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A graduate is throwing the square academic cap on the campus of Tsinghua University. Image by Chumsdock available at under CC license.

03:37 pm | April 26, 2021

The Campus Fire Goes Out

While there is an increasing global discussion about China’s influence on academic freedom, a Chinese scholar gives his insights as to why liberal thoughts disappeared on Chinese Campus.

By Li Boti

Quick Take

Mapping out the changes in the Chinese humanities and social sciences ecosystem at different levels, this article discusses why liberal thinking disappeared in Chinese universities:

  • Since the 2000s, a series of party edicts on strengthening the ideological and political guidance at universities has been issued; fostering a hostile environment for liberal thought.
  • University administrators are appointed officials, with the Party Committee at the core of this leadership. They are responsible for conducting strict ideological control through evaluation mechanisms.
  • Individual scholars are under enormous stress since the adoption of the Western tenure system, while the biggest criterion in China for obtaining publications and project funding is simply trying to not be a political liability.

More than a few heckles were raised on 14 April by a People’s Bank of China (PBOC) working paper on demographic trends, which quickly went viral with its claim there was a need for “more STEM education” to prevent China “falling into a Southeast Asian-style middle-income trap thanks to too many people studying arts and social sciences”. This PBOC paper was no aberration. Its technocratic myopia was no surprise considering the severe fetters on free thought today in the humanities. Increasingly rigid for over a decade, ideological curbs are sounding a death knell for freedom and diversity on campus.

It was Western missionaries who introduced China to the modern concept of a university, going back to the second half of the 19th century which was when nationalism and a desire for modernity started a wave of college-building. The Chinese university originated as a place of intellectual diversity, not conformism; the decades either side of 1900 were unusually rich ones intellectually. Marxism-Leninism was one of many schools of thought that flourished in schools such as Peking University. The Nanjing-based Republic of China government (1911-1949) did try to rein in academic freedom, but its attempts foundered against the naturally fertile soil a university cultivates.

In government from 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) applied the Soviet model across the board. Universities with foreign origins were shuttered, private ones carved up, and everything became state-run. Political and physical purges ensued on campus. The Anti-Rightist Campaign from 1957 saw 550,000 intellectuals branded as rightists, and liberal thinking was effectively smothered. While there were intense stand-offs on university campuses during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), even armed clashes on occasion, these were between different factions vying to prove devotion to Mao Zedong. Independent free thinking was off the menu.

A notable example was the ‘Hundred Day War’ at Tsinghua University. Several hundred members of two Red Guard factions faced off from April to July 1968 with home-made rifles and grenades, leading to 18 deaths, and ending only when the Mao Zedong personally mobilized hundreds of workers and soldiers into a “Workers’ Liberation Army Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team” which stormed the campus. Far from the bloodiest clash between Red Guards, this ‘Hundred Day War’ nonetheless marked the former’s decline as Mao Zedong appointed “Workers’ Propaganda Teams” to take political charge at universities and spearhead his desired ‘education revolution’ involving ‘leadership by outsiders’.

Tsinghua  gate.jpeg

Formal gate of Tsinghua University, Beijing. Image by Yaoleilei available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

As Tsinghua University historian Prof. Tang Shaojie puts it, “the ‘education revolution’ was actually about obscurantism, asphyxiating spirits, throttling thinking, choking education and stifling teaching; a great leap backwards for education, it turned clocks back for civilization itself. The ‘education revolution’ was anti-education.”

With Mao Zedong safely entombed, the Reform and Opening-up Era ushered in a new wave of campus liberalism, which in turn spurred the burgeoning 1980s democracy movement. This was a return to normal in terms of the role universities generally play worldwide, but from a Marxist-Leninist point of view it was an unwelcome aberration: communist bloc countries exert strict social control via autocratic governance approaches, and it goes without saying that their universities stifle liberal and diverse thinking. Soviet universities were already Party mouthpieces and echo chambers under Stalin.

