Silence is not the way to quell a Chinese social media storm

Revelations that a Chinese university suspended an academic for ‘moral misconduct’ provoked weeks of online controversy

October 16, 2019
Umbrella blown inside-out
Source: Alamy

The Four Great Inventions of ancient China – paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass – are taught in Chinese schools as important evidence of ancient China’s world-leading achievements. They are a common source of national pride.

However, they are not necessarily the best topics to write about for a postgraduate course on 21st-century innovation. Hence, when one of Professor W’s students asked, via her course’s private QQ social media group, whether she could do so, he replied that it would be better not to use ancient cases.

In a separate message, the professor at a well-regarded Chinese university added: “It’s [2019]. Please don’t always refer to the made-up advances of the ancestors. The Four Great Inventions were neither world-leading, nor [enhanced] productivity or collaboration.”

These messages were screen-grabbed and posted on Zhihu, the Chinese version of the question-and-answer website Quora, under the title: “How do you think that [Professor W] at [X University] insulted the Four Great Inventions openly”?

Unsurprisingly, the question attracted many comments. According to one observer, a large number were mysteriously deleted later that day, after the post had disappeared from the top of the most-commented list. However, it kept bouncing back, before eventually disappearing completely.

Two months later, an opinion leader on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, posted a photo of a university document announcing that Professor W had been found guilty of making incorrect statements to students and of moral misconduct. In line with university policy, he had been suspended from teaching and from taking new postgraduate students for two years. During that period, he was also ineligible for awards or promotion.

The opinion leader asked the university what the impact of blurring the boundary between academic argument and moral misconduct would be on teachers, students, universities, education and society. The post was widely circulated by disgruntled academics, but, on the same day, an official response from Professor W himself defended the university’s actions and stressed that he had put the incident behind him and would focus on doing good research.

Little did he know that his statement would launch a second wave of public scrutiny that would put the university’s PR managers under severe strain. More conversations between Professor W and his students in that private QQ group were disclosed by whistleblowers, revealing how he had been prompted to make his comments about the Four Great Inventions. Worse, conversations between his students in a separate private group revealed that they had intentionally planned to lure him into saying something politically incorrect so that they could use the evidence to attack him.

This shocking revelation evoked the unhealed pain that Chinese elites suffered during the Cultural Revolution, when young people were stirred up to persecute their teachers and leaders and to take control of institutions, factories, organisations and even local governments.

Social media was rife with criticism of the university. One observer questioned its legal ground to deprive Professor W of his rights as an employee. Another law expert questioned why he had not been given legal aid to defend himself. Three influential Chinese media platforms advocated a clear boundary between academic and political argument.

Yet, contrary to public expectations, the university neither responded to the criticism nor changed its decision. This was the opposite approach to that taken by Peking University earlier in August, in response to revelations that its recruitment office had turned down two prospective students from a disadvantaged background even though their exam grades ranked high enough in their region to make them eligible according to Chinese widening access policy. Facing strong public and media criticism, Peking admitted its mistake and formally pledged to enrol the students.

A source within W’s university told me that the institution was more cautious about making public statements than it used to be, but suggested that Professor W’s income wouldn’t be much affected and that his public statement minimising the incident could have reflected his genuine thoughts; he could treat the two-year punishment as study leave. However, the lack of official information only encouraged gossip.

Rumours circulated that the university had been pressured into taking action against Professor W by the Ministry of Education. A document from 2014 on the ministry’s website requires universities to monitor academics’ morality – including via evaluation by their students – and to investigate and act on any complaints. In response to this, X University’s action plan, dated 2015, states that strict discipline is in place to punish academics who make political mistakes and have a negative impact on their students.

Even the outbreak of the Amazon forest fires could not fully douse the controversy. Some academics took comfort in a new rumour that top international companies – the most popular employers of Chinese graduates – were trying to find the identities of Professor W’s students to make sure they did not recruit them. Fortunately, however, the students’ identities were not disclosed by the whistleblowers, despite the disclosure of personal information being a common form of retaliation against supposed wrongdoers on Chinese social media.

On China’s Teacher’s Day on 10 September, many academics received good wishes from their students, and a few professors posted their own wishes on social media. One joked that his dearest wish was for a promise from his students not to set a trap for him. Other professors from elite universities expressed the desire that university students would not be encouraged to report their tutors’ political opinions, and that no secret informers and cameras would be allowed in university classrooms.

Whether those wishes will be granted remains to be seen. But universities torn between political compliance and online reputation management will not welcome the prospect of becoming another test case.

The writer is a UK-based researcher.

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Print headline: Policing political views

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