Shackled reading

By Lin Meilian Source:Global Times Published: 2012-12-6 20:30:13

Chen Hongguo (left), a law professor from the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Shaanxi Province, chairs a book club in a university hallway on November 24. Photo: Courtesy of Blogger Tiger Temple
Chen Hongguo (left), a law professor from the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Shaanxi Province, chairs a book club in a university hallway on November 24. Photo: Courtesy of Blogger Tiger Temple

On a freezing late November afternoon, some 20 students and professors from the Northwest University of Politics and Law (NUPL) in Shaanxi Province, stood in the hallway of the second floor of an administrative building.

For two hours, in the dim light, they read and discussed the book Science as a Vocation, the text of a lecture given in 1918 at Munich University by pioneering sociologist Max Weber.

"I never imagined I would share my thoughts on Weber's works in such a situation, but like what Weber has taught us, life is not perfect, we have to live bravely," Huang Xingchao, a postgraduate student told the group.

"The reason for reading his book is to learn how to become a mature citizen who can combine passion, judgment and responsibility, and to find a solution for China's current problems from the book," he continued.

Personal thoughts were shared followed by a group discussion. Two campus security guards were reportedly standing in the corner and watching proceedings unfold carefully.

This was the third round of the book club, Citizens for Self-governance & Cooperation, initiated by Chen Hongguo, a law professor at the university. Worried by the violent protests against Japanese-brand cars and even their owners nationwide in September, Chen came to realize the importance of civic education for young people.

Nascent hopes dashed

However, an unwelcome notice was soon received from university administrators, asking Chen to shut down the book club but with no specific reason being provided.

Chen said students and staff were warned not to attend, and all the classrooms and meeting rooms were made unavailable to use.

 "If I gave up the book club, that would make me feel guilty as a teacher," he posted on Weibo, "In defense of academic freedom and to protect the university's interference, I will continue the book club in my own office." However, he did warn the students to think twice before coming.

To his surprise, over 20 students showed up in his office and the club was moved to the hallway, forcing them all to read and talk standing up.

Through recent riots and demonstrations such as the nationwide anti-Japanese protests, the post-1980s and 1990s generations have become a major force clamoring to be heard.

The increasing influence and popularity of social media among them is also causing a degree of anxiety for officials seeking to reinforce traditional ideologies and renew "socialist core values."

Speaking at a meeting regarding the maintenance of harmony and stability in universities in August, education minister Yuan Guiren called for more ideological education ahead of the 18th CPC National Congress, according to the China Education Daily.

"University administrators should step up socialist core value education and provide correct guidance to promote harmony and stability in universities," he said.

About a week after the congress, Chen's book club was stopped. The news soon circulated on the Internet and sparked concern among those demanding more academic freedom.

"I never thought the book club would cause so much trouble, I am not against the government nor the Party, I am just an ordinary professor who tries to teach young people how to be a good citizen," Chen told the Global Times.

The Global Times' calls to the university went unanswered. Chen believes part of the reasons was the "sensitive" title of the book club and its chosen reading material.

He feels John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, Robert Dahl's On Democracy and Alexis de Tocaqueville's The Old Regime and the Revolution might have crossed the line. However, he points out that all these books are available at the campus library and book store.

"As a university educator, I introduce various thoughts to my students and let them to judge and decide what they want to believe," Chen said.

Students said similar book clubs discussing philosophy and law had been held smoothly on campus before.

Another of Chen's problems might have been the high profile of the event: he put flyers up on campus, invited guest speakers from outside and discussed the club openly on Weibo.

Wang Tianding, director of the journalism department of Xi'an International Studies University (XISU) who invited Chen to host the book club at XISU before the ban, spoke of his disappointment.

"I don't see any problem with a professor guiding students to read," Wang told the Global Times. "Professors are all required to promote academic exchanges on campus. Chen's book club should be encouraged and promoted instead."

He added that the book club is an informal group that the university had no right to close it down. "If such an event is banned, what else can we do on campus?" he asked.

Crumbling ivory towers

Scholars invited to give talks at various universities have run into other difficulties.

Back in 2010, Chen planned to invite outspoken law professor Xiao Han from China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL), the country's top law school, to give a lecture at his class.

However, the invitation irked university administrators as just a few months ago, Xiao had his classes at CUPL canceled inexplicably.

In an open letter to the dean of the law department, Xiao then wrote "I once wrote on a performance evaluation: 'Universities aren't hen houses. You feed a hen and it should lay eggs. That's not what academics are about.' I won't change my opinion on this."

"I don't care what Xiao has done, he is a highly respected professor, I only care about his academic achievements," Chen explained. He was eventually pressured into dropping the invitation.

Earlier in January this year, the Ministry of Education issued a notice to call for academic freedom in universities to be protected. It urged administrators to remove bureaucratic hurdles and ensure teachers and students can enjoy academic freedom while teaching and studying.

However, three months later, Yu Jianrong, head of the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, announced that he would reject all lecture invitations from Tsinghua University.

"This is because I was reported by some people for criticizing the power expansion of the political legal committees. I said it would have a bad influence on legal affairs during my lecture," Yu told the Global Times.

"Some department staff from Tsinghua University asked me to stop criticizing them so I told them I would not give lectures at Tsinghua any more," Yu said.

Thought control

Peking University, another top university regularly hailed for its liberal ways, was also accused of blinkering its students' minds last year.

In March 2011, the university announced its plan to roll out a "consultation" program to screen "students with radical thoughts," provoking angry reactions.

Zha Jing, deputy director of the university's Office of Student Affairs, insisted that the move was to help youngsters overcome academic problems.

"We've noticed that some students have radical thoughts or bigoted characters, and encounter difficulties in interpersonal communication and their studies. They cannot analyze and handle their problems in daily life in a rational way," she told the media.

She gave the bitter example of Ma Jiajue, a college student who was sentenced to death for killing four of his Yunnan University classmates.

She complained the public had dwelled too much on the term "radical." She said that the university was not trying to punish or control students but to "create an environment for healthy growth."

According to a recent survey released by the Ministry of Education in June, the majority of college students have a positive outlook.

About 95 percent of responses said they are satisfied with their ideological and political teaching, and 90 percent said they are pleased with the administration of the universities.

Another 73 percent said the Internet was their major source for getting information, while 59 percent said their major means of communication was social media like Weibo.

Huang Xingchao, a student from NUPL, told the Global Times that universities had been making more attempts to control the way students think but that the task had become more difficult.

"The more the authorities call for ideological indoctrination, the tougher it is for it to be implemented on campus," he said.

"Some students might listen to them, but with all the information they get from the Internet, they find it hard to accept," he continued.

Wang said the most important thing for colleges is to educate students with "a clear mind.""Instead of teaching them how to think, the most important thing is to teach them how to think independently and then make their own judgments," he said.

Tao Hongkai, a professor of education at Huazhong Normal University, told the Global Times that what worries him the most is that many Chinese students have a vague idea of the world. "I've found that at least half of my students don't have a clear outlook on the world. Their sense of individual responsibility is weak. They need teachers to help them to see it through," he said.

"But thought control will not work. Students need to be guided instead of controlled," he added.

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