When a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education stated last month that the South University of Science and Technology of China should be "run according to the law", it put the fledgling institution and its controversial principal, Zhu Qingshi, on a collision course with the state.
Professor Zhu, appointed as the institution's inaugural president two years ago by the Shenzhen municipal government, is determined to break down the barriers of bureaucratisation - a longstanding and systematic malpractice in Chinese higher education. South is modelled on the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the professor wants to make it into a first-rate research institution - even if that means breaking the rules.
At the end of last year and without ministerial approval, South started to enrol Grade 2 senior high-school students (17 year olds), recruiting 45 undergraduates nine weeks before they had even sat the official national college entrance examination.
But according to the official list issued by the Ministry of Education, South is not among the 820 colleges eligible for undergraduate enrolment in 2011. If institutions that are not on the list enrol students, the ministry will accredit neither the college rolls nor its diplomas.
The ministry spokeswoman stated that institutions must run "according to the law, to adhere to the nation's fundamental education system and to protect the legal rights of the students with institutional arrangements".
This message has been widely interpreted by scholars and the public to mean that South's students must not bypass the national college entrance exam, which is considered to be the bedrock of China's "fundamental education system" and which is held annually from 7 to 9 June.
In response, the South students refused to take the examination and published an open letter online: "We are steadfast in our choices, and we fully believe that the future of (South) is promising," they wrote. But they also admitted that "we feel helpless; we are only students".
In an interview with the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post newspaper, Professor Zhu seemed gratified by the attitude of his students, since it indicated that "they understand they are trailblazers".
He said he was sanguine that post-graduation, South's students would be welcomed by employers, whether their diplomas had the state's seal of approval or not.
Professor Zhu also justified South's controversial recruitment policy by arguing that all reforms test the laws and regulations available. The establishment of Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone 31 years ago was a case in point, he added.
"If there is always a rule forbidding anyone to cross the line, is reform possible?" he asked. "And if the reform of higher education is impossible, what is the sense of me being president?"
According to Xiong Binqi, vice-president of the 21st Century Education Research Institute at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the Ministry of Education fully intends to incorporate South into the existing higher education system by slowly conferring on it the right to enrol students and to award degrees.
He added that two crucial factors could help South out of its current predicament: strong support from the local Shenzhen government, and clear evidence that it has enrolled top-quality students. As for their likelihood, as Mao Zedong said of the French Revolution, it's too early to say.