​Why an open letter attacking China’s professors for ‘blackening the motherland’ is so worrisome

China’s authorities have waged an aggressive ideological battle against mainstream and new media over the past two years, upping the pressure on them to fall in line with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or face the consequences. Now, some fear that officials are setting their sights on academia as the next front in the war on free thinking.

Provincial Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the Liaoning Daily published an unusual open letter to university professors on November 13, blasting them for reportedly speaking ill about China in front of their students.

The China Media Project of Hong Kong University has translated the letter, titled “Teacher, Please Don’t Talk Like That About China: An Open Letter to Teachers of Philosophy and Social Science.” The paper claimed its opinion was based on 300 anecdotes collected from university students, an online survey and investigative reports collected from more than 20 schools in five cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Shenyang.

The paper said 80 percent of university students had encountered professors who were “fond of airing complaints,” and this “blackening” of the motherland left them upset. It summed up the problem in three points: a lack of theoretical recognition, a lack of political recognition and a lack of identification on an emotional level (of the party’s history and ideology).

For local party propaganda authorities, it’s a strange move to publicly criticize tertiary education teachers who are under the jurisdiction of the state education institution. Normally, directives like this would come from China’s education ministry. Last year, it instructed university professors not to teach seven subjects, including freedom of the press, past mistakes of the Communist Party, and citizens’ rights.

Some commenters see the letter not only as further encroaching on academic freedoms, already under serious threat in China, but also possibly setting the stage for a future purge of professors who challenge the party’s line.

Liaoning Daily said the prescription for such “negativity” is “positive energy”, a term which gained prominent after Chinese President Xi Jinping used it at the CCP’s forum on arts and culture in October. The idea of positive energy was introduced by Lu Wei, the director of the State Internet Information Office, in January 2013 to tame celebrities who spoke their mind on Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

Sun Liping, a prominent social scientist teaching at Beijing Tsinghua university, responded to the open letter with one of his own:

“Liaoning Daily’s open letter cannot be ignored. I read the online version and am not a hundred percent sure of its accuracy. The open letter is signed by the newspaper’s editorial board. We all know that Liaoning Daily is the official newspaper of the Liaoning province party branch. It is unusual to see the editorial board issue such an opinion, which can be considered a demand made by the Liaoning Chinese Communist Party committee of the country’s university teachers. A local party committee giving instructions like this to the country’s university teachers, isn’t that strange? From what I remember, even during the Cultural Revolution no provincial level CCP committee issued such an open letter addressing the whole country. Only the revolutionary team [the Red Guards who challenged the authorities] would do that. If the Liaoning editorial board had basic intelligence, they would not do that. How can one blacken anything if the thing is not black to begin with? Just check the Liaoning Daily’s archive and you will get a sense of how many things this paper tried to blacken in the past. Yet none of its “blackening” attempts eventually succeeded. Now, it said it is meaningless to criticize. Some say it is more positive to offer solutions alongside criticism. Pure criticism is “blackening.” I want to make it clear that, of course, it is meaningful to find a solution and I tell my students that I would only talk about issues that I can address and give suggestions for. However, this is a personal commitment and practice. I don’t think social critique is negative. To identify the problem of a society and analyze the cause of the problem without an answer is meaningful. To reveal the ugly phenomena is meaningful. In the US, they had the muckraker movement and many did not offer any solutions. How you react to criticism is key. In 1962, Micheal Harrington wrote “The Other America.” The book is a record of the dark side of the US. According to hearsay, Lyndon Johnson, the then-president of the US, was shocked by the book. Yet he did not take it negatively, and instead put forward a plan to build a strong society by declaring war against poverty, inequality and inhumanity. Blackening our motherland? How old is our motherland? You screamed and yelled and attacked the old society [before the liberation of China by the CCP], but isn’t the old society our motherland as well? I have written a few micro-blogs commenting on Liaoning Daily’s open letter. As the open letter is a letter, we have to pay our courtesy as a professor and reply to it. Finally, as a professor I would like to give some advice to the editorial board (I assume the writers are of my students’ generation): 1. When putting forward an argument, please ground it in sound theory. Don’t open a topic without any grounding. 2. If you fail to come up with a theory, at least be logical. 3. If you can’t fulfill the above basic requirements, be humble.”

Zhang Ming, a political scientist who teaches at Remin University, criticized the Liaoning Daily for spying on the professors:

“Liaoning Daily sent reporters to investigate [the professors] and collect information to smear them. This is not normal reporting, but spying behavior. It not only turned professors into enemies but also linked the authority of the university party committee and local party informants.”

He said he believes that another anti-rightist movement is approaching:

“For some time I’ve heard people talking about how a new anti-rightist movement is drawing near. I didn’t buy this at first, but the Liaoning Daily open letter to professors made me believe. How many rightists will be arrested in this round?”

Xiong Feijun, an independent writer, believed the prescription for the country’s corruption is criticism rather than “positive” comments:

“The motherland is sick because of corruption. If we don’t cure the illness, she will die. But the corrupt keep saying that the motherland is very healthy. Eventually the window of time to cure the illness will close on the motherland. Those who dare to tell the truth love their country and they urge the motherland to go to the hospital, cut out the tumor and be healthy again. The corrupt call that “blackening China”? What kind of logic is that?”

The ideological battle against online opinion leaders has destroyed meaningful public conversations on Weibo as netizens now refrain from saying what they think. If the battlefield is indeed extended to the university, a place where knowledgeable experts address society’s problems in a rational manner, it won’t just affect the classroom. The persecution of tertiary education would not only likely stunt the country’s social and political progress, but also give rise to a power struggle within the ruling class and social chaos — an unfortunately familiar outcome for China. Such man-made disasters have recurred throughout the country’s contemporary history.

This article was originally written by Oiwan Lam and appeared on Global Voices. It has been published here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence. Home page photo by Neal Lantela/ Flickr Commons.


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