Early on in Xi Jinping’s ongoing campaign to enforce ideological orthodoxy throughout the Party and society at large, the president identified university campuses as important venues to “strengthen and improve ideological and political work.” In 2015, universities were ordered to expand their Marxist education curricula and textbooks “promoting Western values” were banned (some noted the irony of these two parallel directives, Marx himself being a Westerner). More recently, last month on the sidelines of the annual “Two Sessions” in Beijing, China’s Minister of Education noted that amid the campaign, student enthusiasm was low, and called for ideological education to be more “trendy.”
With institutes of higher learning a frontline in Xi’s initiative for ideological conformity, liberal academics and professors have been facing increased pressure. The University of British Columbia’s Timothy Cheek, a China-focused intellectual historian, told The Guardian’s Tom Phillips in 2015 that liberal academics had become “collateral damage in a much bigger political struggle,” and noted that he hadn’t seen so much pressure applied to them since the 1980s.
One academic who has seen his career path disrupted amid Xi’s ideology drive is the outspokenly liberal Qiao Mu (乔木), who until tendering his resignation this month was a faculty member at Beijing Foreign Studies University. While a professor, Qiao Mu set up the university’s international news broadcasting masters track, its first non-language focused program. In addition to publishing a book on U.S. media coverage of China, Qiao Mu also wrote on sensitive topics such as censorship, and has been a regular commentator to foreign media on topics such as information control, propaganda, and China’s democratic prospects. After being suspended from teaching in 2014 for unspecified “work violations,” he was moved into the library where he worked as a librarian but maintained his title of associate professor. After continuing to feel pressure, he this month submitted his resignation:
Qiao said to me BFSU will approve his resignation tomorrow and he'll begin as a freelancer or independent scholar
— Gerry Shih (@gerryshih) April 11, 2017
Qiao Mu was at the center of a controversy early this year over comments he made online about how female students are often judged by male professors based on their appearance. Qiao attracted both criticism for alleged sexism, and praise for being honest about a widespread issue. He replied to the critique claiming that his words had been taken out of context.
In a WeChat following his resignation on April 13, Qiao Mu described the mounting pressure and his reasons for resigning. The WeChat post was censored, but has been preserved by FreeWeChat and archived on CDT Chinese. CDT has translated the WeChat post in full:
How Can You Not Have a Work Unit? I Quit Precisely Because I Don’t Want a Work Unit
By Qiao Mu
I resigned yesterday.
As I was going through the resignation procedures with the various departments, they all asked: Where are you going? I said I wasn’t going anywhere.
They didn’t understand. How could you not have a work unit?
I told them I quit precisely because I didn’t want a work unit.
I came to Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) in 2002, after receiving my doctorate from Tsinghua University. At BFSU, I established their International News Broadcasting major program. I served as director for eight years, during which time I was responsible for establishing the curriculum and for graduate student training and international exchange. I put everything I had into producing BFSU’s first group of non-language majors. After years of hard work, we were awarded with the official distinction of being a first-class news journalism program.
True talent attracts its due attention. The hard times were over, the good times just beginning. During the grandest of times, I was surrounded by beautiful women, a forest of legs.
I was in control of hundreds of thousands in program and training fees. In 2010 we received sponsorship to send ten students to South Africa to report on the World Cup for a month.
I lectured, participated in conferences, conducted on-site studies, participated in cooperative programs throughout China and abroad. I even had a few meetings at the Central Propaganda Department and the Ministry of Education. And I became familiar with a few of Xinhua News’ vice-ministerial-level leaders and their wives.
Of course, teaching and research are the foundation of professorial work. I didn’t dare rest on my laurels for even a moment.
My first scholarly work, “The Dragon in the Eagle’s Eye–US Media Coverage of China,” was published ten years ago. The book release seminar was the first of its kind ever held at BFSU, and it was attended by many distinguished guests. The director of research excitedly told me that the school had money set aside in the budget for things like this, but he had no idea how to spend it. You’re the first to do this kind of event. How wonderful! Do a great job so we can hold a lot of events like this in the future!
