Chinese authorities are stepping up their use of "student information officers" at colleges and universities across the country to serve as frontline informers on their classmates, RFA has learned.
Informants report back to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the expressed opinions of their classmates and teachers, resulting in sanctions and sackings for government critics in higher education.
Reports emerged last month that the Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture had issued an administrative demerit to one of its associate professors, Xu Chuanqing, after she made comments in class that the authorities deemed inappropriate.
Xu allegedly commented that the Japanese were superior to the Chinese, but later said her remarks were taken out of context, and that she was trying to shame her students into catching up with Japan by working harder in class. She was reported by a student in her class.
Xia Yeliang is a former economics professor at Peking University (Beida) fired in 2013 for making "anti-Communist Party and anti-socialism" remarks in class. He said "student information officers" played a key role in that process.
"I was reported by students in 2010," Xia said. "They were organized. There are economic benefits to becoming a student information officer, as well as the prospect of a future in politics."
"Such student information officers are required to report back on anything negative that their lecturers say in class, as well as on ideological trends among their classmates," he said.
The CCP offers various benefits to student spies, including boosting their research and development opportunities, increasing their access to government departments, and offering them opportunities to go overseas on exchange programs, he said.
Xia said student spies are nothing new in China, but the extent to which the system has relied on them varies greatly, depending on who's in charge at the top.
‘They will find other ways’
The public denunciation of individuals for ideological "wrongdoing" was rife during the political violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), but the system of informants in higher education was later strengthened under the administration of President Hu Jintao.
But since taking over from Hu in 2012, President Xi Jinping has launched an unprecedented set of ideological controls and boosted the institutions needed to enforce them.
Xi has repeatedly warned CCP members not to go off message in public, and set up a nationwide monitoring agency to supervise state employees at every level.
"The student information officer system was strengthened under Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping has definitely intensified its use," Xia, who signed the Charter 08 document calling for constitutional government in China, told RFA in a recent interview.
"If lecturers show political resistance, they will find other ways [to get rid of them]," he said. "They will find reasons or organize students to give them negative reviews and use that against them. It's the safest way to do it."
Xia was just one of a string of academics to be dismissed from their posts under President Xi.
Last July, Beijing Normal University lecturer Shi Jiepeng was fired after being accused of posting "inappropriate comments" to social media, including WeChat, according to a copy of his termination letter posted on Twitter at the time.
And Li Mohai, a deputy professor at the Shandong Institute of Industry and Commerce, was fired from his job after he criticized government propaganda via his social media account.
Beijing constitutional scholar and political commentator Zhang Lifan said the system has strong parallels with the way the Stasi operated in East Germany, and with the fictional scenarios depicted in George Orwell's classic novel 1984.
"Encouraging secret informing is a hallmark of dictatorial regimes," Zhang said. "The Stasi did the same in East Germany. We are all living in 1984 now."
"All of this goes to show just how worried those in power are, and there are always people who are willing to stab someone in the back," he said. "If this was truly a self-confident regime, they wouldn't fear criticism."
Moral, ethical implications
Zhang said the system of student informers isn't just a matter of thought control, however. It has implications for the moral and ethical development of an entire generation of Chinese people.
"These people are going to keep on doing what they did as students, the moment they get their hands on any kind of power," Zhang said. "This will destroy the culture of our nation, and create new moral fault lines."
Chinese students studying overseas are not exempt from this kind of ideological monitoring, either.
Li Longxi, who is currently studying at New York University, said he became aware of being monitored via social media after he took part in an online protest at President Xi's election to an indefinite term in office in March, using the hashtags #NotMyPresident and #IDisagree.
"Paying people to inform and spy on others is typical of a dictatorial government," Li said. "Some of these people have been trained to act as informants since they were young."
"It is totally unacceptable to restrain people's freedom of speech in this way," he said.
In recent months, students studying in Australia and Japan have also been reported by informers for taking part in the online protest against Xi's indefinite presidency, and for signing a petition protesting China's treatment of ethnic minorities.
Dissenting opinion is often characterized in such reports as "antisocial," "antiparty," and "splitting the country."
Xia said the network of overseas student informers generally reports to the Chinese embassy in the country where they are studying.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.