Sweep Away All Professors! Make China’s Universities Safe Spaces!

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


In the editorial introduction to ‘Heads or Tails — Criticism and Xu Zhangrun’, published by China Heritage on 27 March 2019, we noted the reaction of Chu Shulong 楚樹龍, a prominent Tsinghua academic and respected media commentator, to the news that Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun had been suspended and put under formal investigation for thinking and speaking out of turn. Chu said:

The Cultural Revolution was instigated by those who included a small group of Tsinghua students [the original twelve Red Guards supported by Mao were from the middle school attached to Tsinghua University]. Tsinghua University as a whole played an extremely evil role during the Cultural Revolution: it betrayed the interest of the nation, of our people and it betrayed numerous people who were persecuted unjustly and their families [Tsinghua was a particularly infamous hotbed of Lord of the Flies-like youthful grandstanding, self-righteous persecutions and unrestrained violence]. At present it looks as though a group of people set on attacking, accusing, denouncing and struggling against others are working themselves into a state of readiness. What right or qualifications do these types have to accuse others of being ‘Cow Demons and Snake Spirits’ [a Cultural Revolution term for denounced academics and others] or for writing ‘Poisonous Weeds’ [that is academic works or cultural products deemed by Mao to be invidious to the Party]…

文革就是由包括一小批清華學生打手等挑起的。清華大學在文革中起了非常惡劣的作用, 有負於國家、民族和那麽多受迫害的人及家庭。現在看來清華新的一批整人、揭發、批判、鬥爭別人的人有蠢蠢欲動了。不知道這些人有什麼資格、資質指責別人是 “牛鬼蛇神” 和 “毒草”…


  • Chu Shulong is also a professor in the Political Science and International Relations Department at Tsinghua’s School of Public Policy and Management as well as being Deputy Director of the Institute of International Strategic and Development Studies. For many years he jointly taught a course with Xu Zhangrun titled ‘Chinese Politics and Law’.


‘Sweep Away All Cow Demons and Snake Spirits’

Superficially at least, the English translation of 牛鬼蛇神 niú guǐ shé shén, ‘Cow Demons and Snake Spirits’, or ‘Ghosts and Monsters’ would appear to be slightly comic; there’s even something of the trill of otherworldly orientalism about it. In the grinding political reality of China’s People’s Republic, however, it is a dark formula that was used with murderous effect to de-humanise enemies. It was part of a language of vituperation and politically egregious behaviour that legitimated attacks on, as well as the persecution and even murder of academics, intellectuals, cultural figures and Party apparatchiki alike.

Mao had used the expression ‘Ghosts and Monsters’ — one drawn from a poem by Li He (李賀, c.791-c.817 CE) of the Tang dynasty — shortly before the purge of ‘anti-Party Rightists’ in mid 1957. In March that year, he said when addressing a national meeting of propaganda officials :

Recently, ghosts and monsters have been presented on the stage. Some comrades have become very worried by this spectacle. In my opinion, a little of this doesn’t matter much; within a few decades such ghosts and monsters will disappear from the stage altogether, and you won’t be able to see them even if you want to.


Mao Zedong, Speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s
National Conference on Propaganda Work, 12 March 1957

Nearly a decade later, on 1 June 1966, Chen Boda 陳伯達, the newly appointed editor of People’s Daily and a Yan’an-era propagandist whose literary flair excelled that of the more cunning Hu Qiaomu (Chen replaced Hu as Mao’s political secretary when the latter was on ‘extended personal leave’), published what was, in effect, a call to arms. In an editorial titled ‘Sweep Away All Cow Demons and Snake Spirits’ 橫掃一切牛鬼蛇神 he urged mobs of Red Guards who Mao had recently encouraged to rebel against the status quo in schools and work places both in Beijing and in cities throughout China to eliminate ‘bourgeois “specialists,” “scholars,” “authorities” and “venerable masters” and sweeping every bit of their prestige into the dust.’ As he put it:

For the last few months, in response to the militant call of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman Mao hundreds of millions of workers, peasants and soldiers and vast numbers of revolutionary cadres and intellectuals, all armed with Mao Tse-tung’s thought, have been sweeping away a horde of monsters that have entrenched themselves in ideological and cultural positions. With the tremendous and impetuous force of a raging storm, they have smashed the shackles imposed on their minds by the exploiting classes for so long in the past, routing the bourgeois “specialists,” “scholars,” “authorities” and “venerable masters” and sweeping every bit of their prestige into the dust.…

The exploiting classes have been disarmed and deprived of their authority by the people, but their reactionary ideas remain rooted in their minds. We have overthrown their rule and confiscated their property, but this does not mean that we have rid their minds of reactionary ideas as well. During the thousands of years of their rule over the working people, the exploiting classes monopolized the culture created by the working people and in turn used it to deceive, fool and benumb the working people in order to consolidate their reactionary state power. For thousands of years, theirs was the dominant ideology which inevitably exerted widespread influence in society. Not reconciled to the overthrow of their reactionary rule, they invariably try to make use of this influence of theirs surviving from the past to shape public opinion in preparation for the political and economic restoration of capitalism. …

At present the representatives of the bourgeoisie, the bourgeois “scholars” and “authorities” in China are dreaming precisely of restoring capitalism. Though their political rule has been toppled, they are still desperately trying to maintain their academic “authority,” remould public opinion for a come-back and win over the masses, the youth and the generations yet unborn from us. …

The stormy cultural revolution now under way in our country has thrown the imperialists, the modern revisionists and the reactionaries of all countries into confusion and panic. At one moment, they indulge in wishful thinking saying that our great cultural revolution has shown that there are hopes of “a peaceful evolution” on the part of China’s younger generation. A moment later, they become pessimistic, saying that all this has shown that Communist rule remains very stable. Then again, they seem to be fearfully puzzled, saying that it will never be possible to find genuine “China hands” who can promptly pass accurate judgement on what is taking place in China. Dear Sirs, your wishful thinking invariably runs counter to the march of history.

Sweep Away All Monsters
Peking Review, 3 June 1966

The generic term ‘Cow Demons and Snake Spirits’ included everyone deemed to be a class enemy, including landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements, Rightists, capitalists, blackguards as well as ‘reactionary academic authorities’, not to mention traitors, spies, capitalist-roaders, along with the children of anyone who had been denounced.

— the above is based on the Translator’s Notes
appended to Xu Zhangrun’s memoir,
‘To Summon a Wandering Soul’
(China Heritage, 28 November 2018)

What follows may appear to be little more than a tongue-in-cheek guide to the kind of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that have been much in vogue in recent years. Here too, perhaps, China’s innovative, high-tech, politically beclouded future will be able both to reflect and intermesh seamlessly with global neoliberal best practice.

My thanks, as ever, to Reader #1 for alerting me to the latest round of embarrassing typographical errors in the original text.

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


  • This material is collected both in The Best China and in the The Xu Zhangrun Archive of China Heritage, under Projects. For the contents of ‘Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University’, see the list at the end of this chapter.

It’s High Time We Got Rid of
University Teachers Altogether


Feng Ling 風靈

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé 


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.


The modern university had its origins with the founding of the University of Bologna on the Apennine Peninsula in the late-eleventh century. It started out as a relatively modest institution founded by a guild of students: no grand lecture theatres or dormitories, and no independent financing. Without having state-funded stipends lecturers had to get by on student fees. Back then, universities in Europe were more like workshops, and they featured a kind of master-pupil or master-disciple relationship. But that was a millennium ago and things have changed. Moreover, in recent times there have also been significant technological advances. In fact, universities have enjoyed transformative change in every regard, except one. Students are still being taught by teachers in a classroom setting. It is something that is simply out of kilter with the times and requires urgent reform.


There are many problems inherent in the whole embodied teacher-student situation. Like everyone else, teachers are only human and, like all human beings, they are flawed creatures. For instance, people like them often seem determined to think for themselves and they resist efforts to make them comply with the system. This is a particularly glaring problem among university lecturers. Since most of them have spent a few more years studying than everyone else they frequently end up having rather strong opinions in regard to a wide range of issues, be they academic or non-academic. Their views do not necessarily coincide with the ideas and positions required in the contemporary Chinese university environment. When teachers like that reveal their ideas to students who are fairly clueless about the world it can have the most unfortunate consequences. That’s one of the things that keeps university administrators awake at night, and it’s why they have had no choice but to install CCTV cameras in every lecture theatre. As a result, both university Surveillance Centres as well as members of the university leadership team can, via their desktop computers, observe every statement and every action, each twitch and shrug of their employees. University professors have nowhere to hide. Moreover, university authorities have been forced to compile exhaustive lists of rules and regulations that cover everything from how teachers should take roll in class and assign homework, to actual lecture topics and exam questions, right up to instructions that offer oversight regarding the marking of tests and the logging of examination results, as well as guidance pertaining to practical assignments and the writing of theses — it’s an all-encompassing approach with rigorous requirements leaving nothing to chance.

However, even with all the spy cameras in the world, you can’t watch everyone all the time. As for regulations, they require invigilators who constantly monitor compliance, to maintain seamless vigilance regular inspections are also necessary. To ensure timely, on-the-spot surveillance it has also been necessary to train up members of the student body so they can also keep an eye on their lecturers, take notes on what transpires in class and report infractions upwards.


Although such measures have, to date, proved to be relatively effective, outstanding problems remain. In the first place, doing all of this costs an absolute fortune! Apart from lecturer’s salaries — unfortunately, an unavoidable expenditure — the purchase and installation of all that surveillance equipment requires a considerable capital outlay. Added to that is the cost of employing surveillance personnel who have to be suitably trained. Devising the aforementioned detailed administrative guidelines and procedures is also something that doesn’t come cheap, and that’s without factoring in the costs of organising and overseeing appropriate personnel to implement and police them. Then there is a veritable plethora of unseen, ‘transactional costs’, including the large amount of time involved in getting an integrated system like this up and running. Generally speaking, the limited resources allocated to the higher-ed sector should ideally be spent on such obvious necessities as the construction of new buildings, setting up new specialist courses, acquiring lab equipment and attracting more students. Wouldn’t such things benefit a university far more than devoting all this money to keeping an eye on the professoriate?


Heightened levels of surveillance really do go to show that university professors are downright dangerous. And think about it: What other kind of business would necessitate bosses installing large CCTV cameras so they could keep an eye on each and every employee? Would they also have to allocate dedicated resources to watching their every move and listening in to every utterance? Would they too be obliged to train paying customers to provide oversight of their staff and report on their employee’s behaviour.  But, university professors? They require just this kind of 360-degree oversight. They have even learned to accept the fact that they’re at the mercy of their own students.

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 an adequate and unsupervised manner. Furthermore, that’s exactly why, I believe, that it is wrong-headed to allow a group of people who 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.


What’s more, even with all of this seamless surveillance in place, some teachers are still misbehaving! They make unscripted remarks to students that can have the most deleterious impact. Don’t forget, students come to university to study, yet they are being instructed by a pack of untrustworthy characters. On top of that, we now require the students to be on constant high alert themselves. We are, thereby, imposing unreasonable physical and mental demands on our young people, and they are stressed out by it. It’s unfair and detrimental to normal and wholesome development. Yet here we have a situation in which as soon as there is any interpersonal contact between students and teachers, or face-to-face encounters in the lecture theatre, the young feel that they must be on their guard. I believe that we have to deal with this problem once and for all. Drastic circumstances demand that drastic action be taken with unbending resolve.


Let’s consider how to deal with problem from a different angle: these days technology is so advanced that I believe we can now replace university professors entirely. Appropriately vetted and pre-approved audio-visual presentations can easily be screened in lecture theatres, thereby doing away with any need for embodied lectures. As is already the case with the use of standardised text books and teaching materials nationwide, homogeneous, pre-recored audio-visual lectures covering each course and discipline could be similarly employed.

In one fell swoop we could bring about the long-cherished hope to create a level playing field between elite universities on the one hand and local colleges on the other. As for student attendance: that can be dealt with by requiring students to use swipe cards or through the installation of facial recognition technology in the classroom. Homework, exams? Establish a centralised national Exam Archive, teacher-administrators can then devise course-appropriate examinations at the drop of a hat. All exam answers that conform with set industry standards will be awarded appropriate grades. Hey, presto: there’ll be no more agonising over semester-end evaluations or overall assessments. What about the laborious task of invigilation at exam venues or the marking of tests and giving scores? All of these, too, can either be done by automated devices or, where necessary, small numbers of administrative staff can be deployed. No problemo!


