China's internet censors are deleting online references to an article posted by a senior academic hitting out at those who cave in to the growing politicization of university life under President Xi Jinping.
The article was reportedly posted by Li Chenjian, vice dean of Peking University's Yuanpei College, and hit out at "shamelessness and cynicism" in academic circles, saying that freedom doesn't just rain down from the sky, but has to be bought at a heavy cost.
An objective look at the past 5,000 years of history shows that those with any real backbone have been few and far between," the article, a copy of which was posted to the U.S.-based China Digital Times website, said. "Most people have been supine in the face of power, or have fought on its behalf."
"During the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, how many people served as collaborators, suppressing their consciences and slandering their colleagues in a cynical bid to protect themselves?"
the article, which comes as Chinese universities scramble to launch research institutions for the study of Xi Jinping Thought, said.
"Freedom is never free," the article said. "It never rains down from the sky, but must be won at great cost by people of courage and spirit."
Online searches for the article behind the Great Firewall on Monday yielded no results. Some Twitter account-holders said their accounts on the WeChat social media platform, which is tightly controlled by government censors, had been deleted after they posted about the article.
Written in memory of Peking University's founder Cai Yuanpei, for whom Yuanpei College is named, the article recalled Cai's own struggles against the Qing dynasty authorities of his time, during which he resigned eight times.
"Our education system cultivates astute and well-behaved liars, not defenders of the truth: it has nothing to do with knowledge and is all about the personalities involved," Li wrote.
"We should use the pen as our banner to make humble, but uncompromising protests," the article said. "At the very least, we shouldn't sell out on our dignity and independence."
Unconfirmed online reports said Li and other senior leaders at Yuanpei College had resigned.
An employee who answered the phone at Peiyuan College on Monday declined to comment on the reports.
"I don't know about this, but Li Shenjian isn't here," the employee said. "I haven't seen [Peiyuan College dean E Weinan and fellow vice dean Zhang Xudong] today either."
Repeated calls to the Peking University press office rang unanswered during office hours on Monday, as did calls to the offices of Li Shenjian, Peiyuan College dean E Weinan, and fellow vice dean Zhang Xudong.
But an employee who answered the phone at the office of the dean of Peking University on Monday declined to confirm or deny the reports.
"Sorry, but I don't know the details," the employee said.
More than 10 lecturers at the college contacted by RFA on Monday hung up without uttering a word as soon as the callers identified themselves as an RFA journalist.
A Beijing-based academic who gave only his surname Zhao said posts relating to the rumored resignations are being rapidly deleted on Chinese social media platforms.
"I heard these reports in the past couple of days, but I don't know what's really going on," Zhao said. "I did make some posts related to this topic to my friend groups during the past couple of days, but they have all been deleted."
An internet user in the southwestern region of Guangxi surnamed Tan said people are curious about what really happened, but are currently too frightened to pursue the matter.
"Even one comment can easily get you [in trouble] right now," Tan said. "There is no room whatsoever for freedom of expression at the moment."
In an article on Sunday, Hong Kong's Sing Tao Daily newspaper quoted vice dean Zhang Xudong as vehemently denying the rumors of his resignation, saying he would be "receiving foreign guests" along with dean E Weinan on Monday.
Crackdown on expression
President Xi, who recently succeeded in removing term-limits from the post of president, enabling him to rule indefinitely, launched a crackdown on freedom of expression soon after he assumed the presidency in 2013, and recently placed the ruling Chinese Communist Party in direct control of all mainstream and social media, as well as academia.
While the party's central propaganda department now directs the operational side of the media, the crackdown goes hand-in-hand with a new task force, the " Leading Group For Centralized Education Work, "located in the ministry of education, which gives the party more control over higher education and in schools, to "deploy ideological and political work."
Peking University, also known as Beijing University (Beida), announced the opening of a new department to study "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" after Xi's brand of political theory was enshrined in the party constitution at the 19th party congress last October.
It aims to "explain the rich connotations, essence and scientific system of Xi Jinping's socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era," according to a statement issued at the time.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.