RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Some people in China are having a debate about the limits of debate. It all began when some college students complained about a teacher, and it has escalated into a rowdy online discussion. The professor at the center of the controversy granted a rare interview to NPR's Louisa Lim in Shanghai.
LOUISA LIM: Last month, Professor Yang Shiqun was called in for a meeting by officials at his school, the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai. It was a meeting that would spark off a national debate. According to his account, 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. He denied he had ever mentioned Falun Gong, or a document critical of the Communist Party called the Nine Commentaries. But the meeting got him thinking about why his students might have denounced him to the authorities. Professor Yang believes his trenchant criticism of ancient Chinese culture might have offended some patriotic youngsters.
Professor YANG SHIQUN (Ancient Chinese Language, East China University of Political Science and Law): (Through translator) In my class I do offer criticism of ancient Chinese culture, because I think that many of problems in China may originate from that time. And some students think Chinese culture is all splendid, so they feel uncomfortable hearing a teacher criticizing it. That's what may have led to their actions.
LIM: Chinese academics tread a very delicate tightrope between what's allowed and what isn't. His 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, he questions why there were 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, Professor Yang blames thousands of years of Chinese history for a culture of denunciation in its universities.
Prof. YANG: (Through translator) For thousands of years, China has had an autocratic political system, and that kind of system depends on a culture of denunciation. That'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 towards learning.
LIM: After his meeting with university officials, he went home and wrote an emotional blog post, questioning how such a thing could be happening in China today. This opened up a firestorm of debate on the Internet. The frenzied online attacks against him led him to delete the blog post. The university held a second meeting with him, during which Professor Yang says they advised him to stick to mainstream topics, especially when teaching freshmen, who may not have been exposed to critical thinking before.
Prof. YANG: (Through translator) Nowadays, our most important principle is: Freedom in academia, but discipline in the classroom. There are definite restraints and everyone knows that.
LIM: The example he gives, two books he wrote tracing the history of two Chinese surnames, Sun and Xiao. The manuscripts were 400 pages long. But after being checked, he was told to delete anything relating to the period from 1840 to today, a full quarter of each book. That was the price to pay for publication. Ask students on campus about Professor Yang, and it appears they've been schooled in the art of compromise.
Ms. YUAN WEI (Postgraduate Law Student, East China University of Political Science and Law): (Chinese spoken).
LIM: Teachers should be able to voice their own opinions, says post-grad law student Yuan Wei. But they can't just say anything they like.
Ms. LIU WENJIA (Postgraduate Law Student, East China University of Political Science and Law): (Chinese spoken).
LIM: But China's much freer than it used to be, says fellow student Liu Wenjia. Associate Professor Wang Xiaoyu is an academic specializing in popular culture at Tongji University. He's been monitoring the coverage of this case online.
Professor WANG XIAOYU (Popular Culture, Tongji University): (Through translator) On the one hand, this shows that we need more civics classes in the schools. On the other, we can openly discuss the matter, and maybe that wouldn't have happened in the past.
LIM: But the facts still remain murky. When contacted by NPR, an official in the propaganda department of Professor Yang's university denied there was any police investigation. Refusing to give her name, she said the students had complained during Mr. Yang's annual appraisal about his deviations from the syllabus. Her implication is that Mr. 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. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.
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