Inevitably there will be nay-sayers. Some may argue that during a lecture only real-live teachers can effectively evaluate the ability and needs of individual students and adjust course delivery accordingly, and that’s something that cannot be achieved by standardised audio-visual pedagogy. I would counter that claim by pointing out that, even now, so-called ‘needs-based teaching’ is, by and large, little more than an attractive fiction. Moreover, ‘needs-based pedagogy’ presumes that teachers will adjust their approach according to the personality and talents of individual students. But our educational aims place an onus on forging useful talents. What, precisely, do we mean by ‘useful’? ‘Useful’ for whom, you ask? Useful for the State, of course! That’s why students should be educated in accordance with the needs of the State and not in a way that allows teachers to mollycoddle as part of some kind of ‘needs-based education’.


Similarly, there will also be those who point out that during an embodied lecture a professor can discuss issues that arise in class in real time; they can resolve any questions students may have on the spot. The reality, however, is that most of the time the vast majority of students remain silent; they never ask anything; they just sit there passively waiting to be questioned by the instructor. More pertinent is the fact that, since a student who has asked a question expects the teacher to respond then and there, a situation may arise that has the potential to be beyond the appropriate control of the professor. This could lead to unnecessary classroom risk and therefore it is something that must not be encouraged. If a student is determined to ask a question they can just as easily do it via an online system. The Ministry of Education will have an appropriate system in place that ensures that a relevant specialist will be at the ready to formulate a standardised response, one that can subsequently be shared publicly.


There will also be the inevitable objection that. apart from imparting knowledge, teachers play a key role in training students in acquiring the skills needed both for effective study and for research.


And, there will always be an objection that unless they can be assured of the direct encouragement of a professor who is physically present in the lecture theatre students may well feel less enthusiastic about their studies. But, let’s face it: those lecturers are under strict surveillance and are constantly being egged on to do their jobs in a responsible manner. What gives them the moral authority to oversee or encourage students? Anyway, with the technological advances available today there are many other ways to enthuse students. For example, if primary and middle-school students are issued with Smart Wristbands, supervisors will know about and control everything they do. That’s a far more efficient approach than having a teacher in your face all the time.


Granted, there’s no denying the practical difficulties in realising the plan I’m proposing. And, indeed, there are some subjects that, for the time being at least, cannot entirely do without the physical presence and on-hands guidance of a lecturer or professor. One thinks of anything involving scientific experiments, practical exercises, conversational English, physical education, music and painting, for example. Without doubt, all of that is a headache, for now. But AI capabilities are developing rapidly, so there is little doubt that, given time, such temporary setbacks will gradually be addressed. For the moment, however, subjects like philosophy and most of the social sciences can all but do without professors. There’s also some science and technical subjects that don’t require laboratories so, there too, lecturers could be eliminated or their numbers reduced.


Then again, some will invariably express a view that, if this proposal is instituted, will people be bothered to go to university at all? Why not just study by oneself at home? Needless to say, this too is erroneous. If students think they can just sit at home studying what they want, how will we be able to evaluate whether they are studying the kinds of things required by the State? More importantly, only universities can issue degrees. You can’t get a university degree just by paying a fee for it, nor will you be awarded one solely on the basis of your Gaokao exam results. There’s simply no getting away from the fact that you have to spend a few years at a university; you need to put in the time and demonstrate your sincerity.


To sum up, the best way forward right now and in the long-run is to make sure that professors fade from university lecture theatres and gradually become extinct. Such a development will lead to a dramatic reduction of the burdens presently shouldered by universities; it will also enhance effective risk management. No longer will administrators have to be anxious about professors in their charge committing ideological errors, or be fearful that certain professors aren’t up to their jobs. There will be no more ‘teaching malfunctions’ in the classroom. The merits of implementing my proposal will be immediately evident as well as proving to a true contribution far into the future.




Xu Zhangrun vs. Tsinghua University
Voices of Protest & Resistance

(March 2019-)