The Great Firewall of Chinese Academia

The Great Firewall of Chinese Academia

On June 21, former Peking University Law School professor Gong Renren published an essay on the prospects for official plans to lift China’s universities into the global top tier. While massive financial investment may enable this in the fields of science and technology, he argued, the ever-tightening political environment works in several ways to thwart it elsewhere: “History has repeatedly demonstrated that in an environment lacking free speech or one in which true academic independence is absent, even though certain fields in the sciences may advance rapidly, the humanities and social sciences will remain seriously constrained. […] They will also hold back our society as a whole and the very civilisation that it professes to support.” The essay has been translated in full at China Heritage by Geremie Barmé, who described it in his extensive introduction as “nothing less than an indictment of China’s academic culture, an accusation of mediocrity and a critique of a cowed and compliant intelligentsia,” as well as “a caution to all international university cum-businesses that have so eagerly enmeshed themselves with China’s People’s Republic.”

One key aspect of the current constriction, Gong argues, is the politically motivated exclusion of foreign influence which has escalated in recent years in the academic, legal, and other spheres. Gong illustrates this with comparisons to fearsome polyglots and internationally influential Chinese scholars of the Republican period, and suggests that restricting foreign influence at home is undermining efforts to increase China’s abroad. From China Heritage:

[… Peking University] was once renowned for its departments of literature, history and philosophy. During a Spring Festival New Year’s ‘tea-chat meeting’ held for PKU faculty a few years ago, I asked Professor Lou Yulie [a veteran member of the Philosophy Department], who happened to be sitting at my table, what he thought of the general standard of his department these days? Without a moment’s hesitation he said: ‘Far inferior to the past!’ […]

[…] A yawning gulf also exists between present and past in my own field of Legal Studies. Many noted legal experts and jurists trained during the Republican era — and here one thinks of such names as Wang Ch’ung-hui, John Ching Hsiung Wu, Chao Lung Yang, Ken-sheng Chou, Wang Shih-chieh, Tuan-Sheng Ch’ien and Li Hao-p’ei — were not only outstanding academics, they were also fluent in any number of foreign languages. Take Wang Ch’ung-hui, for instance. He was awarded his PhD in law by Yale University in 1905 and, in 1907, he published an English translation of the [1896] German Civil Code which was subsequently used by American scholars of law for many years. Only with an in-depth understanding both of Continental Law and [British] Common Law — not to mention fluency in German and English — could such a translation have been possible. In 1923, Wang was the first Chinese national to be appointed to the Permanent Court of International Justice in the Hague.

After graduating from Soochow University in 1920, John C.H. Wu pursued his studies at the University of Michigan, earning his doctorate in just one year. He published widely in English, German and French and his work was influential in international legal circles. Chao Lung Yang graduated from Soochow University in 1927 and gained a doctorate in legal studies at Harvard University in 1935 following which he went to Germany to study continental European law. Proficient in eight foreign languages Chao was the Chinese translator of the Charter of the United Nations [which was drafted in 1941 and signed in 1945]. […]

[…] The most famous legal scholars in China today were born in the 1950s and 1960s. However, their education and subsequent research careers were derailed by the Cultural Revolution. That original deficit has been added to by the overwhelming pressure to churn out large numbers of papers, despite there being no requirement to engage with foreign-language material — in fact, some of their number don’t know any other languages. […]

[… W]e have moved away from being open to the world back to protecting ourselves behind closed doors. It is now standard practice for faculty [Party leaders] and the university to vet all foreign university teaching materials. [In the field of law] Anything that contains too much information about constitutional government, for example, is now banned. Some universities have even imposed restrictions on foreign academics presenting lectures. […] [Source]

The theme of intellectual openness to the world was also expressed in a recent graduation address by Qu Weiguo, head of the English department at Shanghai’s Fudan University. This speech, too, was translated at China Heritage by Geremie Barmé, who contrasted it with the “Cornucopia of Anti-Americana” seen in official media amid persistent trade tensions. From Qu’s speech:

Last year, in my ‘reading’ of the term ‘freedom’ I made a point of saying that the kind of ‘freedom’ that we strive to vouchsafe is one that is not limited to personal rights and freedoms; for I am of the view that even more important than these is the importance of defending the freedoms and rights of others. That is because — as I noted then — when the freedoms of others are violated own freedoms exist merely in name for they too are threatened. In other words, the crux of the matter is the ‘freedom from imposition’.

