Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

A Chinese Law Professor Criticized Xi. Now He’s Been Suspended.

BEIJING — One of China’s most prestigious universities has suspended a law professor and placed him under investigation after he published a series of essays that warned of deepening repression under President Xi Jinping, he said on Tuesday.

Professor Xu Zhangrun, of Tsinghua University in Beijing, shot to prominence last year when he published a passionate essay in July that was a rare rebuke of Mr. Xi’s rule. The essay denounced Mr. Xi’s authoritarian tendencies as driving China back to closed, repressive politics that could prove disastrous for the country.

In spite of censorship, the essay spread in China, capturing a current of disquiet about the direction of the country. Professor Xu received warnings, but he kept publishing pieces that criticized the authorities’ intolerance of dissent.

Now, as if to prove Professor Xu’s point, the ruling Communist Party seems to want to silence him.

His fate will be closely watched as a measure of how far the party under Mr. Xi will go in tightening restrictions over Chinese academic life, which is already heavily controlled. Since Mr. Xi came to power as party leader in 2012, he has taken particular aim at legal ideas, like constitutional limits on power, that he warned could be used to weaken party control.

In a series of mobile phone messages, Professor Xu said that several Tsinghua University officials ordered him on Monday to stop all teaching and research and told him his pay would be cut drastically. He said a university “work team” would investigate him, focusing on the essays he had written since July.

He said he was questioned for one and a half hours by the officials.

“I don’t know what they’ll do next,” he said. “I’ve been mentally preparing for this for a long time. At the worst, I could end up in prison.”

Professor Xu’s suspension could ripple beyond the leafy Tsinghua campus in northwest Beijing. The university is one of China’s most internationally reputable; it hosts many foreign academics, as well as Schwarzman College, founded by Stephen A. Schwarzman, a Wall Street financier. Mr. Xi himself studied at Tsinghua, as have many other senior officials.

“A spirit independent, a mind unfettered,” says an old Tsinghua motto.

The investigation into Professor Xu, 56, could be used as a warning against any potential dissent, said Geremie R. Barmé, an Australian Sinologist who has translated Professor Xu’s essays.

“Xu has repeatedly spoken out with eloquence, humor and devastating candor,” Mr. Barmé said by email. “Tsinghua University has now determined that such poisonous thinking must not infect the student body.”

Last year, the Communist Party launched a “patriotic education” drive seeking to ensure that academics and universities conform to party values, but that effort fizzled while the leadership focused on external worries. Professor Xu could now be used as an example to revive that campaign, Mr. Barmé said.

Offices reached at the Tsinghua University law school said they had not heard about Professor Xu’s suspension. A professor there, Zhang Jianwei, said by phone that Professor Xu had not been suspended and could still teach. But Professor Xu insisted that was incorrect and that word of his suspension may not have reached other colleagues.

Even so, the word had spread among his friends and supporters in Beijing and abroad, prompting denunciations. Zhang Yihe, a writer in Beijing, said she and other liberal intellectuals wanted to speak out in the hope that Professor Xu could be protected from worse punishment.

“Xu Zhangrun’s hardships aren’t unique to him,” Ms. Zhang said by telephone. “Caring about what happens to Xu Zhangrun is caring about ourselves.”

Professor Xu’s fate has followed the arc of many liberal Chinese intellectuals over the past decade. Once, they enjoyed a measure of official tolerance. But the Communist Party has made it increasingly difficult for many to teach, publish or go abroad.

In earlier years, Professor Xu was allowed to lecture at Chinese universities and publish essays and interviews in party-run newspapers and journals. But tightening restrictions have closed off such venues, and liberal academics like Professor Xu have become increasingly disheartened about the prospects for political relaxation and a measure of democratization under party rule.

“He cares greatly about scholarship,” said Sarah Biddulph, a professor of law at the University of Melbourne in Australia, who has known Professor Xu since 1995, when he studied at the university. “He is certainly not someone who would just grandstand or chase some form of notoriety.”

In other recent steps to dismantle intellectual dissent, party officials in 2016 engineered the takeover of a Chinese history magazine that had served as a forum for liberal former officials and scholars. Last year, the authorities in Beijing shut the Unirule Institute of Economics, a private think tank that favors economic and political liberalization.

Nevertheless, Professor Xu continued publishing critical essays — written in rapier-sharp classical Chinese style, rich in ridicule and historical references — mostly on the Chinese-language website of The Financial Times. From there, they spread among Chinese readers, although censorship stymied their widespread circulation.

“In a season of discontent and buffeted by winds from all directions, silence now reigns in our realm,” Professor Xu wrote in an essay about his censors that Mr. Barmé translated.

The university has moved against Professor Xu weeks before China enters a succession of potentially contentious dates, magnifying the nervousness of leaders who are already grappling with a slowing economy and a trade dispute with the United States.

May 4 will mark 100 years since patriotic student protesters took to the streets in Beijing, and June 4 is the 30th anniversary of the bloody repression of the Tiananmen Square protests. In October, the Communist Party will celebrate 70 years since Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China.

Professor Xu said the investigation by a team of officials from the university carried echoes of Mao’s destructive Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals and officials were investigated by “special case teams.”

“Yesterday the investigation team told me that I was suspended from research. But thinking is in our blood,” he said. “Unless you liquidate me, how could you ever stop me doing my research?”

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