinal Principles 四項基本原則 that have frustrated China’s political evolution for these past forty years. These ex cathedra ‘principles’ were formulated by Deng and his colleagues in consultation with the Party ideologues Hu Qiaomu 胡喬木 and Deng Liqun 鄧力群, figures whose baleful influence on China’s political, intellectual and cultural life would last for over fifty years.

The Four Cardinal Principles were a response to the popular protests and unregulated speeches and essays that flourished for a time on and around Democracy Wall at Xidan, west of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. For a time what was known as the ‘Beijing Spring’ served the needs of Party leaders, but it also allowed for dissent and open opposition to a one-party state that, for nigh on three decades, had visited misery on the nation. Earlier in March a young protester by the name of Wei Jingsheng 魏京生 posted an essay titled ‘What Do We Want: Democracy or Another Autocrat?’ 要民主還是要新的獨裁, which contributed to the sense of urgency Deng and his comrades felt about shoring up their legitimacy. Wei was duly arrested, tried on nebulous charges and sentenced to fifteen years in jail. In late 1979, Democracy Wall was demolished.

In many ways, Deng’s Four Principles and Wei’s protest against autocracy have bedeviled China ever since. In the treatment of independent-minded intellectuals like Professor Xu Zhangrun, not to mention teachers, writers, publishers, media figures, rights lawyers, dissidents, religious leaders and groups, in 2019, we are reminded of those seminal moments in March 1979.


On 6 January 1989, the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, mentioned above, addressed a letter to Deng Xiaoping appealing for the government to declare a nationwide amnesty for all political prisoners, and particularly Wei Jingsheng. He ended the letter by reminding Deng that 1989 was also the bicentenary of the French Revolution. ‘However one views it’, Fang added, ‘the slogans of liberty, equality, fraternity, and human rights have gained universal respect.’

Fang’s letter set off six months of petitioning and protests that ended with a massacre of unarmed demonstrators on 4 June that year and the forced occupation of Tiananmen Square on the grounds of quelling a ‘counter-revolutionary insurrection’.

Personally, this month marks three decades since I was invited by the Australian Government to accompany a delegation of leading Chinese film-makers. Except for the man who led the group — Chen Haosu 陳昊蘇, vice-minister of film and television — the members of the delegation were all friends: Wu Tianming 吳天明, Chen Kaige 陳凱歌 and Huang Jianxin 黃建新. When we were in Melbourne I decided to request a private moment with the Vice-minister as I felt that I had to express to him directly my outrage at the manner in which the astrophysicist Fang Lizhi had been treated recently. A few weeks earlier, on 26 February, on his first visit to China after his election as president, George H.W. Bush invited a crowd of notable Chinese and Americans to a Texas-style barbecue at the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing. As the scholar Perry Link, who was accompanying Fang and his wife, reported, they were rudely and repeatedly prevented from attending the event. I had met Fang and his wife Li Shuxian 李淑嫻, also an outspoken and independent minded liberal activist, in Canberra the previous year, and so I took it upon myself to protest their treatment to the highest level Chinese Communist cadre to whom I had access.

As I remonstrated with him Vice-minister Chen’s face was twisted in fury: the thought of a mere student (I had only just been awarded my doctorate and had recently taken up a post-doctoral fellowship at The Australian National University) having the gall to berate a minister of the government of the People’s Republic of China was simply too much. Thereafter, although Chen had no choice but to tolerate me in my official role as the film delegation’s interpreter and escort officer, thereafter he refused to acknowledge me or address me directly. While my film-maker friends were amused and privately supportive of my behaviour, Chen protested about my protest and I immediately found myself blacklisted by the Chinese authorities. For its part, for decades the Australian Government egregiously failed to invite me to any China-related events or indeed to have contact with visiting delegations from the People’s Republic again. After the events of 4 June that year, this came as a welcome relief.


The 1st of April 2019, marks half a century to the day since the Ninth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was secretly convened in Beijing. Former Red Guards, those malicious political stormtroopers who for the most part had by then been exiled to distant rural redoubts to ‘undergo reeducation at the hands of the poor-and-lower-middle peasantry’, noted the date — April Fool’s Day — with grim humour. Stacked with PLA soldiers and a vast claque of hand-picked opportunists who had flourished in the political chaos, along with the rump of the Eighth Party Congress, the gathering enthusiastically endorsed the purge of the former state president Liu Shaoqi as a traitor, scab and counter-revolutionary and heaped orgiastic praise on Mao Zedong and his peerless Thought.

After its secretive sessions came to an end and a media report was released, the Ninth Party Congress was officially hailed not only as a resounding victory for Mao Zedong Thought but also for marking the formal conclusion of the Cultural Revolution itself. The folly of 1 April 1969 would not be repeated until 11 March 2018 when a pliant legislature formalistically bestowed life-time tenure on Xi Jinping. It was that widely condemned move, along with a range of far-reaching developments in the political and social life of China that dated back to 2013, that contributed to Professor Xu Zhangrun’s decision to publish his most controversial essay, Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes — a Beijing Jeremiad 我們當下的恐懼與期待, in July 2018. It was that Jeremiad, along with his other writings, that on 25 March 2019 led the personnel department of his employer, Tsinghua University, to inform him that henceforth he was under special investigation for what one might call ‘ideological crimes and misdemeanours’.


Silence Doesn’t Mean You’re Neutral,
It Means You’re Conforming


The original text and translation have been removed at the request of the author. One is led to observe, with all due respect, that the author proved to be an example of the very phenomenon analysed with such alacrity in that now-absent essay. I will, however, offer one paragraph from that now-anonymous and unreadable meditation for the delectation of our readers:

One of the historically prized strategies for self-preservation in China is ‘to keep out of things’ [明哲保身, literally, ‘to possess the wisdom of how to protect yourself’]. Other popular expressions reflect the same idea: ‘If it doesn’t concern you, hang it up and leave it’; and, ‘Sweep the snow on your own doorstep, don’t worry about the frost on your neighbour’s eves’. It’s hardly surprising that these ideas have enjoyed such long-lasting popularity and that’s because people lived in such treacherous times that they had no choice but to look out for themselves. Of course, you can understand that people just want to keep out of trouble and stay safe.

2 April 2019