Thorsten Pattberg (D.Litt.) is a German writer, scholar, and cultural critic.
Peking University Cracks Down On Dissidents (R-rated)
This article is about Corruption in Higher Education and is rated ‘R’: Under 17 Requires Accompanying Parent or Adult Reader.
By Thorsten Pattberg
BEIJING – It is hard to be a democrat in an authoritarian society. China’s flagship of higher education, Peking University, has once again ministered to that reality by debunking yet another of its liberal voices – Xia Yeliang.
Normally the removal of its internal critics goes unnoticed. Yet, Xia Yeliang, an economics professor who is a signatory of Charter 08 calling for democracy (he also spent some time at Stanford University and UC Berkeley), decided to fight injustice and go public.
The university last month terminated his employment, claiming this was based on low evaluations student complaints. Media reports say some complaints concerned “anti-Party and “anti-socialism” speeches to students.
Xia Yeliang in 2010 (PhotoCFP)
Xia’s beliefs in fairness, freedom of speech, and transparency have obviously ruined his academic career (for now). However, after the spectacular fall of the Bo Xilai clique, Xia’s case offers yet another, far more heartbreaking detail about China’s corruption: its universities are in it too.
In a report and rare interview with The Wall Street Journal, the newspaper details how Xia last year “helped start an online petition demanding an investigation into the suspicious death of democracy activist Li Wangyang, and more recently he has taken to Weibo (China’s Twitter) to criticize new President Xi Jinping and his signature “Chinese dream” vision of party-led national greatness”.
Xia in the interview celebrates his personal judgment day with Peking University, detailing how misconduct at Chinese universities works. Apparently, many of the Chinese sages do not do “research” but tour the country and sometimes the globe, attending lavish banquets, irrelevant conferences, often sponsored by the government or foreign investment.
Graft at Chinese universities is common. Recently, leaders at Wuhan University and Zhanjiang Normal University were sacked for accepting bribes. Moreover, Chinese academics often hold shadow position elsewhere, collecting empty posts like “director of something”. Phantom “institutes” or fake “centers” exist solely for the distribution of money and titles.
There is also rampant nepotism. One known patriarch has put his third wife in charge of two new institutes, including finances – she lives in the US.
Other Chinese are famous for simply being a professor at Peking University, and nothing else beyond that. As Xia explains: “Because in Chinese universities we don’t have real freedom of academic research, so there’s no way to train great masters. Whether it’s in science or in humanities and arts – no way.”
As for the majority of academics, few Westerners realize that China has no concept of “full salary” as in the West or Japan. Chinese “salary” is only symbolic and artificially low so that public employees, like little children, have to stay close to the mother lode. In the past that was the emperor, today it is the Party.
It’s a bit like employment in feudal Europe before the French revolution – servants at the courts weren’t free but their expenses and families were covered. Certain key positions must be bought. Thus, many big professors turn into entrepreneurs. Their main income derives from the accumulation of perks and holding multiple positions while receiving free governmental housing, subsidized meals, taking bribes, or exchanging favors.
“The nature of the scientific research in China is just unbearable,” explains Xia. “We expend huge expenditures for scientific research, but there’s very little real scientific research done. Some 70% of research funds go to personal use – travel, hotels, meals, computers, mobile phones, iPads, printers, all things you can imagine – and professors routinely falsify invoices.”
Xia refers to the “fapiao“, a ticket for reimbursement by which experienced government cadres pay their business travels, books, furniture, gifts, dinners with friends, dating with mistresses, and even toys for the kids.
Most students and faculty members at Peking University are Party members, or otherwise since their undergraduate years are affiliated with the Chinese Communist Youth.
Even the leader of Peking University, as Xia observed, is not its president, at present Wang Enge, but its party secretary and chairman, currently Zhu Shanlun. So, the liberal democrat Xia cannot expect any support from this communist university.
Because the free Western media came to his support, and because of China’s rising nationalism, Xia is now widely seen as defector to the West – a hanjian or “traitor”.
To make things complicated for Xia, few Western universities dare to cut ties with Peking University, let alone with the Communist Party. They would be “bendan” (slow-witted eggs) to do so: “Those guys, when they come to China, sometimes they are treated as honored guests. That includes fat speaking fees, grand banquets and five-star accommodations.”
Peking University’s 5-Star Lake View Hotel
Peking University even sports its own five-star Lakeview Hotel (with no view of the lake), accommodating multi-billionaires, celebrities, and academic superstars from around the globe.
The university’s administration is fully supporting this strategy of “prestige seeking” over research. Instead of paying adequate salaries to China’s own talents, some greedy top leaders would rather spend their school’s budget on inviting, say, Bill Gates, David Beckham, the crew of the United Nations, or the entire Harvard University faculty three times over. Yes, prestige is big business.
Xia was not able to pinpoint any particular abuse of power simple because the entire political class seems molded into nepotism, patriarchy, and abuse of officialdom. Li Keqiang, the new premier of China, recently admitted that much. Xia’s colleagues at Peking University know this too and ship their offspring to America. Even President Xi and his disgraced former rival, Bo Xilai, chose Harvard for their children.
Wellesley College in the United States recently offered a two-year fellowship to Xia Yeliang, as it feels “sorry for his family members”.
Peking University hosts Wellesley faculty members and students at Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing
The problem for him is that Wellesley College and Peking University entertain rather one-sided “leadership” ties (mainly through the Albright Institute for Global Affairs, the name!). So, if Wellesley College doesn’t play it smart or gather support from US senior politicians, the Chinese side could easily cut ties and may choose from a hundred other US dwarfs, or even European ones, that would love to come to the Chinese capital and be treated as if they were important.
So now we know that China’s elite universities need to reform. Did his fight for right help Xia personally? Certainly not. As one anonymous official at Peking University pointed out to him, as reported by the Wall St Journal, Xia could have made “suggestions and recommendations and we can send that to the leaders, but you don’t have to say it this way in public.” That’s just fat in the fire.
A slightly modified version of this article was first published online in Asia Times, on Nov 19, 2013 (c) Pattberg
Thorsten Pattberg is a German writer, scholar, and cultural critic. He received his PhD from Peking University, spent time at Tokyo University and Harvard University, is a former research fellow at The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University and is the author of Shengren and The East-West Dichotomy.