A recent incident illustrates what a minefield it has become to discuss anything, past or present, related to the Chinese military. This week, a history lecturer at Lanzhou University was accused by someone online of “distorting” facts about the Korean War: in other words, of committing “historical nihilism” by offering an interpretation at odds with CCP historical orthodoxy. Luckily for the lecturer, the university came to their defense and the controversy was quickly defused, but given the timing, the lecturer could have found their job—or even their freedom—at risk.
The incident was analyzed in a recent article by Chengdu-based veteran journalist Zhang Feng, who writes for The Paper, Beijing News, Phoenix News (www.ifeng.com), and other media outlets. In “Lanzhou University Just Dodged a Bullet,” published to his WeChat public account 张3丰的世界 (Zhang Sanfeng de Shijie, “The World of Zhang Sanfeng”), Zhang Feng discusses the accusation, the university’s response, and what the incident means for academic freedom and intellectual inquiry:
Someone reported on Weibo that a history lecturer at Lanzhou University had “distorted [the facts of] the Korean War.” Given that public sentiment was running so high after the stand-up comic controversy, people were understandably worried, and anxious about what fate might befall the lecturer.
The outcome was somewhat reassuring. Lanzhou University issued a timely response, noting that the “distortions” listed [in the lecturer’s slide presentation] were simply meant to illustrate certain historical misunderstandings, and that each one was sternly and promptly rebutted in the next portion of the lecture.
Text of Lanzhou University’s response:
On May 22, 2023, there was an online report about inappropriate class content in a Lanzhou University Department of History course. The university took this allegation seriously, and immediately established a working group to investigate. After reviewing the classroom audiovisual materials and interviewing the students, we can report that the situation is as follows:
The content circulated online is two pages from the curriculum of “Modern World History (Part 2),” which includes the section “Early Conflicts of the Cold War” in the chapter “Origins of the Cold War.” The Korean War is a case study in that section. While discussing the impact and significance of the Korean war, the lecturer cited certain erroneous viewpoints that had appeared online—such as “One win, nine losses”—but clearly pointed out that these sorts of viewpoints are wrong. [“One win, nine losses” posits that China won on the battlefield, but suffered many other losses during and after the war: massive casualties, the suffering of the North Korean people, the loss of diplomatic contact with the U.S. and the West, being driven into the arms of the U.S.S.R., and precipitating such events as the North Korean nuclear threat, China’s Great Famine, and the Cultural Revolution.]
Lanzhou University has always attached great importance to administrative oversight of our instructors, and we will continue to strengthen instructor training, improve our instructors’ teaching abilities, and continue striving to improve the quality of the education we offer.
Thank you to everyone for supporting the work we do at Lanzhou University! [Source]
After the university’s rebuttal, the accusations against the lecturer that had been circulating online were deleted. Zhang Feng noted that the incident, although satisfactorily resolved, was but one example of a larger phenomenon that threatens academic inquiry and intellectual freedom:
I admire those teachers who still dare to speak: they are worthy of their profession. They persist in intellectual inquiry rather than rote regurgitation, and they pass on that spirit of intellectual inquiry to young people who pay tuition and genuinely want to learn, so that those tuition fees are not wasted.
This is not to heap blame upon those teachers who are so timid that they stick to the script. These teachers have degenerated to the point that they view teaching as an ordinary wage-earning job, and students as products. They cease showing affection because they are afraid of being hurt. Under the threat of being reported, the relationship between teachers and students has been reversed, and it is the students who now dictate the fate of their teachers.
Such teachers are pitiful, but they have little choice. It is not easy to earn a doctorate and get a job at a college or university. If they are kicked out, their lives will be hopeless—so how can we blame them?
Some say that it is not the “snitches” who are despicable, but the fact that informing on teachers actually works. At a university, it is naturally the university leaders and administrators who hold decision-making power. Snitching on teachers would decrease if schools would better protect their instructors. But schools also defend themselves by pointing out that they are part of a larger cultural and institutional structure—they, too, have little choice in the matter. [Chinese]