Chinese students taught to ‘snitch’ on politically incorrect lecturers
The war being waged by Chinese international students against “politically incorrect” lecturers in Australia hasn’t emerged out of the blue. It has flowed out from China’s increasingly regimented education system.
It has come from a cohesive approach pursued over the past five years by the Chinese Communist Party authorities — which have severely audited universities to ensure their ideological orthodoxy, with a strong stress on Marxism and Xi Jinping thought.
The President has warned academics: “You can’t eat from the rice bowl we provide, then break it.”
This message has got through loud and clear, including to ambitious and “right thinking” students.
In the West and within China, students are informing authorities about professors and lecturers, especially in the social sciences and in cultural studies, who express “improper opinions” in class.
Jiajia Li, a filmmaker based in Guangzhou, wrote in The South China Morning Post that this year in China “scores of professors have been sacked as a result of their online views”.
Rana Mitter, director of the China Centre at Oxford University, said “research in political science and sociology in China has become much harder since 2012”.
“The space for free writing and thinking seems to be disappearing,” he said.
He added: “I suspect I speak for most academics when I say that China really ought to be at the cutting edge of scholarship on its own politics — can you imagine people arguing that the best scholarship on American politics came out of France or Germany?”
A lecturer in Beijing told The Australian that surveillance was constant in China: “We are all anxious. We don’t dare to speak the full truth to students in class.
“You can never tell which of them will inform on you to the authorities.”
The authorities recently forced Beijing Normal University to sack associate professor Shi Jiepeng, 45, for expressing “politically incorrect” views in online blogs that were published under a pseudonym.
The university cited Professor Shi’s “defaming patriotic education, advocating colonial slavery, supporting the splitting of the country, criticising China as a dictatorship while claiming the West is free and democratic, defaming the Chinese army by claiming it is imperial and militarist, and slandering Chinese heroes including chairman Mao Zedong.”
Professor Shi, whose books include The Merciless World, had written: “If you want to learn about the world, you can study geography. If you want to learn about a country, study its history. Patriotic education is nonsense, because you only need to live as a citizen to be a patriot.”
A state newspaper in China’s northeast sent undercover reporters to universities in Liaoning province after receiving a letter from a student complaining of hearing “a lot of negative things in her classroom”, Li said.
The newspaper concluded that social sciences lecturers were inclined “to denigrate China’s image”.
University authorities across the country encourage students “to snitch on their professors for ‘improper discussions’,” Li said.
“In the past few years, Chinese students abroad have frequently confronted professors over China-related topics not fitting the narrative preferred by the Chinese government,” she added.
This approach is amplified by international confrontations.
Chinese international students at Sydney University complained on a Wechat site that lecturer Khimji Vaghjiani had used a world map showing India in control of territory that China claims.
A standoff has just ended between troops on both sides of the India-China border in the Himalayas.
After Sydney University issued an apology on behalf of Mr Vaghjiani, the communist party-owned newspaper Global Times editorialised in its Chinese-language edition: “The China-India border dispute broke out in Australia, and China won!”
The latest case in Australia was triggered by a Newcastle University lecturer providing students with material from a Transparency International report, in which a table used the single word “countries” at the top of one of its lists of places, rather than “countries and territories”.
The list happened to include Hong Kong and Taiwan — like a map of Australia that, say, happens to leave off Tasmania.
Reports published in China said the lecturer was of Indian heritage.
After Chinese students angrily confronted the lecturer, whose “anti-Chinese” behaviour was roundly condemned by Chinese “netizens”, the border issue was bound to bubble up.
A blogger using the name Dadaohuiguorou said: “China really needs a great war with another country, in order to provide a painful lesson to such creatures, to teach them how to fear and to respect us.”
Many of the Chinese students who go abroad, including to Australia, do so in part to detach themselves from this kind of hothouse environment, and succeed at integrating well, even flourishing, in a more open intellectual world.
But those who don’t tend to view their international experience as an opportunity to extend China’s growing global power in every sphere.