The prolific phenomenon of Chinese academics publishing in internationally cited and circulated journals in the English language is one reason why their universities trump peers in the developing world in global rankings. Here, the absence of freedom ironically becomes a spur for persecuted intellectuals to excel in research, especially in English ~ SREERAM CHAULIA
Around the year 1900, India&’s poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote an uplifting verse titled Where the Mind is Without Fear, and prayed that his colonised nation reaches that destination. Post-colonial India stumbled in delivering its teeming millions from poverty and injustice, but it did keep the promise of intellectual and academic freedom better than most fellow developing nations. Reflecting on the recent firing of an Economics professor, Xia Yeliang, by China&’s elite Peking University, an Indian academic can exult in the enormous freedom she enjoys vis-à-vis her hassled Chinese peers.
Dr Yeliang&’s case is a reminder of the minefield-like academic conditions prevailing in China. It showcases what happens when an individual with unyielding beliefs tries to break free of a system that seeks conformity. A homebred scholar, Dr Yeliang is a fierce critic of one-party rule and its squeeze on political and economic rights. The official explanation from Peking University for dismissing him is that his teaching evaluation scores were “for many years in a row the lowest of the entire university.” But the open secret narrated by his own students and associates to the world media is that he was an inspiring intellectual who was ousted as punishment for starring in radical political movements challenging the ruling Communist Party.
Dr Yeliang&’s “crimes” in the minds of the ever-watchful Communist Party secretaries overseeing his university include co-signing the subversive ‘Charter 08’ manifesto along with prominent Chinese human rights advocates and dissidents. This landmark document contained nineteen specific demands ranging from “election of public officials” to “freedom of assembly”. Its principal author, Liu Xiaobo, remains imprisoned to this day, even as an empty chair representing his absence echoed in the conscience of the world during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in 2010.
Dr Yeliang also took up cudgels against senior Communist Party leaders responsible for censorship and brutal treatment of democracy activists. The fact that he was stepping outside the bounds of narrow classroom lectures and entering the broader public arena with an eye on influencing mass opinion sealed his academic career.
In excerpts of an interview published in The Wall Street Journal, Dr Yeliang recalled an episode earlier this year when the Party Secretary for his Economics department at Peking University warned him not to “say it this way in public”, which was “ruining the image of the party and the government.” The Chinese state does not mind harmless academics who wear their sacrilegious ideas on their sleeves inside the confines of university pedagogy, but they clip the wings of anyone who seeks to be a critical public intellectual.
A WikiLeaks cable on the current state of academic freedom in China corroborates this private-public divide through which the Communist Party guides the parameters of acceptable behaviour by professors. The cable discloses American diplomats in candid chats with Chinese professors, who admit that their freedom to raise controversial political topics in front of students has “come a long way in the past ten years.”
But this gradual relaxation by the party has riders. The WikiLeaks file notes that frank discussion about the lack of rule of law, corruption by government officials, human rights abuses etc. can be deemed “serious offences” if the academic has an “intent to distribute to a wider audience in more formal venues or in print.”
The leaked cable also reveals fascinating details about how a professor from a central government institution like Peking University is now permitted to critique failure or misdeeds of officials in local government units without fear of retaliation. But the same freedom is denied to professors in universities administered at the local government level, where radical academics can be subjected to “denial of grant money, promotion, or tenure.”
As is to be expected, the WikiLeaks revelation confirms from numerous Chinese academics that humanities and the social sciences suffer from more “political supervision” than less sensitive disciplines. A vast number of professors and students in the social sciences are Communist Party card-carrying members, some of whom still practise the art of spying on teachers and relaying word about “perfidious” content being disseminated in the classroom and beyond.
The puzzle in light of such a far-from-free academic ambience is the high billing that Chinese universities are receiving in global rankings in the social sciences. According to the QS World University Rankings for social sciences, Dr. Yeliang&’s Peking University is rated at an enviable 25th position, while the other big Beijing-based institution, Tsinghua University, is placed at 41st place. India&’s premier social science higher education institution, Jawaharlal Nehru University, scores a lowly 264th place in the same table.
Is it not ironic that the same Chinese universities, which unfairly harass their professors who step beyond the boundaries drawn by an Orwellian state, fare so excellently in global social science comparisons, particularly when juxtaposed with academically free Indian universities where professors can excoriate any political authority and pillory the flawed political system? The clue to this riddle lies in the clinical analysis of the WikiLeaks dossier prepared by American diplomats while conversing with Chinese academics.
Because “stupid bureaucrats don’t speak English”, says one confidante in this cable, alternative-minded anti-establishment Chinese academics publish in the English language to evade the constant gaze of censors and Party Secretaries. The prolific phenomenon of Chinese academics publishing in internationally cited and circulated journals in the English language is one reason why their universities trump peers in the developing world in global rankings. Here, the absence of freedom ironically becomes a spur for persecuted intellectuals to excel in research, especially in English.
Massive government subsidies and investments in higher education across China have also dramatically upgraded the quality of physical infrastructure and facilities. Coupled with a fast growing economy, these attributes have helped students become attractive propositions for employers of graduates, adding valuable points to Chinese universities in global ranking calculations.
The openness with which Chinese universities have embraced academic collaborations with leading Western universities is another reason why their international reputation has soared. Indian universities are not as proactive either in incentivising publications of their faculty members or in building win-win collaborations with foreign academic partners. All these factors lead to a startling reality that four mainland Chinese universities are in the top 100 of the world under the social sciences category, while not even one Indian university features in that league.
Yet, China&’s phenomenal rise in international university rankings does not capture the societal loss caused by its regimented educational setup. The disheartening end to Xia Yeliang&’s brilliant academic career demonstrates the limits of soulless progress in China&’s social sciences. Its educational system breaks the organic connection between teachers and public affairs, leaving intellectuals to stew in their own juice and classroom pulpits.
The silver lining in the cloud is that millions of Chinese being trained in a slowly liberalising classroom discourse may go on to eventually seek accountable governance from their rulers. The citizenship rights that Chinese university censors are today ruthlessly denying their social science professors could be carried forward by their students into the ‘real world’ outside academia, planting shoots of long-term political transformation.
The writer is Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs