Xi Critic Xu Zhangrun Released From Detention, Fired From Tsinghua University

Tsinghua University has fired Xu Zhangrun, a law professor and outspoken critic of Xi Jinping’s leadership, who was released on Sunday after six days in detention. Xu was suspended from teaching duties in August 2018 after publishing a scathing critique of Xi’s leadership. His case, as sinologist Geremie Barmé wrote in his extensive documentation of it at China Heritage, became prominent as “a ‘case study’ in the broader malaise affecting the country’s educational and cultural life.” From Ben Westcott and Nectar Gan at CNN:

Journalist Gao Yu, a friend of Xu’s, confirmed the former professor had been dismissed by Tsinghua, although she didn’t know when the decision had been made.

CNN agreed not to report the name of the other source, who has been in touch with people close to Xu’s family, because the source feared retribution from authorities.

[…] Xu confirmed the reports in an interview with Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK published Tuesday. According to RTHK, he said he was being punished by the university for “corrupted morals,” and that he will not appeal the decision.

Xu did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

[…] “He’s resting at home. So far there is no more information available (on his case),” Gao said. [Source]

Barmé examined Xu’s detention, release, and dismissal at China Heritage on Monday:

Friends in Beijing speculate that one of the reasons for his sudden detention was that he had just released a collection of those fiery essays with a small independent Chinese publishing house in New York — originally slated to appear in May through Hong Kong City University Press, that publisher had been pressured by authorities to drop the project. Instead, Bouden House 博登書屋 produced it under the Chinese title《戊戌六章》, literally, ‘Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year’, the English title is China’s Ongoing Crisis — Six Chapters from the Wuxu Year of the Dog (for details of this book, and for the introduction and table of contents, see ‘Six Chapters — One Hundred and Twenty Years’, China Heritage, 1 January 2020). He released the book in direct contravention of direct orders from his employer, Tsinghua University, which some call ‘China’s MIT’.

[…] During his period in custody Tsinghua University rushed through a final determination on his status and, on the second day of his incarceration a delegation from the university personnel department visited him and read out an administrative sentence: he was stripped of his job forthwith; his pension was cancel; his Tsinghua apartment was confiscated and all health coverage was withdrawn. In the event, he was freed a few days later. He speculated that his detention was merely a trial run and that, somewhat taken aback by the furore both in China and overseas caused by his sudden disappearance, the authorities had thought better of their precipitate action. They had withdrawn to regroup; their next gambit may well be more decisive.

[…] For those who now choose to continue collaborating with Tsinghua University, be they in China or at international academic institutions, a stark choice looms, one that is between the convenience of mutual benefit on the one hand and the challenge posed by intellectual probity on the other. Xu Zhangrun chose to reject the acquiescence of silence. [Source]

NYU legal scholar Jerome Cohen also reflected on Xu’s release:

On his blog, Cohen speculated about Xu’s future, suggesting that “one option is to go on occasionally publishing in China or, more likely, abroad and get locked up much more seriously like Xu Zhiyong [background] and so many other able, outspoken reformers. Another is to try to keep silent, do serious research and contemplation to the extent extensive ‘non-release release’ restrictions permit, and wait for a better day. The third is to leave the country at least for the immediate IF he and his family are allowed to do so. Will the Party let him go?”

At The Wall Street Journal, Chun Han Wong reported on the accusations of soliciting prostitutes that were leveled at Xu while he was in custody—accusations which, as Donald Clarke noted, seemed at odds with the weight of the police presence at his detention:

Friends say police from the southwestern province of Sichuan had told Mr. Xu’s wife that the professor was detained on allegations that he solicited prostitution. Chinese police have in the past cited prostitution-related offenses in detaining government critics. Under Chinese law, the solicitation of prostitution can be punished with administrative detention lasting up to 15 days, as well as a fine.

On Thursday, a district-level public-security bureau in the Sichuanese capital of Chengdu announced on social media that it had uncovered a case of organized prostitution last month and had meted out administrative penalties to nine people, including a person surnamed Xu. Friends said they believed this announcement was likely related to Mr. Xu’s case.

