University Claims Over Dismissal of Chinese Professor Are Disputed

October 23, 2013 Updated: October 24, 2013

Peking University, one of the most prestigious in China, and also one of the most active when it comes to building relationships with academic institutions outside China, dismissed a professor of economics and a prominent advocate of political reform recently, with the claim that he was simply a bad teacher.

Students had flooded the school with complaints about his digressive style and wanderings from the curriculum, school officials said. “Xia Yeliang’s teaching evaluation result has been the worst in the School of Economics for consecutive years. The school has received 340 critical opinions from students about his teaching, class content, and attitude,” the university said in a statement on its website on Oct. 18.

But these reactions – if true – would not warrant his dismissal in any case, and not normally result in the dismissal of a professor, say Chinese students and commentators. They say that it smells like a case of political persecution.

“It’s an extremely unjustifiable decision, but I can’t do anything about it,” Xia Yeliang told The New York Times. “A school leader told me that if I keep on telling international media that it’s a political incident instead of an academic incident, my situation will be even worse.”  

A Bad Teacher?

Contrary to Peking University’s depiction of Xia, and anecdotes from students, Xia Yeliang receives high praise on the website Pinglaoshi, a Chinese equivalent of the popular English-language, where students can score their professors and leave comments. Xia received an overall score of 4.3 out of 5, and a review of the comments by Epoch Times shows that all of them – dating back to 2007 – are positive. 

Xia was called “the conscience of the School of Economics,” “very charismatic,” and “thought-provoking.” 

One student writes: “Mr. Xia’s Principles of Economics is the most popular class in Peking University. A 100 seat classroom was packed with students. Even the space around the lectern and out in the hall were full of people. I really learnt a lot.”

In an interview with Sound of Hope Radio, Xia said: “Principles of Economics is one of my larger classes. I once had 376 students in that class. Some students were from other schools.”  

He added: “If I were an ignorant fool, if I received the worst evaluation for consecutive years, how could I become influential in China’s economic community? Why did enterprises, government departments, and universities invite me to give lectures for so many years? It’s entirely a fabricated arrangement.” 

An anonymous vote held by a faculty committee on Oct. 11 led to the decision to dismiss Xia. Xia, however, and many observers, believe that the real reason for his dismissal relates to his political views.

Chinese Internet users remarked that Kong Qingdong, another professor known for his strong political views – though, in strong support of the Communist Party – has not suffered any repercussions for his digressive style. Anecdotes abound among students of left-leaning Chinese professors who receive a flood of complaints, but never lose their jobs. 

Pre-dismissal Muzzling

Warnings from Peking University were already sent to Xia earlier this July. Xia Yeliang posted on his Twitter account on July 13 that university leaders warned him about making critical online comments. “[Peking University] leaders passed on words to me that I’m too active on Sina Weibo, and I’ve had a severe negative impact,” he wrote. Sina Weibo is a popular microblogging platform, like Twitter.

He continued: “Why are they so vulnerable and scared? I’m just expressing my own opinion through a normal channel.”

“Peking University leaders told me that I was reported to have attacked the Party, the nation, and the socialist system, and mocked the ‘China Dream,’” Xia said. The China Dream refers to the slogan of Party leader Xi Jinping. A university administrator “pointed out a post I wrote, ‘Anti-constitutionalism is anti-humanity,’ but I asked him back, ‘Is there anything wrong with it?’” Xia wrote in July. 

Blogs that Xia ran were almost systematically shut off before he was fired, he said in an interview with Voice of America. “All my blogs were closed two days before I was dismissed. I had blogs on Sina, Sohu, QQ, Phoenix, NetEase, but they have all been closed. An editor at QQ Weibo sympathized with my situation and opened another account for me the day before yesterday so that I could speak out, and I posted something on it about my dismissal, but it’s also been deleted.” 

Xia added that editors of those websites told him that they were force to delete his blogs by officials in the propaganda apparatus. 

Open Critic

Xia has for years been a prominent activist, signing pro-democracy charters and speaking out in support of human rights. One of his most public acts was to publish an open letter to Liu Yushan, minister of the Central Propaganda Department, in 2009, sharply criticizing the suppression of thought and speech by propaganda authorities. 

In the open letter, Xia wrote, “If I lose my professorship because of this letter, I will not regret it. I’ll feel proud to be one of the very few intellectuals with courage in Peking University.”