BEIJING — U.S. colleges and universities are expanding into China, setting up satellite campuses with Chinese counterparts to reach new students. In June, Wellesley College, a women’s college in Massachusetts, signed a partnership with Peking University in Beijing. Now Wellesley professors are expressing concern over what they say is a political crackdown at their Chinese sister school.
Xia Yeliang is a senior professor of economics at China’s Peking University. Through his classroom lectures and online blogs he has become one of China’s most outspoken advocates of political change. “I can’t bear it any more. I think the regression is so shameless," Xia said. "China should have fundamental institutional change to establish constitutional democracy and rule of law. And I believe in the future, all citizens should have independent rights and should have individual freedom.”
His views may cost him his job. In the coming weeks, Peking University, the most prestigious institution of higher learning in China, will hold a vote on whether to fire him.
The university is not responding to inquiries about why the professor’s job is in jeopardy. China’s state-run Global Times newspaper published an editorial questioning his job performance, labeling the professor an “extremist liberal.”
Xia said his troubles are part of a broader crackdown on freedom of speech under China’s new president, Xi Jinping. “There are much more severe measures towards intellectuals, even businessmen, for anyone who speaks out. They have conducted a concentrated campaign over the last few months; they have arrested so many people,” stated Xia.
The debate over Xia’s future comes just months after Wellesley College announced an academic partnership with Peking University during a conference in Beijing, where celebrated alumnae such as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke.
Now that partnership is under fire from nearly 40 percent of the college’s faculty. 130 Wellesley professors signed a letter urging the college to rethink its partnership with Peking University if Xia is fired.
William Joseph is a Professor of Political Science with a focus on Chinese politics and ideology at Wellesley and one of the authors of the letter. “I have been engaging with this regime [Chinese government] for more than 40 years, and I am willing to live within limits generally," he said. "But when it becomes so specific as in David’s case, where I believe it is so blatantly a violation of academic freedom rather than just self-censorship, that is the major tool of the dictatorship in China, I felt I had no choice other than to take a stand.”
Wellesley College President H. Kim Bottomly responded to the standoff by releasing a statement saying the university faculty would reassess the school’s relationship with Peking University if Professor Xia is fired.
Wellesley has heralded the Peking partnership as an opportunity for faculty and student exchanges and joint research. Other U.S. schools have struck similar deals. Duke University broke ground for its China campus in Kunshan in 2010, and classes have begun at New York University’s new “portal” campus in Shanghai. The universities’ expansion into the world’s fastest growing economy brings new students and dollars to American university campuses at a time of financial strain.
But the academic partnerships are coming at a time of China’s heightened scrutiny of individuals who have built a reputation for their outspoken views.
Earlier this year authorities unveiled harsh new penalties for internet users who post information online considered “defamatory.” Human Rights Watch reports that more than 55 activists have been arbitrarily detained in China since February of this year. Wellesley’s William Joseph sees Xia’s situation as part of this trend.
“There has obviously been a crackdown in some ways, particularly among intellectuals and universities, faculty, dissidents in general, over the last couple of months, and I think that was a reality check for people who thought that Xi Jinping might be different,” said Joseph.
Xia Yeliang’s political activism began more than a decade ago when he wrote what he calls “anti-corruption articles” for newspapers, magazines and academic journals focusing on China’s leadership. He gained prominence in 2008 when he was an early signer of Charter 08, a citizens’ manifesto calling for political change and an end to one-Party rule.
Xia said the fallout from his political views began soon after. Once a regular television commentator, state-backed broadcaster CCTV stopped asking him to appear on their shows. He also says Peking University took away two of his professional titles. Undercover police began to follow and question him, sometimes waiting all night in a car outside of his home.
By 2011 Xia said he was so frustrated by the surveillance that he accepted teaching opportunities abroad, first at UCLA and then Stanford. But he continued to call for greater civic freedoms and eventually was ordered to return home or face dismissal from his job.
Now, he faces expulsion from that position from a peer review committee. Wellesley’s William Joseph is skeptical that the review is actually about assessing Xia’s job performance. “Why someone of that rank and stature should be dismissed, by peer review? It just doesn’t make sense in a lot of ways,” he stated.
Xia is the second college professor this year who said he is being punished for his political beliefs. Zhang Xuezhong, a lecturer at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, says he was suspended from his teaching responsibilities after he wrote an article urging members of the Communist Party to operate within China’s constitution. Zhang says university officials told him the article was “unconstitutional” and in violation of university rules.
Xia worries that his outspokenness will lead to jail time and says his wife has implored him to stop his activism.
“I said if there is no one to be on the first line, then there is no one to follow other people. I’d like to be on the first line. There should always be someone to stand up and to call on other people. Of course everyone has a wife, has a family," Xia said. "Everybody has. So what is the excuse? If we want to change the institution, there must be someone who would like to make the sacrifice and give some contribution to that.”
Peking University had been expected to vote by the end of September on Xia’s fate. The professor says he has not been notified as to when the vote will occur and it may have been postponed until later this fall.