BEIJING » Officials at one of China’s most respected universities have reportedly fired an outspoken legal scholar for advocating free speech and for repeatedly calling on the government to abide by its own constitution.
Zhang Xuezhong, who teaches at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, said administrators had notified him Monday that he would be dismissed after he refused to apologize for writings that championed the protections guaranteed by China’s Constitution. Zhang’s teaching privileges were temporarily suspended in August after the publication of an article detailing the Communist Party’s growing hostility to the nation’s legal system.
"I told them I had made no mistakes whatsoever," he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I’m just a university faculty member who expresses his own opinions, thoughts and proposals, which is absolutely my right. This is an out-and-out witch hunt."
University officials did not respond to telephone calls and a fax seeking comment. But in an internal school memo that Zhang obtained and circulated online Tuesday, officials also cited an e-book he wrote this year called "New Common Sense: The Nature and Consequences of One-Party Dictatorship." According to the notice, Zhang violated university rules by "forcibly disseminating his political views among the faculty and using his status as a teacher to spread his political views among students."
The dismissal is sure to send a chill through Chinese academia, which has come under increasing pressure amid an ideological campaign that seeks to rein in liberalism and promote obedience to the ruling Communist Party. At a time when U.S. educational institutions are rushing to open Chinese branches and build partnerships with local universities, Zhang’s removal is also likely to draw renewed attention to the political constraints that hamper open discourse at even the most respected Chinese schools.
In October, Peking University fired a noted economist who is a vociferous critic of single-party rule. Administrators claimed that their refusal to renew the contract of the professor, Xia Yeliang, was based on poor teaching and his failure to keep up the school’s publishing requirements.
Xia, a vocal champion of multiparty elections, said he had been repeatedly warned to tamp down his politically charged words and activism.
Xia’s dismissal reverberated well beyond China, especially on U.S. and European campuses that share academic programs with Peking University, considered one of the nation’s most pre-eminent educational institutions. Despite some initial hand-wringing, notably at Wellesley College and the London School of Economics, none of the schools altered its relationship with Peking University.
On its website, East China University of Political Science and Law, commonly known as Hua Zheng, boasts of nearly three dozen international partnerships, including an exchange program with Willamette University in Oregon and another with the University of Wisconsin, which offers a joint master’s of law with the school.
Zhang, 47, has had run-ins with school administrators over his writings, but their unhappiness with him deepened in May after he publicized the contents of a secret document, produced by the central government, detailing seven subjects that are not allowed to be discussed in Chinese classrooms. The banned topics included democracy, freedom of speech and past mistakes of the Communist Party.
But it was his defense of China’s 1982 Constitution that ran head-on into a campaign by the Chinese leadership that seeks to bolster the supremacy of the party. After assuming power in November 2012, President Xi Jinping initially expressed support for the rule of law, but in recent months the state-run media have sought to demonize constitutionalism as a Western plot to overthrow the party.
Zhang’s undoing appears to be an article he published online in June titled "The Origin and the Perils of the Anti-Constitutionalism Campaign in 2013." A few days later, he said, four school officials summoned him for a meeting to warn him that the article violated both the nation’s code of teaching ethics and the Chinese Constitution.
Zhang appears to have been a fairly popular lecturer at the school. On Pinglaoshi, a website where students can anonymously evaluate their teachers, Zhang received a rating of 4.6 on a scale of 5, with most of the 21 posts favorable. "We admire and respect you," said one post from September. "You are China’s backbone." A post from August said, "You are a true warrior with integrity."
During his meeting with school officials Monday, Zhang, who is also a practicing rights lawyer, said he did not put up much of a fight. Instead, he warned the dean of the law school that his dismissal would do lasting harm to the school’s image. "The impacts to me will be short-lived, because I can find another job, but the stain on the school’s reputation will be permanent," he said he told the dean. "You can never wipe it clean."