Case Tests Scope Of Academic Freedom In China

Professor Yang Shiqun

Yang Shiqun teaches a course on ancient Chinese language at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai. He is at the center of a controversy over what should and should not be discussed in Chinese classrooms. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR

In China, the ivory towers are abuzz with a debate over academic freedom and student treachery.

The most recent controversy began late last month when officials at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai called professor Yang Shiqun in for a meeting. According to Yang, he was told some students had reported him to the local police and the city education committee for talking about the outlawed Falun Gong sect in class.

Much has changed since this campus housed St. John's University, one of China's first Western-style academic institutions, a century ago. But the current debate raises old questions about how to reform China's educational system.

Professor Under Fire

Yang denied he had ever mentioned Falun Gong, or a document critical of the Communist Party called the Nine Commentaries. But the meeting prompted him to think about why his students might have denounced him to the authorities. Yang believes his trenchant criticism of ancient Chinese culture might have offended some patriotic youngsters.

"I do criticize ancient Chinese culture harshly, because I think lots of problems in Chinese society today originate there," he says. "Some students think Chinese culture is splendid, so they feel uncomfortable hearing a teacher criticizing it. This might have led to their actions."

Chinese academics tread a very delicate tightrope between what's allowed and what isn't. Yang's course — ancient Chinese language — sounds beyond reproach. But contextualizing what's happening today against the backdrop of ancient China quickly leads to gray areas.

For example, in Yang's syllabus, he questions why there are no human rights in traditional Chinese culture, and he defines an intellectual as "an opponent of the established value system." As for the student informants, Yang blames thousands of years of Chinese history for a "culture of denunciation" in its universities.

"For thousands of years, China has had an autocratic political system, and such systems depend upon a culture of denunciation," Yang says. "It's a big problem. Any true patriot should feel a sense of crisis, both about the whole academic atmosphere and about young people's attitudes toward learning."

Blog Post Ignites Internet Debate

After his meeting with university officials, Yang went home and wrote an emotional blog post questioning how such a thing could be happening in China today. He was extremely nervous about the accusations and distressed that such political attacks were still taking place in Chinese academic institutions, he explains.

"I thought we shouldn't just muddle through this, and we ought to discuss what should be taught in universities, and what shouldn't, and whether we should talk about our views or not," he recalls.

This opened up a firestorm of debate on the Internet. His blog was deluged with frenzied criticism, which Yang believes was driven by "five-cent commentators," or people paid to post online comments supporting the government's point of view. Nonetheless, the strength of the response led Yang to delete the entry.

'Definite Restraints' In The Classroom

The university held a second meeting with him, during which Yang says the school advised him to stick to mainstream topics, especially when teaching freshmen who may not have been exposed to critical thinking before.

"Nowadays, our most important principle is 'freedom in academia, but discipline in the classroom,'" he says with a laugh. "There are definite restraints. Everyone knows that."

Yang illustrates with another example from his own career. He wrote two books tracing the history of two Chinese surnames, Sun and Xiao. The manuscripts were 400 pages. But after submitting them to the publisher, he says he was told to delete anything relating to the period from 1840 to today — a full quarter of each book.

No reason was given to him, but in China, publishers often delete material referring to the recent past for fear that it could be politically sensitive. That was the price to pay for publication.

Yang thinks that educational reform is now desperately needed in order to produce students who can think critically and innovatively or China will fall behind.

"[China's] economic reforms have had results," he says. "But now the educational system has become a problem."

Students Weigh In On Academic Freedom

But on campus, students seem satisfied with their level of freedom.

"We can't have complete freedom," says postgraduate law student Yuan Wei. "Teachers should be able to voice their own opinions, but they shouldn't be able to just say anything they like."

"China's much freer than it used to be," adds fellow student Liu Wenjia.

Wang Xiaoyu, a deputy professor specializing in popular culture at Shanghai's Tongji University, has been monitoring online coverage of this case.

"On the one hand, this shows we need more civics classes in the education system. On the other hand, we can openly discuss this matter," Wang notes. "In the past, perhaps this wouldn't have happened."

But he too says that a "culture of denunciation" is rife in China's academic institutions, partly fostered by the schools as a way to control the students and staff.

In Yang's case, the facts still remain murky.

An official in the propaganda department of Yang's university denied there was any police investigation. Refusing to give her name, she said students had complained during Yang's annual appraisal about his deviations from the syllabus. Her implication is that Yang exaggerated the accusations against him; his supporters suspect the school may be backpedaling because of the public uproar.

Whatever the details, this much is clear: The net result of this case is that academics all over China are now reconsidering just how much they can say out loud in class.

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