Chinese University Professor Quits to Seek Academic Freedom

A university professor’s resignation letter online has triggered hot discussion on academic freedom in China’s universities.

Chen Hongguo, an assistant professor at the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Xi'an, uploaded the long resignation letter on his personal blog and his account on Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblogging site, on December 23, 2013. The letter details his frustration with the university for restricting his academic freedom.

Chen is liberal law professor who has a history of challenging unreasonable rules and regulations at the university. He mentioned in the letter that he was stopped at the airport on his way to an academic meeting at the University of Hong Kong, and in the end, he was able to go there after insisting on it. However, after he came back from Hong Kong, he was criticized by the university for “violating teaching discipline by asking someone else to teach in class”. His visa to Hong Kong was revoked and he wasn’t able to get a passport, either. The university has tried to stop Chen from organizing a student reading club

Professor Chen Hongguo. Photo from his blog

Professor Chen Hongguo. Photo from his blog

In his letter, Chen talks about his past experience at the university:


Over the years, what did I do in college? I just like teaching and learning, and I like interacting with students in a variety of ways; I just insisted on inviting some scholars and lawyers to hold talks at the school to satiate students’ thirst for knowledge; I insisted on organizing the reading club, and made public protests to keep it; I just raised constructive criticism about some of the specific provisions and practices contrary to the spirit of the rule of law in the university. I always stick to rational, well-intentioned and honest principles, to academic independence, to equality among students and scholars and to neutral values. Over the years, I have held some public speeches, all from an academic perspective; I made some protests, but was never able to become a fighter. I just want to be an independent individual and speak some truth, an academic who teaches, reads and writes.

He goes on to describe his vision of an ideal university:


However, my road has become narrower, I have less and less space to explore in teaching and academic exchanges. My ideal university is one with academic freedom, openness and tolerance. I like to face a variety of serious criticism and questions from the young students. I enjoy exploring knowledge and life with the students.

Chen then talks about his political principle as an intellectual: 


I have never been anti-system. When my reading activity was stopped, I said, I love this land and this country, and would never go against the [Chinese Communist] Party and the government. Like it or not, the system is always there. It dominates your entire life, it’s invisible, what's the use of fighting against it?  Wherever you go, isn’t it all the same? So I never hold any hope or take action. However, I want to be responsible for my own life. The only thing you can change is yourself. Because wherever you go, it’s all the same, so I have reserved the right to own a little bit of dignity, independence and freedom of space, that is my cherished spiritual home.

Chen's letter was reposted over 10,000 times and triggered over 4,000 comments within a few hours, with many expressing their sympathy and support. Some also criticized the academic environment in China. 

Zhenzhen kongruye” raised a question:


A dignified and ambitious college law teacher left his beloved profession in such a way, how tragic! In the end whom to blame?! The tragedy of the law? Or the tragedy of the system? Or something else? Who can answer?

Chen's friend Xie Hui from another university wrote


Why can’t the system tolerate a fragile scholar who just wants to speak his mind (the truth means what the speaker wants to say, but not necessarily the truth)? What is the “system” in this country? Young bro, whatever you want to do, just go for it.

“Xiaoxiao Dabenen” quoted George Orwell's novel “1984”:  


The funniest and the most horrible part of the story is that no one seems evil. Everyone seems good-willed and concerned, but together they become an invisible and efficient manipulator. Everyone is a victim of the rules, but at the same time, everyone relies on the rules to survive. Big Brother's eyes are everywhere. The war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.

“Hu Xijin” wrote sarcastically:


Haha, good! Another revolutionary bourgeois law teacher is leaving! His resignation is insidious, like the teachers from Cultural Revolution who threatened the Party and the people to deliberately embarrass our Party. The university should clear him out and abolish his teaching qualifications, and officially announce the university as the Party school.

Another Web user criticized the lack of academic freedom in Chinese universities:

中国的大学是政府奴化的工具,缺少独立之精神 自由之思想,所以49年至今未出现一个大家!

China's universities are government slave tools that lack independent spirit and free-thinking, that’s why so far we haven’t had a real scholar since 1949.

 “Dongyang Shixi jingchashi” talked about the reality in Chinese education:


The existence of political consciousness always opposes free-thinking and open education. Schools only teach knowledge, anything related to ideology and ideological diversity will be regarded as a scourge, and some people worry that reform-mindedness and progress will bring chaos to society, so we had to find our own way. Personal thoughts seems insignificant, but to discuss them within organizational groups is often extraordinarily sensitive.

“Xiaoxiaobaishi” hoped Chen's resignation can serve as a warning to the univeristy and the system as a whole:


Many problems in today’s China are actually caused by the system. Chen’s leaving is a great loss to the school, but it doesn’t mean it’s a loss to society. Maybe because of Chen’s action, it will make us reflect about the problems within the university and the system.

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