Why, then, was liberalism in the ascendant in the Chinese humanities and social sciences field of the 1980s and 1990s? There were three drivers behind this ‘aberration’: reformist CPC factions hoping to wield freedom of thought as a cudgel against conservatives; some seeds of free thinking, sown during the ancien regime, that started germinating with a more relaxed political climate; and a new generation of intellectuals ‘born under the red flag’ who had emerged from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution determined to come to campus and think for themselves. These combined to bring about an all-too-brief springtime for freedom of thought in Chinese academia. The tide turned with new university purges after Tiananmen Square (4 June 1989), but even in the 1990s there was a ‘liberal faction’ of scholars, mostly from the third group mentioned above; they experimented with the pen and in the classroom, were campus and media-savvy, and left a huge intellectual imprimatur. In retrospect this was just the swansong for two golden decades.

Since the turn of the millennium, liberal thought has lost momentum on Chinese campuses; universities are once again ‘abnormal against the definition of a university’ but ‘normal in Marxist-Leninist terms’. Unlike 70 years ago, there seems to have been no trigger event – nothing like the Thought Reform campaign (1951-2) or the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957) has happened. How, then, has the flame of liberal thought, reignited since the 1980s, been silently smothered? In this essay I will chart the changes in the Chinese humanities and social sciences ecosystem at macro, intermediate and micro-levels – changes which have put academics in a soundless straitjacket worse even than that of 70 years ago.


A Hostile Environment for Liberal Thought

Since 2000 universities have almost abandoned the old slogan “liberate your thinking”, opting instead for the pursuit of “ideological and political education”. “Document no. 16” (formally known as the Opinion Regarding Further Strengthening and Improving the Ideological and Political Education of University Students) came out in August 2004 as a first joint notice from CPC Central Committee and the State Council laying down guidance over ideological and political education on campus. Marshalling people’s thought and inculcating ideology have since become paramount, and edicts and conferences to this end have proliferated nationwide over the past decade or so. A much-discussed example is “Document no. 9”, formally the Communiqué on the Current Situation in the Ideological Sphere issued on 22 April 2013 by the General Office of the State Council, which set out “seven don’ts” for university teaching: no discussion of universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, civil rights, historical errors by the Communist Party, the crony capitalist class, or judicial independence. The CPC Central Committee and the State Council followed it up in February 2017 with an Opinion on Enhancing and Improving Ideological and Political Work in Colleges and Universities under the New Situation. Ideological leading groups have been set up in all Chinese university colleges in the last few years and are tasked with vigilant evaluation of every student and lecturer’s political position.

Besides all the edicts laid down, institution-building has been a major focus. Over the last 10 years Institutes of Marxism (马克思主义学院) have been set up and expanded in all universities, and politics, education science and history departments have been subsumed into them. A “Marxist campaign” has accompanied this with ideological and political courses harmonized, after which concepts such as “course-level ideology” (课程思政) and “all-faculty ideology” (全员思政) were rolled out in 2020, whereby all subject courses including engineering and the ‘hard’ sciences are required to fulfill ideological and political functions. To quote the Ministry of Education (cited in the People’s Daily), “The comprehensive rollout of course-level ideological construction is intended to shake up the situation where universities and colleges, to varying extents, wear ‘two skins’ namely specialist education and ideological and political education”.

In addition, all colleges nationwide have instituted “student informants” (学生信息员 or 学生安全员) whose job it is to monitor faculty and their own peers. The past dozen years have seen a stream of incidents of lecturers being suspended, removed from courses or dismissed as a consequence of their speech: Prof. Deng Xiangchao was fired from Shandong Construction University for sharing social media posts critical of Mao Zedong, Prof. Liang Yanping lost a Hubei University teaching position for having spoken up to defend Wuhan author Fang Fang against online vitriol following the latter’s Wuhan coronavirus diary. More recently Associate Professor Lü Jia of the Institute of Marxism at Tsinghua University was put under investigations after his students reported him for “anti-Party and unconstitutional acts”. These academics were just regular humanities scholars, made famous only by their punishments; the latter were given prominent media coverage, in a clear move to produce a ‘chilling effect’.