I won’t list out all of my other articles and works here. But compared to many broadcast journalism scholars, I have an advantage in terms of my English ability, allowing me to give more interviews, provide commentary, and write. I engage in more interaction with both domestic and international media and with academia. I’ve served as judge and expert for numerous national-level awards and provincial-level programs.
Of course, I never lost sight of my original purpose–as a political science PhD researching democracy and people’s livelihoods, and as a journalism professor advocating independent media. Practice what you preach, right? Isn’t this be the way it should be?
These past few years, there have been all kinds of changes. They first said the things I was saying were not appropriate for a director. So I resigned from that post.
Then they said I wasn’t being positive in my research, that I was being careless in the articles I was publishing. How could I be fit to judge professors? Alright, I won’t; I’ll retire to assistant professor.
Finally, they said, “Why don’t you go be the library manager?” That was September 2014, three years ago.
Although I was stunned, I thought a big job like this would definitely be an opportunity for long-term learning. No professor had ever been reassigned at BFSU before, and not just anyone could be library manager.
Many people asked me why I was transferred. The school wasn’t able to give a reason, and I wasn’t going to make any guesses.
Perhaps it all started with the 2011 election for the Haidian District People’s Congress. Being a researcher of political broadcasting, I conducted a community experiment. Though my name was not on the ballot, I received the 2nd most votes in the BFSU voting district. The only person elected whose name was on the official ballot was the vice president of the university. He received just over 50% of the vote, barely winning. Three years later he was promoted to president. A few months after that I went to the library.
He was also a very prestigious individual. As an actor inside the system, I chose a different path, and so I naturally arrived at a different destination.
My wife said, “OK, do it if you want, but expect to face consequences for what you’ve done. Think of the great reception your wife and daughter used to have accompanying you on trips as a visiting scholar to the U.S., Japan, Hong Kong… Now when my colleagues ask me to get your help with their kids’ schooling, I’m embarrassed to tell them what you’re doing.”
Though she did complain, my wife has given me tremendous support over the years. Years ago when I resigned from my job to go back to school to get my doctorate, I was looking forward to a bright future. Then, with nothing to our names, she was supporting the family financially. Our rented apartment didn’t have heat, and the electricity wasn’t strong enough to run an electric heater. All we could do was huddle together for warmth, bundled underneath quilts reading “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Sun Also Rises.”
Like speculating in the stock market, you can’t just look at performance and dividends. More importantly, you have to look at long-term potential to see if a certain stock is in line with the trends of time and determine if it’s worth it to hold for the long term. From big-name professor to manager, to being completely flushed out, deeply aggrieved. My stock couldn’t drop any lower. When you hit the bottom you’re supposed to rebound. Where could that V-shaped rebound be?
We all came to BFSU together years ago. We’ve all become professors, many are deans, doctoral advisors, and one is vice president. At one point the vice president regretfully told me: “This position should have gone to you.” I said how could I be qualified for such a position? In my heart, I didn’t even think I had what it took to be a department head. Then he became a congressional representative, elected during the first elections. Later he called in the Ministry of Education to investigate me. I say, how could you run a university in such a sinister fashion?
This vice president is very talented. He once delivered a lecture to the entire university titled “The U.S. Crisis and China’s Rise.” And he’s raised his child well. His son went to graduate school in the U.S. We asked what his plans were for his son’s future. We’ll see how it goes, he replied, but first he’ll stay in the States for awhile.
And I, a hopeless low beta, can only hope to be a loser. Sometimes I’m not so resigned to this fate. What leverage could someone have over me? I’ve never done anything illegal, or undisciplined, or committed misconduct that would warrant this result. These years I’ve been investigated outside and in, especially when some bored celebrity with 60 million followers called for a human flesh search for many days. Nothing was found. Not even the potential for anything. What a waste of resources, to have the ability to do something, but to choose not to.
And there were two other professors whose issues with their mistresses eventually got the school involved. One of them was kept from becoming a director, though he’s still a professor. The other was temporarily suspended from teaching class, but he remains at the department.
As for all the dirt and scandals I’ve heard relayed to me through students, parents, colleagues, retired teachers, and other channels, things they dare to be angered about but dare not to bring up, it’s obvious you’re all just trying to manage the reaction to what your organization does. You don’t care about the organization itself. There’s enough to fill a memoir. That celebrity, for example, was on the official payroll, and leadership was fine with it for years. As for me, just a full-time professor, I’ve been made lonely and desolate, sweeping floors and translating books in the library.
