With Chinese academics explicitly banned from talking about civil rights and press freedom, university campuses may seem unlikely places for any murmur of political dissent.
However, despite efforts to crush any appraisal of China’s human rights record on campus, scholars are still finding ways to foster “creative dissent” among their students and to exert a progressive influence on the Communist party-state, research claims.
As part of a study by two researchers from the University of Macau, some 26 academics and 10 students at a “typical” provincial Chinese university were interviewed about teaching and researching in an environment where state surveillance and diktats from Beijing exert considerable pressure on their day-to-day working lives.
For instance, academics are officially banned from discussing seven taboo subjects, outlined in a party memo in August 2013, which include civil society, legal independence and the historic wrongdoings of the Communist Party, according to the paper, titled “Professors as intellectuals in China: political identities and roles in a provincial university”, published recently in the journal China Quarterly.
Instead, lecturers are encouraged to transmit “positive energy” about China to their students – a phrase popularised by President Xi Jinping, who has cracked down on liberal thought since taking office in 2012.
While few of the academics interviewed were able to take an overtly critical stance towards China, many confessed that they made efforts to broach sensitive subjects with students and to encourage them to think for themselves about these issues.
“One professor suggested that one way to do this is to put on the table both the arguments and counter-arguments and ask students to judge for themselves,” says the paper, which was written by Zhidong Hao, professor of sociology at Macau, and Zhengyang Guo, a PhD student at Macau who is also a lecturer at Shanxi University in north-west China.
“This interviewee believed that it is not necessary to tell students what the professor thinks – students know how to judge [for themselves],” it adds.
Drop an idea, and walk away
Another professor explained that if a topic was deemed too sensitive to tackle, he would simply touch on it and ask students to think further.
“It is unnecessary to challenge the system – as long as one gets students to think, that is good enough,” says the interviewee, illustrating an approach that is “typical of a non-Establishment/professional attitude” in which academics are “in the Establishment, but not agreeing with its ideology; not openly challenging the ideology, but approaching it from a…professional point of view”.
Another academic, quoted in the paper, explained how he attempted to find a different angle from which to tackle sensitive issues.
“[If] you are teaching or researching civil rights…you can study peasant workers, urbanization, and you will have to deal with rights issues,” he says, adding that “there is a lot you can talk about within the limits of the ideological controls”.
Described as a form of “obedient autonomy”, this type of resistance showed that many professors are “doing as much as they can under current conditions”, the paper says.
Many university staff also held “multiple academic identities” using their strong support for the party-state as a way to express more progressive ideas to policymakers, such as China’s need for greater international cooperation, the paper adds.
However, several academics admitted that they were afraid of speaking out in any way to their students, the study adds.
“There is, of course, no academic freedom,” says one academic, who adds that he teaches “political science [but] can’t write and speak freely”.
“Professors have mortgages to pay and children to support, so they cannot afford to rock the boat and lose their jobs – they become assembly workers, simply doing a job to serve the state and make a living,” says the paper.
Many also recognise that their career prospects will be enhanced by writing “useless” or “garbage” research papers as long as they remain broadly friendly to the state, which, in turn, provides research funding.
“I must [make] sacrifices in order to make a good living,” explains one researcher in relation to writing the papers that are necessary to gain promotion.
Another interviewee explains that research initiated by the Chinese state “often results in something that is so useless that often neither the sponsoring organizations nor other academics are interested in reading it”.
“They will give you some research money so that you will shut up,” explains another professor.
Despite many lecturers acceding to the pressures of the party-state, the authors strike a hopeful note on the quiet activism happening on campuses.
“The party-state is very conscious of what intellectuals do [but] they can at least practise obedient autonomy and build parallel cultures by engaging in small-scale work, creative dissent, living in truth and rejecting lies,” the paper concludes.