Reached by phone, an official at Chengdu’s Qingyang district public-security bureau referred queries to the municipal government’s propaganda department, which in turn declined to offer an immediate comment. Calls to the public-relations offices at the Beijing public-security bureau and Tsinghua University rang unanswered on Sunday. [Source]

Geremie Barmé commented last week:

The accusation of ‘soliciting prostitutes’ 嫖娼 has been used so frequently by the Chinese authorities that a new twist has been given to an old expression. The saying ‘submit to me and you will prosper; resist and you will perish’ 順我者昌,逆我者亡 shùn wǒ zhě chāng, nì wǒ zhě wáng first appears in the pre-Qin text Zhuangzi when the villainous brigand Liuxia Zhi 柳下跖, better known simply as Robber Zhi 盜跖, grants the obsequious Confucius (Kong Qiu 孔丘) an audience. […]

[…] Today, the ancient expression that ‘resistance is futile’, inspired by Robber Zhi’s thuggish rejection of Confucius’s appeal to morality has been reworked as:

shùn wǒ zhě chāng, nì wǒ zhě bèi piáochāng

‘Submit to me and you will prosper; resist and you will be accused of soliciting prostitutes.’

When commenting on trumped up criminal charges in terms of the Chinese tradition it is handy to refer to the expression 莫須有 mò xū yǒu, ‘it could be true’, from the Song dynasty, or the older line 欲加之罪,何患無辭: ‘if you need to accuse someone of a crime, there’ll always be an excuse’. Given what Xu Zhangrun has called the 法日斯 (Legalistic-Fascist-Stalinist) nature of Xi Jinping’s China, I prefer a line attributed to Lavrentiy Beria, the head of Joseph Stalin’s state security administration:

‘Show me the man, and I’ll give you the crime.’ [Source]

Xu’s case also arises in a third post at China Heritage, in which Jianying Zha explores the enduring influence of Legalism as the philosophical “inner core” of “Chinese-style imperial rule.” The piece was originally conceived as a follow-up to Zha’s 2018 New Yorker piece on “being traveled” and the “mood swings between bravado, defeatist humor, and gloom” experienced by liberal Chinese under Xi Jinping.

As my eyes lingered on [excerpts from the Legalist classic Hanfeizi] back in March 2019, a law professor at China’s elite Tsinghua University was being unceremoniously stripped of his teaching position and placed under official investigation. It had been a year since China’s National People’s Congress had removed presidential term limits from the constitution so that Xi Jinping could stay in office indefinitely. The law professor, Xu Zhangrun had emerged as the lone, open critic of the move.

Known for his unfailingly dignified manner, his elegantly simple wardrobe, eloquent lecturing and powerful essays suffused with classical cadences, Professor Xu is a beloved figure among China’s more open-minded academics. Passionate about constitutional rule as well as Confucian cultural traditions, Xu is one of those moderate Chinese liberals who argues that his country’s future lies in a painstaking fusion of the best of the tradition and global modernity. His moderate reformist views were tolerated until the good professor decided to express publicly his concerns about contemporary politics. From mid 2018 to mid 2022, Xu published a series of essays on the Chinese website of Financial Times and in the independent Hong Kong press in which he directly criticised Xi Jinping’s leadership, calling it regressive, erroneous and dangerous for the nation (for details, see the ‘Xu Zhangrun Archive’). The critique resonated with many readers who circulated Xu’s essays widely on social media. Nobody, however, was particularly surprised when the professor was punished. What could someone who openly challenged the system expect except an iron fist? [Source]

At Foreign Policy last week, Michael Rowand examined Xu’s work and its collision with the narrowing boundaries of permitted speech:

[…] Xu is a scholar and critic seeking reform, not revolution. He clearly sees himself in the tradition of reformist personages going back to the imperial era. Figures such as Zhang Zhidong (1837-1909) remained loyal to China but sought to reform the Qing empire and reconcile Chinese sociopolitical traditions with the impositions of foreign thought. This tradition is perhaps vaguely similar to the notion of the loyal opposition in Europe. Xu’s writings are critical of Chinese political power structures but always evince a care for the well-being of the Chinese nation. It was this visible affection for his native land that allowed him to initially thrive as a scholar.

[…] As his own freedoms were relentlessly curtailed, this year Xu allowed himself to admit his own emotions were closest to “righteous indignation” (a term he carefully delineated as Western) when he considered the political system that had allowed the coronavirus to flourish while stripping him of his occupation for merely writing an essay. Though he despaired that scholars such as himself were “useless,” he still called on fellow Chinese to “rage against this injustice.” In his last missive, he even dared to call openly for independent political parties to be formed.

[…] Late last year, the party removed the phrase “freedom of thought” from the charters of several major universities, replacing it with language insisting upon allegiance to the party. It remains to be seen how successful the party will be at erasing every smudge of dissent. So far, no force of sufficient power has resisted it. The link that once led to Xu’s biographical page on the website of Tsinghua University now leads only to an error message stating that the page cannot be found. [Source]


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