[… O]ver the past few years I have developed an aversion to mainstream hypotheses about cultural difference. Superficially, of course, such ideas appear to be grounded in an underlying respect for the differences that exist between cultures, but the reality is that such claims lead to certain particularities or specific achievements of human civilisation as a whole being ascribed to one or other specific culture. Thus, what appears to be an open discussion is in actual fact a ‘discussions of denial’ and it allows for the stripping away of the legitimate rights of humanity as a whole.

[…] It is interesting to consider the fact that ethno-nationalists who obsess over what is nothing more than an imaginary concept of ethnic purity ignore a basic principle of biology: inbreeding leads to a decline in genetic diversity. Aren’t the consequences similarly dire for a culture that chooses to cut itself off from the outside by imposing a closed-door approach to the world? In reality, these days it’s all but impossible to speak of anything approaching ‘cultural purity’.

[…] And this leads me to recall a famous statement by Mr Pan Guangdan, one that offers a perfect explication of the ‘Fudan motto’ — ‘the freedom of uselessness’ [which we also translate as ‘the uselessness of freedom’] — that is:

‘The self trained in a free educational environment is simply the Self of and by Itself; it is my Self, not a Self that is beholden to Family, a particular Class, the State, the Race, a particular Religion, Political Party or a Profession.’

We should keep this in mind; we study to become ourselves. [Source]

Both of these translations were posted as part of Barmé’s ongoing collection of material related to Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun’s suspension earlier this year, an apparent punishment for writings denouncing the closing political environment under Xi Jinping. (CDT has posted two summaries of the series’ earlier content.) Xu’s case has become emblematic of the broader constriction of academic freedom. In another recent instalment of the China Heritage series, Barmé translated an essay in support of Xu by Gao Quanxi, a professor of constitutional and comparative law at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, who explained the significance and context of Xu’s story:

There has been widespread discussion of the news that Mr Xu of Tsinghua University has been relieved of his duties, removed from the lecture theatre and forbidden from pursuing his research. People are riled up about it and there is widespread disbelief about what has happened. The action taken by Tsinghua has added an element of uncertainty to life on Chinese university campuses that, even before this, was increasingly unsettled. [As the Tang-dynasty poet Xu Hun 許渾 famously wrote, it is ] ‘As though the halls are being buffeted before a looming storm’. When I contemplate the repeated acts of repression witnessed on university campuses in recent years, I experience a deep sense of foreboding, one suggesting that we may well be facing the kind of [anti-intellectual] political movement that was experienced so often in the past. It is a shocking realisation for it presages the unfolding of a situation that none of us wish to see repeated. After all, anyone familiar with modern Chinese history knows about that raft of previous incidents that are simply too painful to recall. They are also profoundly aware of the critically important role played by the Intellectual Liberation Movement in our universities over the four decades of the Open Door and Reform era [1978-2018].

[…] Without professors who can pursue their academic explorations and give expression to their intellectual emancipation, without an ambience that embraces different points of view, without a discursive environment that is tolerant and harmonious, and if teachers are found to be at fault at every turn, if their ideas are repeatedly interdicted, then university life withers and the very culture that these institutions are supposed to support and nurture will be stifled. The brutal and unreasonable fashion in which the administrators of Tsinghua University have sanctioned Mr Xu are a manifest abuse of the spirit of tolerance native to university life. Not only have they been roundly criticised for it by the broader society, their behaviour will also inevitably raise questions internationally. Moreover, it flies in the face of the strategy of national renewal and internationalisation advocated by our State Leaders. [Source]

The theme of openness to the world arose also in another recent entry including a translated essay by Australia-based academic Feng Chongyi. In his introduction, Barmé highlighted a passage from a 1914 speech by reformist intellectual Liang Qichao to students at Tsinghua on the theme of the jūnzǐ 君子, or “Gentleman”:

The scholars at Tsinghua are learned individuals who are familiar both with Chinese and Western learning; they are talents that hail from all parts of China, congregating here whether as teachers or as students they are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge in concert. In the future this place will also attract foreign talent who will help introduce the latest things that modern civilisation has to offer. This will contribute to the betterment of our society and help develop the political life of China. If Tsinghua is not to become the home to just such jūnzǐ, where else shall we find them? [Source]

In the essay that followed, Feng portrayed Xu as an heir to this tradition:

During the Republican era [1912-1949] Tsinghua University was itself home to an outstanding group of intellectuals who embodied the modern academic ideal of combining fluency in Chinese and Western scholarship while at the same time being able to feel at home in the traditions of the literati of the past. In their tireless pursuits the scholars of that era excelled academically while never shying away from contemporary political realities. They endeavoured to meld the vital essence of Chinese civilisation with the pluralistic world of engaged global knowledge. The kernel of their intellectual venture and fierce independence was summed up by [the historian] Chen Yinque in the epitaph he composed [in 1929] for the Wang Guowei Commemorative Stele on the Tsinghua campus in which he said that Wang exemplified ‘A Spirit Independent and a Mind Unfettered’. [See ‘The Two Scholars Who Haunt Tsinghua University’, China Heritage, 28 April, 2019.]

