In recent years, a growing number of college professors in China have been dismissed, fired, even arrested and sentenced to prison terms after being turned in to authorities by classroom informants for “inappropriate speech.”
Analysts say the worrying trend of what they call "malicious reporting" in China’s universities is becoming increasingly rampant. They say the practice not only further limits the space for freedom of thought and expression in Chinese universities, but also is jeopardizing the quality of academic research and discussions.
Earlier this month, renowned Chinese historian and Cold War expert Shen Zhihua was delivering a live-streamed speech at an academic seminar on the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, but an hour into the lecture, the feed was suddenly cut off. It remains unclear what Shen may have said that was offensive and the host of the seminar, Capitol Normal University in Beijing, has yet to put the video back online.
In a statement, the university blamed a malicious tip-off from students or individuals who tattle on teachers when they make statements or share views that are perceived as challenging the Communist Party's official narratives or its leader, Xi Jinping.
The university called the complaint a clear violation of academic discussion and freedom of speech. It also noted that the lecture was the seventh in a "Four Histories" series at the History College of the Capital Normal University. The university said that far from being a subversive speech, the talk was an attempt by the school to carry out the spirit of President Xi Jinping's speech on the study of the "Four Histories.”
The "Four Histories" refer to the history of the party, the history of the People's Republic of China, the history of reform and opening up, and the history of the development of socialism.
When asked by VOA about the incident, Shen just laughed and said he doesn't pay much attention to criticism online.
"Chinese netizens…they will report you when they hear anything that they are not happy about," he said.
Violating the constitution
Professor Yang Shaozheng, who was fired after being spied on and after his students reported him for remarks criticizing the CCP in 2018, told VOA that the party deprives people of their freedom of speech even though it is guaranteed in the country's constitution.
"On the surface, it’s these malicious reporters who are annoying and disgusting, but if they didn't have the environment, they wouldn't be able to get away with it even if they wanted to make a malicious report," he said.
He also said that the country’s broader political environment does little to discourage the reporting of false accusations.
“Malicious reporting is now prevalent, mainly because they (authorities) do not comply with the laws that protect freedom of expression in our country, so university professors and citizens' constitutional right to freedom of expression is violated," he said.
You Shengdong, another victim of this practice, says the reason malicious tip-offs are prevalent is that many universities in China deploy student informers as watchdogs against their teachers to eliminate dissent and turn universities into party strongholds in a throwback to the Mao Zedong era. He told VOA that everyone is feeling the danger and the chilling effect in Chinese universities.
Many universities have openly recruited informers to supervise teachers. These monitors are required to report teachers who spread superstitions, Western values and criticism of the party's principles, and to ensure that things that belong to "seven things to not talk about" proposed by Xi Jinping in 2013 are not mentioned in the classrooms, including universal values and historical mistakes that the Chinese Communist Party has made.
In addition to making Xi Jinping Thought a mandatory course in universities, a requirement that began at 37 institutions of higher learning this fall, schools have been openly hiring informants in recent years.
In its regulations for student informants, Xiantao Vocational College in Hubei Province states clearly that student informants should report teachers that have any behaviors that jeopardize national interests. The school said teachers should also be reported if their speech or behavior contradicts Party policies or violate the party’s discipline.
"In recent years, the political and academic climate of Chinese universities has deteriorated, " You said. “Because of the cameras in the classrooms as well as the informers, I have been reported along with other teachers. This situation is getting worse. If teachers cannot teach and research freely in their own fields, how can we educate students?"
New cultural revolution
You says the result is the promotion of “ideological brainwashing.”
"If there is no freedom of speech in a country, especially in a university, how can the truth be spread? How can knowledge be imparted? How can the students be taught?” he said. “Any country — if it is a society for the people — then there should be many voices, not only one voice."
And in a paranoid atmosphere where many are focusing on what cannot be discussed, Yang said the climate can often raise common academic discussions to a political level.
"In academic discussions, no academic idea should be raised higher than it is, to the political level. This is what a normal academic environment needs,” he said. “What is prevailing now is people don’t care about logic or facts. They always talk about political stuff and doctrines."
He said that this kind of far-left thinking reminds him of China's Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s and 1970s, a period that cost Chinese society dearly. During the chaotic Cultural Revolution, millions died, intellectuals were targeted, and schools and places of higher learning were closed. Yang said it seems that the authorities have not learned any lessons from the past.
Teachers punished for 'inappropriate speech'
Deng Xiangchao, former vice-dean of the School of Art at Shandong University of Architecture, was ordered to retire in January 2017 for reposting articles that criticized Mao Zedong.
Shi Jiepeng, former associate professor at Peking University, was dismissed in July 2017 after being accused of "spreading false statements on the Internet" and "crossing ideological red lines."
Tan Song, associate professor at Chongqing Normal University, was dismissed by the school and detained by the police in September 2017 for investigating China's land reforms, the Anti-Japanese War, Wenchuan earthquake, and talking in class about the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing.
Xu Chuanqing, associate professor at Beijing University of Architecture, was reported in September 2017 for allegedly criticizing students for not taking classes seriously and saying Japanese students work hard and Japan would become a “superior nation.” He was given administrative sanctions in 2018.
Zhai Juhong, associate professor at Hubei Zhongnan University of Economics, Political Science and Law, was accused of criticizing Xi Jinping's constitutional amendments and China’s people’s congress system in a political class, and was expelled from the party, disciplined and removed from her post in May 2018.
Wang Gang, associate professor at School of Clinical Medicine at Hebei University of Engineering, was dismissed in July 2018 after creating a WeChat group for Chinese people who are looking to speak up about rights that are violated and arguing that China would not embark on a path of democratic constitutionalism in a series of articles.
Cheng Ran, Xiangtan University lecturer, was demoted in March 2019 after he was accused of making a series of statements in the classroom "with a large number of false images and reports from foreign media" and "vilifying the image of the party and state leaders.”
Tang Yun, associate professor at Chongqing Normal University, was disqualified and demoted in March 2019 after being reported by students for making statements that damaged the country's reputation.
Xu Zhangrun, professor at Tsinghua University's law school, was suspended in March 2019 for criticizing Xi Jinping for amending the constitution and calling for rehabilitating the June Fourth Movement. Xu was later dismissed and arrested for prostitution.
Lu Jia, associate professor at Tsinghua University's School of Marxism, was accused by students of being "anti-party and anti-constitution" in April 2019 and is under investigation.
Zi Su, former teacher at the Yunnan Provincial Party School, who advocated for the Chinese Communist Party practice of intra-party democracy and called for Xi's resignation, was arrested in April 2017 on suspicion of inciting subversion of state power and sentenced to four years in prison in April 2019.
Huang Qi, retired female professor at Guizhou Minzu University, was administratively detained for 15 days on September 24, 2019 for making comments on Twitter and WeChat about Hong Kong's Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement and the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Liu Yufu, teacher at Chengdu University of Technology’s law school, was administratively punished in October 2019 for comments he made in class and online several years ago.
Cao Jisheng, lecturer in the School of Marxism at Shanxi University of Finance and Economics, was administratively sanctioned by the police and marked by the school in late October 2019 for making "inappropriate remarks" in a WeChat group.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.