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​Why an Open Letter Attacking China's Professors for ‘Blackening the Motherland’ Is So Worrisome

University teachers are asked to speak positive about the motherland. Photo from Flickr user Neal Lantela CC: BY-SA-NC.

University teachers are asked to speak positive about the motherland. Photo from Flickr user Neal Lantela CC: BY-SA-NC.

China's authorities have waged an aggressive ideological battle against mainstream and new media over the past two years, upping the pressure on them to fall in line with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or face the consequences. Now, some fear that officials are setting their sights on academia as the next front in the war on free thinking. 

Provincial Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the Liaoning Daily published an unusual open letter to university professors on November 13, blasting them for reportedly speaking ill about China in front of their students.

The China Media Project of Hong Kong University has translated the letter, titled “Teacher, Please Don’t Talk Like That About China: An Open Letter to Teachers of Philosophy and Social Science.” The paper claimed its opinion was based on 300 anecdotes collected from university students, an online survey and investigative reports collected from more than 20 schools in five cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Shenyang.

The paper said 80 percent of university students had encountered professors who were “fond of airing complaints,” and this “blackening” of the motherland left them upset. It summed up the problem in three points: a lack of theoretical recognition, a lack of political recognition and a lack of identification on an emotional level (of the party's history and ideology).

For local party propaganda authorities, it's a strange move to publicly criticize tertiary education teachers who are under the jurisdiction of the state education institution. Normally, directives like this would come from China's education ministry. Last year, it instructed university professors not to teach seven subjects, including freedom of the press, past mistakes of the Communist Party, and citizens’ rights. 

Some commenters see the letter not only as further encroaching on academic freedoms, already under serious threat in China, but also possibly setting the stage for a future purge of professors who challenge the party's line.

Liaoning Daily said the prescription for such “negativity” is “positive energy”, a term which gained prominent after Chinese President Xi Jinping used it at the CCP's forum on arts and culture in October. The idea of positive energy was introduced by Lu Wei, the director of the State Internet Information Office, in January 2013 to tame celebrities who spoke their mind on Twitter-like Sina Weibo

Sun Liping, a prominent social scientist teaching at Beijing Tsinghua university, responded to the open letter with one of his own:

辽宁日报公开信的事情真的不可小看。我看到的是网络版,不知是否有误。该信的署名是本报编辑部。我们知道,辽宁日报是辽宁省委机关报。以罕有的本报编辑部名义发出的东西,可以理解为辽宁省委对全国高校教师的要求。一个地方党委对全国高校教师发号司令,不觉得奇怪吗? 印象中,文革时都没有一级党委或机关报发出面对全国的公开信。只有造反队会发这种东西。 其实辽宁日报编辑部稍微有点脑子就不会写这种东西,一个不黑的东西是别人可以抹黑的吗?不信翻翻辽宁日报的老报纸,过去几十年国内外你们抹黑过多少东西。哪个最后你真的给抹黑了? 现在说纯粹的批评有没有意义。有人说,批评的同时提出解决的办法才是积极的,一味的批评就是抹黑。我首先要说,我认为批评的同时提出解决问题的办法是更有意义的。因此我经常和学生说,我只讲我能找到解决办法的问题,如果我自己找不出解决问题的办法,我干脆就不讲。但这只是我对我自己的要求,研究社会现象的,要尽可能找出解决问题的办法。但我并不认为,纯粹的批评,就是消极的。找出我们社会中的问题,分析这些问题的原因,即使没提出解决办法,也是有意义的。甚至只是把丑恶的现象揭露出来也是有意义的。前述美国扒粪运动,哪个都提出解决的办法了?关键是看你如何对待这种批评。1962 年,哈林顿出版《另一个美国: 合众国的贫困》,将美国的阴暗面集于一书。据说当时的总统约翰逊看了这本书,受到很大震动,他没有把哈林顿作为负能量。而是提出要建设伟大社会。建设伟大社会的目标,是向贫困宣战,向不平等宣战,向一切违反人权的现象宣战。抹黑祖国?祖国多大了?你哭天抹泪地口口声声声讨万恶的旧社会,旧社会那一段的中国算祖国吗?接连就辽宁日报公开信写了几条微博。因为公开信也是信,作为一个教师不回信不礼貌。最后以一个老师身份告诫那个编辑部(估计作者也都是学生辈的)几句:1、要讲道理的话把理论弄圆点,别顾头不顾那个。2、理论弄不出来起码在有限范围内讲点逻辑。3、上面两点如果都做不到,谦虚点。

