Academics Call on China's Tsinghua University to Reinstate Professor

2019-04-10
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Banned Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun is shown in an undated photo.
Banned Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun is shown in an undated photo.
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A group of prominent academics has called on the ruling Chinese Communist Party to reinstate a professor at one of the country's top universities.

Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun was recently notified by school authorities to cease performing any duties, and banned from teaching and counseling students.

The move came after he published an article last July hitting out at the return of totalitarianism under the ruling Chinese Communist Party, including the abolition of presidential term limits and a cult of personality around Xi.

He called for amendments nodded through by China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), in 2018 to be revoked and for an end to massive international expenditure to boost China's influence overseas, as well as for legislation requiring officials to publish details of their assets and financial interests.

Xu also published articles in November and January hitting out at "red" imperialism and calling for an upgrade to China's political system.

But a group of scholars focusing on China wrote in an open letter to to Tsinghua University president Qiu Yong that the move had hurt the university's international reputation.

"Tsinghua University, one of the most highly ranked universities in the world, has suffered severe damage to its academic reputation as a consequence of the university’s punishment of Professor Xu Zhangrun," said the letter, which was signed by hundreds of scholars including Geremie Barmé of the Australian National University (ANU), Columbia University's Andrew Nathan, and Perry Link of the University of California, Riverside.

"As members of the international academic community, we urge the university to restore Professor Xu’s normal status in the university, including his teaching and research duties, and to refrain from any further sanctions against him," said the letter, which was also signed by Ian Buruma of Bard College, Steven Levine of the University of Montana, and the Asia Society's Orville Schell.

High political risk


Former Tsinghua lecturer Wu Qiang said many of the Chinese signatories of the the letter were contemporaries who had graduated from Tsinghua several decades ago.

He said younger alumni were likely too intimidated by the current ideological crackdown in China to add their names to the letter.

"Younger people know very well that to come out in support of Xu Zhangrun in today's China carries too high a political risk," Wu said. "They are probably limited by their existing employers. There is a lot of fear among young people right now."

"The only way the current regime has survived is through systemic controls on thought, as well as economic restraints [on people's freedom of expression]," he said.

The concerns over the treatment of Xu came as social media platform Sina Weibo announced a ban on liberal scholar Yu Jianrong, who researches rural development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Yu, who had more than seven million million followers on the platform, was banned alongside dozens of other big-name social media commentators.

Sources said the bans were likely because the commentators hadn't been very effusive in their praise of President Xi Jinping.

"Don't they need to specify my crime?" Yu wrote on a WeChat group after the ban was announced. In a separate comment, he said: "Don't ask me what it was I said; rather go away and think about what I didn't say."

Yu didn't respond to messages from RFA requesting an interview on Tuesday.

'Nothing to be done'

Fellow big-name social media commentator Cheng Lingxu said Sina is now being required to carry out censorship on behalf of the government.

"I don't think Sina Weibo would have shut down these accounts willingly, but if it hadn't done so, the whole platform would have been shut down," Cheng told RFA.

"They are shutting people down in batches, as less influential people become more influential when the influencers get banned," he said. "There's really nothing to be done about it."

An employee who answered the phone at Sina Weibo's headquarters in China declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Tuesday.

Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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