PEKING UNIVERSITY’S firing of an economics professor renowned for his advocacy of democratic reforms should besmirch the reputation of China’s best-known academic institution. It also ought to be a wake-up call for U.S. colleges and universities that have forged partnerships with Chinese schools or opened their own campuses in Chinese cities.
Xia Yeliang, who was booted off the Peking University faculty on Oct. 18, was one of the boldest Chinese critics of the Communist Party leadership. He questioned the new “China Dream” slogan of President Xi Jinping and lambasted another current politburo member, Liu Yunshan, for his practice of censorship when he headed the propaganda ministry. He signed Charter 08, the petition for democratic reforms drafted by imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Eager to burnish its international connections, Peking University recently signed an agreement with the Association of American Universities and the League of European Research Universities in which it pledged to respect academic freedom. Mr. Xia’s firing demonstrates the emptiness of that promise. It shows that Chinese universities continue to be subject to political orders from the Communist leadership, which under Mr. Xi has launched a new campaign of repression against dissent.
That should provoke some rethinking by U.S. universities, such as Stanford and Cornell, that have forged partnerships with Peking University, as well as the many others that are rushing to establish operations in the emerging superpower. Most ambitiously, New York University (NYU) just opened a satellite campus in Shanghai, and Duke is building one in nearby Kunshan. Many of these operations are heavily subsidized by partner universities or the Chinese government, which hope the prestige of the U.S. academy will burnish that of its own institutions. For their part, U.S. deans calculate they can operate in China without compromising their own commitments to academic freedom.
Mr. Xia’s case shows that they are wrong. If Chinese authorities will not refrain from political interference with Peking University, one of the country’s premier cultural institutions, they will not scruple from pressuring Duke or NYU. Questions have been raised by NYU’s decision not to renew a one-year fellowship for exiled dissident Chen Guangcheng; his fellowship expired a couple of months before the Shanghai campus opened.
NYU has denied that its handling of Mr. Chen was influenced by political considerations. But then again, it and most other U.S. schools operating in the country have been conspicuously silent about Mr. Xia’s firing. An honorable exception is Wellesley College, which signed an agreement with Peking University in June. Last month, 136 members of the faculty urged reconsideration of the pact if Mr. Xia was fired, and president H. Kim Bottomly said she would follow the faculty’s lead.
“We think it’s a real mistake to enter into arrangements with authoritarian societies without any conditions whatsoever, without any kind of sense of basic rules of engagement,” Wellesley professor Thomas Cushman
told Inside Higher Ed. “If they can fire him, they can fire anybody.”