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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 His visa to Hong Kong was revoked and he wasn’t able to get a passport, either.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:

这些年,我在大学里做了什么大不了的事情?不过是热衷于教学相长的活动,以各种方式和学生互动交流;不过是坚持请一些学者律师到学校讲座,满足偏居一隅的西北学生的知识渴求;不过是坚持和学生开展读书讨论会,而公开正当坦然地做出过抗争;不过是就学校一些具体的有违大学法治精神的规定和做法,提出过就事论事的建设性批评。我一向坚守理性、善意、坦诚的原则,坚守学术独立、师生平等、价值中立的学者操守。这些年来,我发表过一些公开言说,却都是从学术专业的视角出发;我做出过一些底线抗争,但从没能力并且也本能地拒绝成为一个斗士。我只是一个想保持独立和说说真话的个体,只是一个想好好上上课看看书写写文字的学者。

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:

然而,我的路却越走越窄,进行教学探索和学术交流的空间也越来越小。我心目中的并且也身体力行的美好大学,就是学术的自由、开放与包容。我喜欢面对学生各种严肃的批判和质疑,享受与青年学子探讨知识和人生的状态。

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: 

我也从来不是反体制的人。在读书会受阻期间,我说过,我热爱这个国家这片土地,也从来不会反党反政府。体制就是你愿意不愿意,它都在那里。体制支配着你的全部生活,却又看不见摸不着,有什么好反抗能反抗的?反对对抗又能有什么意义和结果?到哪不都一样吗?我因此从来不对此抱以期望和行动。然而,我要对自己的生命负责。你能改变的只有你自己。正因为哪里都一样,所以到哪里,我都有权为自己保留一点点独立自由尊严的空间,那是我珍爱的精神家园。

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:

一个有才华、有尊严、有抱负、有个性的高校法律教师,以如此方式离开了自己热爱着的讲台,悲壮!到底谁之过?!法律的悲哀?体制的悲哀?或许是其他?谁能回答?

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

为何在这个国家的“体制内”,容不下一位只想说说心里话(真话的本质是言者想说的话,而未必一定是真理)的文弱书生?什么是这个国家的“体制”?师弟,只要是你想做的,不妨大胆往前走吧。

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″:  

这样的故事最好玩又最可怕的地方在于,真的没有一个恶人。每个人都是善意与关切的,但合起来便成为一个无形而高效的黑手。丑陋文化的规则与惯性是恶臭的泥沼,所有人都是受害者,所有人同时又依赖其以生存。老大哥的眼睛无处不在。战争即和平,自由即奴役,无知即力量。

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:

哈哈,好!又一个资产阶级反动法学教师爷灰溜溜地卷铺盖卷儿啦!其实謓宏果的辞职很阴险,类似于文革时以死相要挟自绝于党和人民的臭老九,是故意让我党难堪。应该是我党的大学把你清除出校才对,建议取消其教师资格,并正式宣布大学就是党校。

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:

政治意识的存在向来不喜欢思想开化教育的,在学校的规范教育除了文化知识的灌输之外,关乎意识形态和思想多元化的教育都是被视作洪水猛兽的,总有些人会担忧思想的改革和进步会带来国家的混乱,那我们只好自己摸索。个人的思想探讨无关紧要,群体的组织性的探讨往往显得格外敏感。

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:

今天的中国,很多的问题其实都是由于体制造成的。走了谌老师这样的精英,的确是大学的巨大损失,但这并不代表这是社会的损失。也许正因为这一次谌老师的行动,反而引来大家对于大学、体制等问题的思考。

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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