One of China's most prestigious universities has set up a research institute for the study of President Xi Jinping's political "thought," the latest of dozens of higher education institutions to do the same.
Beijing University (Beida), also known as Peking University (PKU), announced the opening of the 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.
Operating under the aegis of the Beida Marxism Institute and led by ideologue Yu Hongjun, it will "integrate the disciplinary resources of various faculties and departments [to] focus on major theoretical and practical issues facing contemporary China," according to a statement on Beida's official website.
It will "explain the rich connotations, essence and scientific system of Xi Jinping's socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era," it said.
It is also charged with "promoting the Sinicization, popularization and modernization of Marxism," the statement said.
"Beida was the birthplace of the earliest spread of Marxism in our country," assistant education minister Zheng Weizhi was quoted as telling the inauguration event.
He said Xi's political thought is now the "ideological banner" of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. "[Beida will now] show new ways to better serve the overall development of party and the country," he said.
Beida has now joined dozens of universities across China who have scrambled to open similar departments, in a bid to be among the first to demonstrate loyalty to the country's emerging supreme leader.
Moves are also afoot to inscribe a reference to Xi Jinping Thought into the national constitution during the annual session of China's
rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) in March.
But Beida law professor He Weifang said not everyone is happy about the new ideological direction that China has taken since the 19th party congress last October.
"As someone who has been an academic for 40 years, I really can't understand why a single leader has been able to set up so many research institutes," He told RFA on Wednesday. "This sort of research institute has nothing to do with scholarly critique or dignity."
Low academic merit predicted
Beijing-based constitutional scholar and historian Zhang Lifan said China's universities have now capitulated, wholesale, to the government's ideological agenda.
"This is a project that deals in the performance of ideology for political advancement," Zhang said. "Of course the highest echelons of leadership want a personality cult, and the universities are now vying to win funding for it."
But he said he didn't expect much academic merit in the output of such institutes.
"There is no academy any more; everything has been Partified," he said. "Perhaps they will attract scholars who haven't been very successful and who are keen on political speculation."
Ma Shaofang, a student leader in the 1989 pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, said the spirit of free inquiry that permeated Beida around the time of the protests has now completely died.
"This is hardly surprising in China, because the universities are just organs of the party now," Ma said. "All I can say is that there has been a huge problem with the education offered by Chinese universities since 1989; the environment has changed."
The Communist Party is setting to work to bring the president's newly minted "Xi Jinping Thought" into every aspect of public life, including as a research topic in universities, as large portraits of the country's "core leader" begin to be displayed prominently in public spaces, historians have told RFA.
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng and Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.