The cause célèbre of Professor Xu Zhangrun was somewhat different. Since earning his PhD in Melbourne in 2000, Xu had been on the teaching staff at Tsinghua University and was ranked as one of 10 outstanding young legal scholars by official media in 2005. His academic brilliance and forthright interventions in the public sphere had made him one of China’s most influential jurists and intellectuals. After a series of essays taking aim at Chinese domestic policies, though, he was suspended from teaching in 2019 and detained by police the year after for “soliciting prostitution”. Tsinghua fired him despite his subsequent release on bail. His treatment was a warning to other top intellectuals that not even fame at home and abroad can shield them.

Unlike during the purges of seven decades ago, a simple playbook has been followed this time: there was no need to ‘unearth’ these intellectuals’ class backgrounds, or expose their ideological roots, when the authorities could simply run news stories on how their speech broke the rules. And since critical speech has recently come under severe repression and public intellectuals under heavy stigma, almost no sign of skeptical or sympathetic online reaction to their plight has ensued, still less any open attempt to defend freedom of expression. Quite the contrary: internet users have resoundingly approved. Potential liberal thinkers are thus deterred from speaking out, for fear not only of losing their livelihoods but also coming under attack online.

Academic freedom for a university requires it to have autonomy as an institution, for example by appointing its own leadership, rather than having political appointees.


The Faithful Race to Defend the Fort

At the intermediate level, academic freedom for a university requires it to have autonomy as an institution, for example by appointing its own leadership, rather than having political appointees. In China, it is the Ministry of Education that appoints university administrators, and the latter’s merits and demerits are handed down by the supervisory organs above. The Party sees universities as a crucial ideological battlefield. It appoints their administrators as defenders of the fort, standing guard against free and independent thinking on their campuses. The General Office of the State Council’s 2014 Implementation Opinion on Maintaining and Refining University President Accountability Systems for Ordinary Institutions of Higher Education under the Leadership of Party Committees emphasizes the core leadership role of university Party committees, setting out detailed requirements in 10 areas for Party committees’ involvement in administrative procedure, school policymaking and institution-building.


Left: screenshot from the Fudan University website of the old version Fudan University School Song with the phrase “academic independence and freedom of thought”, which lyrics by Liu Dabai and music by Feng Zikai in 1925.

Right: screenshot from the Ministry of Education’s website that announced approved changes to Fudan University’s charter.

Later in 2019, the Ministry of Education’s website announced approved changes to Fudan University’s charter, with the new version omitting the phrase “academic independence and freedom of thought” and adding inter alia the words “the University Party Committee is the core leadership of the whole university and exercises overall leadership over the University’s work”.

Due to looser ideological controls at universities in the 1980s and 1990s, specific words someone uttered would generally not affect their academic career, and with a generally more open-minded social environment, there are many stories (to be found in elder academics’ memoirs) of students reporting speech by a particular colleague to the administration, but the latter not taking any action.

Increasingly strict ideological control by the ruling party has however spawned a series of administrative evaluation mechanisms, and the heyday of the tolerant campus has long passed. For example in 2012 the CPC Propaganda Department and the Ministry of Education laid down a Nationwide Appraisal System (Pilot) for University Ideological and Political Education Work to evaluate universities’ progress and proficiency in enhancing and refining ideological education. The specific scoring focuses on items such as “construction and management of the university’s opinion bastion” and “instituting approval systems for philosophical and social science seminars, conferences and colloquia”.

When uprooting freedom of thought is one of the official performance criteria for university leaders, maybe even the top criterion, no university official dares let their ‘performance’ slip. They will stick rigidly to the task, or at least make sure no incidents happen that could affect their career. In such an atmosphere, the natural bureaucratic reaction is ‘underlings outbidding bosses’ – each level of the hierarchy, with an eye on their own safety, vies to follow an even more zealous approach.

To score career brownie points, some bureaucrats go even further. Unprompted by their bosses, they adopt creative grassroots means going much further. The Ministry of Education never formally set out the “guilt by association” scheme practiced in some departments to punish liberal thinking, which imposes collective responsibility at the level of entire staff rooms, so if one member somehow goes over the line, everyone suffers consequences like having their bonuses cut. This approach adds pressure at the personal level, and is an even more effective brake on freedom of thought.

