A Chinese university has fired a professor for failing to admit wrongdoing with regards to posting an article criticizing President Xi Jinping, the professor claimed on Wednesday, underscoring questions about academic freedoms for foreign colleges setting up shop in China.
Many liberals had hoped that the new government under Xi, who became president in March, would be more tolerant of calls for political reform.
However, those hopes have been dashed following the sacking of law professor Zhang Xuezhong Monday by the East China University of Political Science and Law. The Shanghai-based university’s decision appeared to be fresh evidence the ruling party is hardening its stance toward dissent.
The sacking follows the dismissal of liberal Peking University economist Xia Yeliang in October for blog posts calling for democratic reforms and rule of law in China.
Zhang's article, which he posted in June, and an online book he wrote entitled “New Common Sense”, which was critical of Communist Party rule, rankled authorities. Zhang said university officials tried on several occasions to get him to recant.
He was suspended from teaching in August. Last month, law department and human resources officials asked if he had learned his lesson and would admit wrongdoing, he said on Wednesday.
“I said I did nothing wrong, so there's nothing to admit to,” he said.
The dean of the law school summoned him and said on Monday that the school administration had decided he was unfit to continue as a teacher in the law department.
“I told him that for a university to persecute a teacher based on his views or thoughts is a serious public event. It could become a scandal of historic proportions,” said Zhang, 36, who also practices human rights law.
A law school official with the same surname declined to comment when contacted by telephone. Calls to the university's information and propaganda office went unanswered.
Zhang's June article, “The Origin and the Perils of the Anti-constitutionalism Campaign of 2013”, criticized Xi, who is also the chief of the Communist Party, as anti-constitutional, anti-free media and anti-judicial independence. His online book, “New Common Sense”, claims one-party rule is illegal.
In November, Xi emerged from a key policy meeting of top Communist Party officials with what analysts said was a strengthened mandate. The meeting endorsed sweeping economic reforms but no political opening.
Foreign universities have rushed to set up partnerships and branch campuses in China. The zeal to gain access to the huge education market has raised questions over whether prestigious schools would have to sacrifice academic freedoms under tightly government-controlled curricula.
The website of East China University of Political Science and Law boasts “good working relationships” with dozens of schools, including the University of Maryland, St. Louis University, Willamette University and Golden State University.
Xia's case drew international attention when it broke, including from faculty members at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which has an exchange program with Peking University.
More than 130 members of the Wellesley faculty wrote an open letter to Peking University officials in September, saying they would ask college administrators to cancel the exchange program if Xia was fired for political reasons.