[…] As a moderate figure in China’s contemporary liberal camp, Xu Zhangrun published his keen critiques and salutary advice on the follies of the age, but in so doing he did not agitate for the masses to rise up in rebellion, rather he urged the ruling clique of the People’s Republic to confront existing dilemmas head on and change course while it is still possible. […]

[…] Xu Zhangrun’s modus operandi was not that of the street agitator nor of the rebel; rather he chose to confront The One by choosing a traditional form of protest, that of directly remonstrating with The Throne. There is no doubt that it was a decision not taken lightly nor one born of a lack of courage; it sprang instead from wisdom and daring, and it is one that encapsulates a most profound cultural and political symbolism. [Source]

In yet another post, Barmé further explored this “venerable tradition in China of petitioning rulers, and an equally ancient tradition of rulers punishing those who dare petition them.” In today’s China, he argued, echoing the poet Bei Dao in 1989 and students opposed to Japanese occupation in 1935, there is “no room for a writer’s desk.”

Xu Zhangrun has been prohibited from writing, but has found ways to express himself regardless. He has shared pointed examples of his recent reading including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “Live Not By Lies” and Hannah Arendt’s “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship.” He has also circumvented the writing ban by, in Barmé’s words, “reworking and releasing essays on a range of topics composed before the authorities of Tsinghua University launched their ‘kangaroo investigation’ […] on such topics as Chinese society, legal dilemmas, civil society, politics, totalitarianism and contemporary thought.” Barmé provided brief summaries of nine such essays, together with a full translation of a short piece from 2008. In “At Home Reading,” Xu invokes the image of words on a page as “a flotilla of sails bearing riches from distant lands”:

When I was young I didn’t have a desk for reading or studying. And so any and everything could be my desk, regardless of whether it was the desks in our schoolroom or the table where we ate at home. Lying on a reed mat on the wooden frame of my bed, one leg cocked over the other, I could study while lying on my back: the Heavens above were my desk. Or, lying on my stomach on flagstones, or maybe on a patch of grass head supported by my hands, I could read just as well: the Earth beneath me was my desk. The words on the page were like a flotilla of sails bearing riches from distant lands. Those books with worn, dog-eared pages, texts missing passages or whole pages fired my imagination even more. They opened my heart to an expanse more vast than the Heavens, and they let me secretly nestle Heaven and Earth in my heart. [Source]

Another notable demonstration of diverse intellectual influence is the “final lecture” of Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Chan Kin-man, who is now serving a 16-month sentence for “public nuisance” over his leading role in the 2014 Occupy Central movement. Chan’s talk cited influences including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Hannah Arendt, Vincent Van Gogh, and others. As Hong Kong erupted into a series of even larger protests against proposed extradition rules earlier this month, UC Irvine’s Jeffrey Wasserstrom reflected on what Chan would make of these developments.

While we cannot hear Chan speak now, we can get a sense of how he would answer some of these questions from the final lecture he gave at CUHK last November, as he took early retirement before standing trial. It drew an enthusiastic crowd of some 700 people to a room supposed to hold a maximum of 500. A video of it is available on YouTube, with the mostly Cantonese presentation accompanied by English subtitles. A translated transcript of it was published by China Digital Times and then later reposted with added contextual commentary on the China Heritage website. Chan drew many laughs with his speech, as he did in Chicago in 2015. But he also cried as he opened his talk. “At the moment of my departure,” he told the crowd, “I can honestly say I have no resentment and no sorrow. . . . I am utterly grateful that I could study here, that this place gave me a chance to teach countless students and contribute to society, so today I only have a thankful heart.”

He movingly described how his interest in studying inequality—Chan came from a poor family—led him to thinking about the struggle for democracy. He named many of the figures he has turned to over the years for inspiration and understanding, from Henry David Thoreau to Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela.

[…] I am cheered by reports I have heard that Chan is keeping despair at bay in jail. In the spirit of his last lecture, in which he presents his life as an unending search for understanding, he is devoting himself to reading widely and offering his help as an English language tutor to his fellow prisoners.

When I think of Chan, I find myself hoping against hope that there are at least some occasions, even on these very dark nights, that he is able somehow to catch a glimpse of the stars. [Source]


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