Respect for privacy is a worldwide academic convention; video or audio recording in class is refrained from except with the express permission of the lecturer and audience, and administrations do not put covert surveillance devices into classrooms. Free rein is given, though, in Chinese university classrooms to any leaders, inspectors and student informants wanting to come in and out, and new IT developments have led to a virtual one-way mirror in many classrooms, whereby audio and video are captured and saved for perusal by the higher-ups.

The natural bureaucratic reaction is ‘underlings outbidding bosses’ – each level of the hierarchy, with an eye on their own safety, vies to follow an even more zealous approach.


A Marathon of Unfree Thought

Older faculty members in the humanities or social sciences will often admit to a degree of nostalgia for the way campus was when they were young. Nobody had much money, and there was no proliferation of projects or talent programs. Everyone learned and studied at their own rhythm. Life was much less strenuous.

Talking to early career faculty, however, the stories you hear are quite the opposite, stories of ‘proposals’, ‘publications’, ‘titles’, ‘anxiety and ‘stress’. Paradoxically, this stems from recent Chinese attempts to emulate Western universities and in particular a US-style tenure system. Anyone eyeing an academic job, particularly at a prestige university, had better start working during their PhD years to get several papers into reputable journals. After appointment at a university, besides rushing out even more articles, you need to succeed with funding proposals at a certain grade to keep your position safe. Peking and Tsinghua Universities pioneered a system from 2014 called “up or out” (非升即走), adopted by other universities in their wake: if a staff member fails to achieve the specified quantity and grade of grants and publications, they must vacate their office. This leads to enormous stress among humanities scholars, as unlike their colleagues in the ‘hard sciences’ they have no obvious career destinations beyond the ivory tower.

“Tenure” as understood in Western academia is a cornerstone of academic freedom. After a probationary period is passed, lifetime tenure renders faculty immune to any sanction for the free expression of their views. Not even the most determined university administrator can silence them. Of course, many remain critical of all the quantitative targets people need to reach on the road to tenure – peer-reviewed publication quotas, funding brought in and other hurdles. But the tenure track mechanism takes on an entirely different hue in the Chinese humanities and social sciences fields, where it operates to deny liberal younger scholars a career. The biggest criterion here for obtaining publications and project funding is not being a political liability. The journals are state-run and their editors are required to keep a close watch on what contributors say. Project funding decisions, meanwhile, are the province of party or government administrators. As set out for example in the National Social Science Fund of China’s latest call for major project proposals, successful proposals must “hold high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, (…) and serve the overall purposes of the Party and state”. The following table gives an idea of the kind of projects that were deemed worthy of this funding in 2020:

NSSFC 8-01.png

But what about those already on long-term contracts? Do they, at least, have access to opportunity and a liberal climate? Sadly not. The career track has been expressly designed such that the higher you rise, the higher the quantity and caliber of publications and funding applications are expected of you. There are hoops to be jumped through to rise from associate to full professor, and to that we add the array of accolades to be competed for from various echelons of government: “Yangtze River”, “Young Yangtze River”, “Mount Tai” or “Grand Canal”. These mean not only an endorsement from officialdom but also enormous financial perks for yourself and your institution: earning one of these titles brings an income far in excess of your peers’, and like a sports player you can even ‘switch club’ for a hefty transfer fee. For example, the Education Ministry’s Yangtze River Scholars Stipend Plan showers its beneficiaries with perks to the tune of millions of yuan. At the end of the day, the further you get along your academic career track, the greater your sunk costs are, and the more potent the lure of fame becomes.

Furthermore these perks produce a ‘Matthew Effect’. Like in computer games where you rise through the game levels, credits accrue slowly at the beginning, then the pace quickens, and finally the larger your portfolio, the easier it is to amass more. This phenomenon is not unknown in Western university environments, but for a Chinese humanities or social sciences academic the way to get ahead is to cleave tightly to the political criteria discussed above so as to keep racking up publications and project funding, while also making sure to watch their tongue in public fora and the classroom.  The author once heard a senior academic warn a younger colleague: “you’ve worked your socks off to get all those publications and projects and rise to associate then full professor – just imagine if you lost it all overnight because you said something out of line! You’d find it hard even putting bread on the table… you don’t want to rock the boat!”