Liaoning Daily's open letter cannot be ignored. I read the online version and am not a hundred percent sure of its accuracy. The open letter is signed by the newspaper's editorial board. We all know that Liaoning Daily is the official newspaper of the Liaoning province party branch. It is unusual to see the editorial board issue such an opinion, which can be considered a demand made by the Liaoning Chinese Communist Party committee of the country's university teachers. A local party committee giving instructions like this to the country's university teachers, isn't that strange? From what I remember, even during the Cultural Revolution no provincial level CCP committee issued such an open letter addressing the whole country. Only the revolutionary team [the Red Guards who challenged the authorities] would do that. If the Liaoning editorial board had basic intelligence, they would not do that. How can one blacken anything if the thing is not black to begin with? Just check the Liaoning Daily's archive and you will get a sense of how many things this paper tried to blacken in the past. Yet none of its “blackening” attempts eventually succeeded. Now, it said it is meaningless to criticize. Some say it is more positive to offer solutions alongside criticism. Pure criticism is “blackening.” I want to make it clear that, of course, it is meaningful to find a solution and I tell my students that I would only talk about issues that I can address and give suggestions for. However, this is a personal commitment and practice. I don't think social critique is negative. To identify the problem of a society and analyze the cause of the problem without an answer is meaningful. To reveal the ugly phenomena is meaningful. In the US, they had the muckraker movement and many did not offer any solutions. How you react to criticism is key. In 1962, Micheal Harrington wrote “The Other America.” The book is a record of the dark side of the US. According to hearsay, Lyndon Johnson, the then-president of the US, was shocked by the book. Yet he did not take it negatively, and instead put forward a plan to build a strong society by declaring war against poverty, inequality and inhumanity. Blackening our motherland? How old is our motherland? You screamed and yelled and attacked the old society [before the liberation of China by the CCP], but isn't the old society our motherland as well? I have written a few micro-blogs commenting on Liaoning Daily's open letter. As the open letter is a letter, we have to pay our courtesy as a professor and reply to it. Finally, as a professor I would like to give some advice to the editorial board (I assume the writers are of my students’ generation): 1. When putting forward an argument, please ground it in sound theory. Don't open a topic without any grounding. 2. If you fail to come up with a theory, at least be logical. 3. If you can't fulfill the above basic requirements, be humble.

Zhang Ming, a political scientist who teaches at Remin University, criticized the Liaoning Daily for spying on the professors:

辽宁日报派出记者暗访,整黑材料。这不是正常的采访报道,而是文化特务和间谍之行。这样做,把教师当敌人也就罢了,置当地的信息员和大学的党委于何地?

Liaoning Daily sent reporters to investigate [the professors] and collect information to smear them. This is not normal reporting, but spying behavior. It not only turned professors into enemies but also linked the authority of the university party committee and local party informants.

He said he believes that another anti-rightist movement is approaching:

一直有人警告说要有新的反右斗争,开始还不信,看到辽宁日报给高校教师的公开信,信了。这回,要抓多少右派呢?

For some time I’ve heard people talking about how a new anti-rightist movement is drawing near. I didn’t buy this at first, but the Liaoning Daily open letter to professors made me believe. How many rightists will be arrested in this round?

Xiong Feijun, an independent writer, believed the prescription for the country's corruption is criticism rather than “positive” comments:

祖国明明在贪官敲诈专制毒害下得了重病,不及时治疗只有死路一条。可贪官们一个劲忽悠祖国很强壮很健康,使祖国丧失治疗康复最佳时机。那些勇于说真话的良心志士深爱自己的国家,呼吁赶快把祖国送医院动手术切去专制毒瘤让祖国恢复健康浴火重生。可贪官们却说这是“抹黑中国”?天下有这等放屁的逻辑吗

The motherland is sick because of corruption. If we don't cure the illness, she will die. But the corrupt keep saying that the motherland is very healthy. Eventually the window of time to cure the illness will close on the motherland. Those who dare to tell the truth love their country and they urge the motherland to go to the hospital, cut out the tumor and be healthy again. The corrupt call that “blackening China”? What kind of logic is that?

The ideological battle against online opinion leaders has destroyed meaningful public conversations on Weibo as netizens now refrain from saying what they think. If the battlefield is indeed extended to the university, a place where knowledgeable experts address society's problems in a rational manner, it won't just affect the classroom. The persecution of tertiary education would not only likely stunt the country's social and political progress, but also give rise to a power struggle within the ruling class and social chaos — an unfortunately familiar outcome for China. Such man-made disasters have recurred throughout the country's contemporary history.

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