Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong have terminated the contract of a university lecturer who criticized late supreme leader Mao Zedong, following protests and violent attacks on campus that were blamed on members of Maoist groups.
The Shandong provincial government announced on Thursday on its official social media account that it had terminated the contract of Deng Xiangchao, a professor at the Shandong Jianzhu University, a specialist architectural college in the provincial capital Jinan.
Deng initially drew the ire of leftist "Mao fans" online after he retweeted a post satirizing the late Chairman.
But then a flash mob of Maoists formed outside the college where he taught on Wednesday, chanting "Down with Deng Xiangchao, traitor to the Chinese people!" sources told RFA.
Clashes ensued between the demonstrators and a group of rights activists who gathered to support Deng, participants said.
Shao Lingcai, who uses crutches, says he was shoved around by the protesters during Wednesday's protest.
"Their arrogant actions were a serious violation of the Constitution, and yet the authorities did nothing about it at all," Shao said. "There was no investigation [into the attack]."
He said the group had appeared as if by magic.
"It really makes you wonder if there isn't some kind of invisible force conspiring to suppress people who are in favor of freedom and democracy," Shao said.
60-year-old woman beaten by Maoists
One eyewitness surnamed Liu said a group of around a dozen people had showed up to support Deng, some from as far away as Guangxi in southwestern China.
"Three or four people were beaten up, including a woman in her sixties called Zhang Yue; they also pushed her to the ground," Liu said. "
"Seven or eight of them started beating up a man called Wang Chuanhui, and they were using meter-long steel poles," Liu said. "He didn't do anything to fight back, and they beat him so badly his nose was bleeding and his lip was split."
He said Wang, a local rights activist, was taken to hospital after the incident.
Fellow activist Yu Xinyong said police nearby didn't immediately step in to stop the attacks.
"The police blatantly did nothing while they were beating him up," Yu said. "They didn't expend much energy protecting him, though there were a lot of backup police there, with riot shields, 70 or 80 of them."
"It would have been pretty easy work for them to break up the fight, but they didn't; it was pretty clear whose side they were on," Yu said. "This was selective law enforcement."
Liu said Deng's supporters are in the process of collecting evidence of the attacks, asking bystanders to share any video footage taken at the scene, in the hope of making a formal criminal complaint against the Maoist protesters.
Repeated calls to the Shandong provincial government inquiry line rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Surprised by violence
An employee who answered the phone at the Shandong Jianzhu University hung up when contacted by RFA.
"I don't know them, they're not here, bye now," the employee said.
Poet Lu Yang was among those who went to Deng's university to support him.
"As an academic, what he thinks and says should fall within the parameters of freedom of speech," Lu said. "That's why I had to go and show my support."
He said he wasn't prepared for the level of violence he saw, however.
"It did occur to me that I might get attacked, but I didn't expect them to be so violent and cruel," he said. "They really went there for a fight."
The ruling Chinese Communist Party typically retaliates harshly against anyone abusing Mao or his image, as this is held to represent an attack on the founding supreme leader of the People's Republic.
Three protesters who helped splatter Mao's portrait with red paint during the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement all served lengthy prison sentences during which they were subjected to torture and ill-treatment.
But the government has also previously taken steps to keep its leftist supporters in line.
In January 2013, around 200 prominent left-wing Maoists penned an open letter to China's leaders, complaining about the closure of many of their websites since April 2012. They were later re-opened.
Leftist professors Ai Yuejin and Zhang Hongliang have also been ordered not to give public speeches or talk to foreign media.
Reported by Goh Fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.