Those who really do hold critical views are best served by holding their tongues. Self-censorship has become a way of life for Chinese humanities and social sciences scholars.  Holding one’s tongue and self-censoring is not a comfortable state, and so ‘self-indoctrination’ naturally follows for many. Proactive embracing of the official line and stamping out the first sparks of your dissenting ideas – these are a strategy that makes life easier for many a Chinese humanities scholar. Self-indoctrination is harder to subjectively notice than self-censorship, but it stands to reason that the two go hand in hand.

Humanities academics have been enduring a complex and highly controlled micro-level environment for two decades now, one where it is not ratings from their students or peers that decide their advancement and status, but their own performance in the ideological sphere. Like a hamster in a hamster wheel, they run in a frantic rush to stay ahead, oblivious to the real world that lies beyond.

This micro-level environment is a product of the last two decades. It would be alien to scholars from the 1950s. It has played a pivotal role in the gradual extinction of free thinking on campus, and cannot be overlooked in any discussion of changes in the Chinese university.

The key problem, though, is whether our campuses retain any seeds of liberal thought at all; if the 1950s purge was like a forest fire, today the soil is being treated with salt.


Can History Be Repeated?

The environment that has come into being in the last two decades will have a major impact on just who Chinese humanities scholars are. Firstly, opportunities will be far fewer for MAs and PhDs with liberal tendencies to go into academia than for those devoid of such inclinations. Line and higher-level leaders doing the hiring will pay special attention to candidates’ ideological hues, and major trouble looms for both parties if they somehow let a liberal young scholar through the gates. Furthermore, for those who managed to make it in before the big chill, it will be almost impossible to enjoy a sense of happiness and achievement in this academic environment, and they will take any exit route that presents itself. Those who excel in such an environment are either true believers in the prevailing ideology, or the “sophisticated egoists” described by Prof. Qian Liqun of Peking University: “They make gestures of loyalty deliberately, knowing exactly how to cooperate and perform, how to use the power of the system to reach their own goals.” This amounts to a reverse selection mechanism.

Prominent liberal-minded intellectuals who were active in academia in the late 1990s such as Qin Hui at Tsinghua or Zhu Xueqin at Shanghai University are mostly children of the 1950s and thus past retirement now. There have been few to take up the baton, not for lack of students wanting to follow in their footsteps, but because their star pupils have likely had the college doors closed on them. Since the retirement of this generation of unwavering liberals, survivors of the Cultural Revolution, it is likely that Chinese universities will see no more prominent liberal thinkers for a long time. Instead, that generation looks on in glum frustration as their protégé(e)s become “sophisticated egoists” (精致的利己主义者). Gao Quanxi and Zhang Qianfan, two prominent Chinese constitutionalists fell out publicly in 2019 with their young former mentee Tian Feilong, whom Zhang Qianfan reprimanded as follows:

"It’s fine to disagree with people, but some things you’ve said are clearly just telling people what they want to hear, and that’s what I find bitterly disappointing. You were once an outstanding mind in your cohort, and I hope you’ll come to use your talents the right way, instead of selling out your scholar’s conscience for a moment’s fame or favor (…) A man might have no talent, but he cannot be without integrity! "

The purges of intellectuals may have been cruel 70 years ago, and many liberal thinkers died for their views. Means have been more restrained this time around, and even big names such as Xu Zhangrun have been spared jail. The key problem, though, is whether our campuses retain any seeds of liberal thought at all; if the 1950s purge was like a forest fire, today the soil is being treated with salt. There are no visible flames, but the toxicity is much greater.

Common sense, as expounded by Bertrand Russell, tells us that “nations have been brought to ruin much more often by insistence upon a narrow-minded doctrinal uniformity than by free discussion and the toleration of different opinions.” Memories of the former are still fresh in China, in the shape of the Cultural Revolution and its assault on education and the social fabric. The latter, common sense would tell us, are most easily found in the form of the different opinions a university campus naturally breeds and nurtures. When universities are excised of all liberal thinking, where will society tap its dissenting views from? The future scenario that China faces, when all is said and done, is uncomfortably close to a dark chapter in its past.

April 26, 2021
Li Boti

Li Boti (pseudonym) is a Chinese academic. Since earning his PhD in the humanities abroad he has been teaching at one of China's elite universities.