When I was resigning, I was chatting with one of the leaders saying that all these years, all I did was speak and write. So many colleagues had committed all kinds of misconduct, but none of them were ever dealt with. Nor was anyone ever reassigned.
He said those others didn’t have any social influence. I said what about Kong Qingdong of Peking University, publicly berating people and showing off? Or, Han Deqiang of the Beihang University beating people in the streets? Their social influence is surely big enough, right? Professor Zhang Ming is out there screaming every day, and I haven’t seen the school do anything about it.
He said that’s Peking University and Beihang University–we’re a lot smaller here.
As for what I’ll do after I resign, I’m not yet sure. First I’ll write the crowdfunded book I promised to write. But more importantly, I’ll need to get used to my new life. As an assistant professor-level library manager, I still made over 200 thousand yuan a year, pre-tax. It’s a pampered life. I had public healthcare, a generous pension.
My three months of winter and summer break are also gone. Now I’m on vacation every day.
So, why resign?
A political science PhD can’t talk about democracy and constitutionalism. A journalism professor has to be against a free media. Even Tchaikovsky couldn’t play a symphony with enough sorrow for my situation.
Additionally, who the hell could ever say I ever “ate a meal and then smashed the bowl”? I’ve never eaten someone else’s lunch–I lived off of my own talent and hard work. And, as a taxpayer, I still contributed to our national rice bowl.
Rousseau said, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” At least after I resigned my speech is no longer censored by anyone but myself and the internet censors, and no organization is monitoring my Weibo everyday, compiling a file on me.
It wasn’t easy to resign either. When the school was going through my files, they’d sometimes say they agreed to accept my resignation after researching my file (a colleague of mine in the meeting said they were conducting research on me until 10:30 last night). Other times, they’d say that I was being expelled. They’re so used to managing people, always sending people here and there, that they just can’t help it.
As I was resigning, people in the various departments were stunned. You’re really resigning? Some were worried. How could you be without a work unit? You’re already 46? Some were supportive. You did the right thing resigning. With skill, what do you have to fear?
Some were sneering from ear to ear. We can finally drop this hot potato.
I ran into a long-time instructor I knew from the teacher’s union. He knew that I had been chosen for 10 consecutive years as a representative to the teacher’s union and labor union congress. He had voted against me before, brought up opinions that differed from mine. Hearing I was leaving, he said: “This bunch of scum is going to be able to do whatever they want even more now.”
I said: “Don’t say things like this.” He said he was retiring soon.
There was another, an older woman, who told me in the hallway with great earnestness, “Oh, you! Tossed to the library from being a professor, then tossed out of the library to resignation… I know you won’t starve out there. Just be practical and make money, take care of your wife and kid. You understand a lot. Don’t let yourself get tossed around like this anymore. You can’t change the heavens.”
I said, “If I had the same view of the future as you, why wouldn’t I just go about being a naive professor in the first place? If I thought the future couldn’t be changed, why would I bother resigning now?”
She said: “I can’t win an argument with you. At any rate, nothing will change in my lifetime.” I smiled and said: “Then I wish you a long and healthy life.”
My wife says I’m the darling of the library. Sometimes my daughter makes fun of me. She’s 10. I take her to school and pick her up every day. We talk on the road. Changing society is difficult. Being diligent towards children will change things eventually.
My daughter is growing by the day. I tell her that when her grandpa was young, he answered the call to war, but in the end, that didn’t change society. He used reflection and writing to change me. I did what I had to do. Even if nothing ever changes, when you’re older you’ll be affected by it to some degree.
Uncle Wang Keqin went from being an investigative reporter to someone outside of the establishment. He started a charity called the Save Pneumoconiosis Fund, calling attention to 6 million sufferers of Pneumoconiosis. To use his words:
“Hard work won’t necessarily change anything, but without hard work you can be sure nothing ever will change.”
April 12, 2017
See also CDT’s translation of Qiao Mu’s description of his 2010 visit to the Central Propaganda Department.
Translation by Little Bluegill.