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China’s Peking University fires professor who criticized government

One of China’s top universities has notified an economics professor known for his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government that his colleagues have voted to expel him from the institution.

The move against Xia Yeliang, who teaches at Peking University in Beijing, appears to reflect a crackdown on liberal academics that’s become more severe since President Xi Jinping came to power in March.

Several well-known universities – including the London School of Economics and Yale and Cornell in the United States – have partnerships with Peking, though few have taken up Xia’s cause. Other institutions, including New York University and Duke University, have opened campuses in China recently or are about to amid worries that they’ll sacrifice academic freedom for the sometimes lucrative opportunity to partner with Chinese institutions.

Xia said Friday that administrators at Peking University’s School of Economics had told him that his contract would be terminated at the end of January after the 30-3 vote last week approving his dismissal.

Xia, who’s been a visiting scholar at Stanford University, was among the first people to sign Charter 08, a petition that called for democratic freedoms and human rights in China. He’s publicly criticized the Chinese Communist Party for censorship, particularly among academics. He said he had been monitored by police for years, faced detention and house arrest, and had been encouraged by Peking University to practice restraint with his political views.

Xia said Peking administrators had encouraged him not to publicly link his dismissal to politics. “I can’t say that it is a political issue,” he said. “I can only say it is an academic issue.”

Peking administrators couldn’t be reached for comment.

Xia said he’d continue to teach this term but would start looking for employment elsewhere, perhaps at American universities.

Other faculty members at Peking who’d been speaking to foreign news media about Xia’s circumstance said they also were encouraged to withhold public comment. Peking administrators “called me and told me about this and then told me not to make comments,” said Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at the university, adding that administrators had said Xia’s dismissal was for “academic reasons.”

“I think it is bad news,” Zhang said. “I told the university it might be better if this happened during some other time or to some other person who is not so politically high profile, so people won’t link the two together.”

Chinese academics have long faced repression, but China’s leaders have renewed efforts to toughen ideological control on campuses in recent months after younger academics, particularly those who’ve studied in the West, began discussing taboo topics in the classroom, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which Chinese troops opened fired on pro-democracy demonstrators.

The state-run Xinhua news agency reported in May that the Education Ministry had ordered universities to enhance “young teachers’ political education” and boost “ideological guidance.” The same month, officials ordered universities to ban the discussion of seven topics in classrooms, including human rights and free speech.

“The pressure on the freedom of speech is unprecedented recently,” said Zhang Ming, a prominent political science professor at People’s University in Beijing. “It is severely hurting academic freedom.”

So far, there’s been little outcry from Western universities over Xia’s situation, with the exception of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which announced a formal partnership with Peking in June. In September, more than 100 Wellesley faculty members wrote a letter to Peking administrators, criticizing them for targeting Xia.

“If he is dismissed, we will encourage Wellesley College to reconsider our institutional partnership,” the letter said.

Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are cornerstones of American concepts of academic freedom, and administrators for New York University, which opened a campus in Shanghai this fall, and Duke University, which is building a campus in Kunshan, outside Shanghai, say they’ve been promised academic freedom.

Zhang, the People’s University professor, is skeptical. “I don’t think they will enjoy complete academic freedom,” he said. “I believe there will be invisible restraints on them.”

Other scholars take a more tempered view. Many Chinese young people, and even professors, care little about politics and thus are unlikely to be affected by government efforts to clamp down on liberal ideology. Some say that while there’s a chilling effect at universities, it probably will be only short-term.

“I certainly feel there is more pressure, but I don’t want to over-exaggerate,” said Zhang Qianfan, the Peking law professor. “China is very different from its past. Nowadays, leaders can say one thing but society will go the other way.”