China's intellectuals feel 'chilling' effect of speech controls under Xi Jinping

A decade of controls on public speech has forced many in higher education or public life to pick a side.
By Wang Yun for RFA Mandarin
2022.10.13
Share on WhatsApp
Share on WhatsApp
China's intellectuals feel 'chilling' effect of speech controls under Xi Jinping Former Tsinghua University lecturer Wu Qiang speaks during an interview at his apartment in Beijing, June 10, 2021.
AFP

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which convenes in Beijing on Oct. 16, is expected to grant an unprecedented third five-year term to Xi Jinping, the CCP general secretary and state president. In the run up to the congress, RFA Cantonese and Mandarin examined the 69-year-old Xi's decade at the helm of the world's most populous nation in a series of reports on Hong Kong, foreign policy, Chinese intellectuals, civil society and rural poverty.

Growing pressure to submit to the party line has silenced many of China's public intellectuals in the decade since ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping took power.

Wu Qiang, an outspoken former lecturer at Beijing's Tsinghua University, sees the past few years as a struggle to hold onto personal dignity in the face of increasingly authoritarian rule under Xi.

He cites arriving at Shanghai Pudong International Airport in October 2020, after a vacation with his wife in Germany, and being forcibly separated from her by officials, who forced them to quarantine separately.

"I went on a hunger strike in protest at this injury from a basic loss of [human] dignity during the pandemic," Wu told RFA in a recent interview looking back at his experience under Xi Jinping.

While Wu's hunger strike resulted in a U-turn from pandemic enforcers after 35 hours, some of his attempts to stand up to authoritarian bullying have been less successful.

Wu was suspended from his lectureship at Tsinghua University in 2015 for researching the 2014 Occupy Central democracy movement in Hong Kong, as well as mass protests and grassroots elections in the rebel Guangdong villages of Taishi and Wukan.

Wu lodged a legal appeal against his dismissal, but Beijing's Haidian District People's Court rejected his lawsuit in a judgment published on Sept. 10, 2022.

Unsurprised by this outcome, Wu has nonetheless filed an appeal to the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court on Sept. 21, saying it was also a matter of personal dignity.

He is looking for some public recognition of his humanity, something he regards as the "most important thing of all" when it comes to the relationship between governments and the governed.

"This is the most important thing of all, regardless of whether you are a laborer with callused hands, a high-ranking leader, a middle-ranking intellectual or a capitalist entrepreneur," Wu said.

Xu Zhangrun, a former law professor, was fired from his post in July 2020 after he called online for political reforms.  Credit: Xu Zhangrun
Xu Zhangrun, a former law professor, was fired from his post in July 2020 after he called online for political reforms. Credit: Xu Zhangrun
Silenced, suspended, fired or jailed

But scholars who dare to criticize those in power, or the way it is wielded, are rarely afforded much dignity or recognition in today's China.

They are more likely to be silenced, suspended, fired, or even sent to prison.

Wu's former colleague at Tsinghua, Xu Zhangrun, met a similar fate.

The former law professor was fired from his post in July 2020 after he called online for political reforms. Xu had earlier been detained on suspicion of "seeking out prostitutes," which have been used before by the Chinese authorities to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Friends said at the time of Xu's detention that it could be linked to the publication of one of his books in New York last month, a collection of some of his most controversial essays and articles, including one accusing Xi of taking China into "a dead end."

Former economics professor Xi Yeliang was fired from Peking University in 2013 after he criticized the government for suppressing freedom of speech, while retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang was forcibly "disappeared" by state security police in 2018.

Wei Jian, a professor at the French Institute for Advanced Study in Social Sciences, said many academics have been forced to pick a side under Xi's rule.

“When public intellectuals started being attacked, a lot of scholars had to make a choice: to assume the role of [public] experts, or retreat into their ivory towers, only participating in public affairs indirectly, at best," Wei told RFA.

"It has become harder and harder [for Chinese intellectuals] to play any kind of public role over the past decade, due to significant restrictions on freedom of expression in China," he said.

Teng Biao, a former lecturer at China University of Political Science and Law and human rights lawyer, fled China amid tightening controls on freedom of speech under Xi Jinping. Credit: RFA screenshot
Teng Biao, a former lecturer at China University of Political Science and Law and human rights lawyer, fled China amid tightening controls on freedom of speech under Xi Jinping. Credit: RFA screenshot
Realists and moralists

Wei divides public intellectuals into realists, who offer their expertise to those in power, and moralist, who impose on themselves a certain moral standard.

Exiled intellectuals described a situation in today's China where the latter group has been entirely marginalized.

U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said he fled China amid tightening controls on freedom of speech under Xi Jinping.

"I came to the United States in September 2014," Teng told RFA. "I was invited by Harvard University to be a visiting scholar."

"Back then, a lot of people like Xu Zhiyong, Wang Gongquan, also Ding Jiaxi and Zhao Changqing, were getting detained for taking part in the New Citizens' [transparency and anti-corruption] movement," he said.

Teng made the decision not to return to China quickly, during a trip to Hong Kong. After arriving in the U.S. he learned that his wife and child were being prevented from leaving the country to join him.

He said that while the authorities did pursue dissidents during the leadership of presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin between 1992 and 2002, it was in far smaller numbers than under Xi.

"There were some intellectuals, rights defenders, dissidents and so on who were detained during the Jiang and Hu eras, but the numbers were small compared with those detained after 2013," Teng said.

The chilling effect has also spread beyond mainland China, to Hong Kong, and the former Portuguese city of Macau.

Hao Zhidong, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Macau, says he has been forced to abandon his former areas of research. Credit: RFA screenshot
Hao Zhidong, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Macau, says he has been forced to abandon his former areas of research. Credit: RFA screenshot
Abandoning research

Hao Zhidong, an emeritus sociology professor at the University of Macau who researches Chinese nationalism, said it has already been felt at his institution.

"Things seemed OK in 2015 and 2016, but it started getting difficult in 2017, with increasingly serious [consequences] by 2018 and 2019," Hao told RFA.

He said he has been forced to abandon his former areas of research.

"I'm afraid that if I make contact [with colleagues or interview subjects in mainland China], I could get those people into trouble," he said, tracing the tightening of controls to 2017, when the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang "re-education" camps first began to be reported by the international media.

Around the same time, the CCP's 19th National Congress incorporated Xi Jinping's personal brand of ideology -- Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era -- into the party charter.

Across China, dozens of colleges and universities responded by setting up research programs and institutes to study "Xi Jinping Thought."

According to Wu Qiang, there needs to be some attempt to claw back some of the limited intellectual freedom once permitted by earlier iterations of the CCP.

"Faced with political pressure, the temptations of money and the market, [Chinese intellectuals] have undergone a collective turnaround," Wu said.

"This turnaround needs to be accompanied by greater awareness of dignity," he said. "This personality change ... is a kind of psychology of willing enslavement."

Teng agreed.

"The vast majority of daren't speak out, to criticize injustice or the current political system," he said. "Others go further ... and start lauding its virtues."

"This has had a devastating effect on the accumulated knowledge of the entire nation, on its cultural heritage, and its independence of thought," he said.

Wei Jian, a professor at the French Institute for Advanced Study in Social Sciences, said many academics have been forced to pick a side under Xi's rule. Credit: RFA
Wei Jian, a professor at the French Institute for Advanced Study in Social Sciences, said many academics have been forced to pick a side under Xi's rule. Credit: RFA
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.