Politics and Promotions Weigh On Chinese Academics

Life in Chinese academia is hard. Scholars are subject to twin pressures: politics and performance. Two recent cases—a professor’s lawsuit against Tsinghua University over wrongful dismissal connected to politically sensitive research, and the murder of a Fudan University department chair over a tenure dispute—have brought increased attention to the ills plaguing China’s higher education. At The AFP, Laurie Chen interviewed Wu Qiang, who is suing Tsinghua for wrongful termination after he was dismissed for researching Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protests in 2015:

“It is very important not to stop speaking out. You need to comment on politics and society; that’s how you participate in it,” he said.

Wu decries the “intellectual poverty” of Chinese scholars, whose foreign contacts and research areas are increasingly subject to official approval, leaving them isolated from the international community and locked in internal squabbles.

[…] “My generation experienced political opening and the short-lived freedom of 1989,” he continued, referring to the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests that ended with hundreds of students massacred by the army.

“You only need to have tasted freedom once to not give it up.” [Source]

On his personal blog, William Yang translated an interview with Wu conducted for DW News, which shed light on Wu’s lawsuit and his belief that political pressures in academia amount to a “white terror”:

However, Wu immediately filed a labor lawsuit at a local court in Beijing, demanding the university to pay him the wages and benefits that he was supposed to enjoy over the last six years. The court has reportedly accepted the case on June 15.

[…] “I was trying to start a new battle with the Chinese government based on their principle of ‘ruling the country by law,’ as I hope to defend my rights through legal means,” he said. “Even though we know how the court functions in China, I’m still happen to close one chapter of my fight and open a new frontier for a new battle.”

[…] However, Wu doesn’t have much hope for the result of the case he filed against Tsinghua University, as he thinks the immense political impact that the university possesses could influence the court’s ruling. “Tsinghua’s political influence is very dark and it could manipulate the court’s ruling,” he said.

[…] “Whether they are conducting their own research under the disguise of an official job or they are conducting their own independent research as I do, the risks are both very high,” he said. “Intellectuals in China could be forced into disappearance or persecuted through extrajudicial ways. This is the arrival of the ‘White Terror’ era in China.” [Source]

An aggressive campaign against “historical nihilism,” the Party’s catch-all term for renditions of history that do not sing the Party’s tune, has raised the stakes for political dissent in Chinese universities. The Economist recently explained the importance of history to Xi Jinping:

History weighs heavily on Mr Xi, who keeps mentioning the Soviet collapse. He is waging a campaign against what he calls “historical nihilism”—that is, any grumbling about communism’s past. One Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, is held up as the archetypal nihilist for denouncing Stalin’s brutality in 1956. That event haunts Mr Xi. Party literature says it led to the Soviet Union’s demise. Much of Mr Xi’s energy is focused on making sure the party learns the Soviet lesson. Mao must remain a saint. [Source]

Perhaps then, it might be unsurprising that academics speak out against historical nihilism. But a recent lecture given by the venerable, and once nearly maverick, historian Ge Jianxiong loudly embracing the Party’s campaign against historical nihilism raised hackles in Chinese academia. From Jun Mai at The South China Morning Post:

Yang Zhengguang, a historian in Shenzhen, said in an article posted on WeChat that it was “shameless” for Ge to change his stand and defend the official line. He also slammed Ge for using the line that “history has chosen the Communist Party”, saying the same could be said of Nazi Germany and former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

[…] “What he said was terrible,” said Xiao Gongqin, a well-known historian in Shanghai. “Not only did he discourage researchers from studying modern history that the party might disagree with, he was also saying that what party leaders do now is no different from all previous rulers,” he said.

“Any attempt to add to one’s legitimacy to rule by not allowing others to express [opinions] is a delusion from the feudal era.” [Source]

Even those far removed from the world of history have not been able to escape political censure. The science media platform Paperclip suspended operations after getting embroiled in nationalist backlash.

But politics is not the only pressure weighing on academics’ shoulders. A murder in Fudan University’s math department drew attention to China’s brutal tenure system. From Alice Yan at The South China Morning Post, a report on China’s “up or out” academic promotion system, which forces academics to work long hours but affords them little job security:

“Those schools hired dozens of candidates to compete for just one tenured position. The candidates called themselves academic migrant workers and said they don’t have any dignity or job security,” said the academic.

[…] Since the most important standard in this job assessment is about published research papers, the young researchers must produce as many high-quality papers as they can, he said.

“So the biggest winner is the university. Its ranking has been lifted because of many high-level research papers. But the candidates whose value has been completely extracted by the university still have to leave,” said the Shanghai professor.

[…] Some 57 per cent said their work status is 996, referring to working 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. Some 12 per cent said their work is even more exhausting than 996. [Source]

Finally, Chinese university’s global partnerships have struggled since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. China’s once substantive population of foreign students—500,000 as of 2018—has been largely blocked from reentering the country to continue their studies, denting China’s ambitions towards global education leadership. Coronavirus prevention measures have also prevented scholars from participating in academic exchanges. A straw poll taken by ChinaFile revealed that only 44 percent of scholars plan to resume them after restrictions are lifted, the majority citing fears of political retaliation, i.e. the arrests and trials of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

Large street protests against the construction of a Fudan University satellite campus in Budapest underscored the challenges that Chinese institutes face abroad, where some local actors are suspicious of academic censorship and foreign influence. A number of American universities shut down Confucius Institutes, Chinese government-funded Mandarin training centers, due to similar concerns. At Nikkei Asia, Yuki Fujita reported that Japan, which had long eschewed similar measures, is now conducting a nation-wide review of Confucius Institutes:

Besides concerns about the spread of government propaganda, Tokyo is also wary that technologies will be leaked to the Chinese side through personal exchanges. The move follows U.S. and European attempts to regulate the institutes’ activities in their countries.

[…] China began establishing the institutes in 2004 across the globe to expand its soft power reach by spreading its culture and language. The organization has an estimated 500 chapters in about 160 countries and regions. In Japan, 14 private universities including Waseda University and Ritsumeikan University have Confucius Institutes on campus.

[…] [An official at a private university in greater Tokyo] added, “If we do research on Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, we may be interfered with.” The official said his university took into account the possibility that funding from China could stop if it establishes exchange programs with Taiwanese schools. [Source]

South Korea and Australia are reportedly considering for similar measures.

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