China dismisses professor advocating free speech, democratic reforms

BEIJING — A top Chinese university has decided to remove a politically outspoken professor who has advocated for free speech and democratic reform, prompting concern among U.S. academics.

Xia Yeliang said he was notified by Peking University’s School of Economics on Friday that a committee had voted not to renew his contract. Peking University officials did not answer calls to the school Saturday.

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The action caps weeks of persistent rumors that Xia would be dismissed as well as alarm at the prospect among American scholars, whose universities are increasingly expanding into the lucrative but still politically repressive Chinese market.

In recent years, Xia, a 53-year-old economist, had called for more public discussion of political reform. In 2008, he signed a petition demanding far-reaching ­changes to China’s single-party, authoritarian Communist rule. The party responded by imprisoning the main organizer of the petition, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.

More recently, Xia has criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping’s favorite new catchphrase about promoting a new “China Dream.”

But what may have offended party leaders most was an open letter Xia wrote in 2009 criticizing Liu Yunshan, who was then head of China’s powerful Propaganda Ministry, for his censorship practices. After he posted the letter, Xia said, university leaders asked him to confess to wrongdoings. Liu has since become one of the seven members of the Standing Committee, which exercises absolute power over the country.

Xia said he was told Friday afternoon that faculty members had voted to oust him at a meeting from which he had been excluded, with 30 voting against him, three supporting him and one abstaining.

“They kept warning me: I cannot tell foreign media I was fired for political reasons but purely academic ones,” Xia said in a phone interview, noting that he had passed an academic assessment without problems late last year.

“Even now, having been fired, I cannot say it is political. In China, they can take harsh measures against you — for example, attacking my family members,” he said. “I would remind you that my wife also works at Peking University.”

As one of China’s most prestigious institutions, Peking University had come under sharp criticism recently for seeking Xia’s ouster.

Last month, 136 faculty members at Wellesley College in Massachusetts signed a petition protesting Xia’s threatened expulsion and expressing concerns about a new academic partnership between Wellesley and Peking University.

Xia’s case “illustrates more general problems and paradoxes that arise as American liberal arts institutions increasingly work in authoritarian countries. What are the rules of engagement when we enter into such partnerships?” Wellesley sociologist Thomas Cushman wrote last month explaining the petition. “If more American academics take a stand against such persecution, it might be possible to invest these partnerships with our fundamental principles and some degree of authenticity rather than have them stand as charades that work against the values and principles of the liberal arts.”

In August, the New York-based Committee of Concerned Scientists also issued an open letter of support for Xia.

Long considered one of China’s most elite and liberal institutions, Peking University has entered into partnerships with several other foreign universities, including Stanford and, until last year, Yale. Demand for the name-brand degrees of Western universities has grown alongside the rise of a wealthy elite in China, and U.S. universities have been eager to enter the vast untapped market.

Xia’s dismissal comes amid a wider crackdown on the public expression of liberal opinions. In recent weeks, authorities have arrested many political activists, bloggers and whistleblowers in a wave of repression.

In August, another outspoken professor, Zhang Xuezhong, was prohibited from teaching any more courses at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai.

Xia said that his job will officially end Jan. 31 and that finding another one will prove impossible, given his ouster. “No school would dare to hire me now,” he said.

Cushman said Saturday that he has discussed bringing Xia to Wellesley as a two-year visiting scholar in the sociology department and is in the process of applying for a grant.

“There hasn’t been a final decision,” he said.

Xia’s dismissal puts Wellesley in a bind, he said. “Our president has been very receptive to our concerns and the proposal, but she’s got a lot of constituents she has to serve — trustees, alums, Chinese students. Hiring this man for two years might jeopardize things on larger level. That’s kind of the problem with China writ large these days.”

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