BEIJING (AP) — An elite Chinese university has decided to expel an outspoken economist who champions free speech and the rule of law, a move critics say underscores the Communist Party’s intolerance for discussion of democratic values that it believes threatens its legitimacy.
A 34-member faculty committee at Peking University’s School of Economics voted last week to dismiss Professor Xia Yeliang by a 30-3 vote, with one abstention, in a closed session from which he was excluded, Xia told The Associated Press on Friday after being notified of the decision. Calls to the university rang unanswered.
“I am angry inside, but I must face it with composure,” said Xia, who will remain employed by the university until his contract expires Jan. 31, more than 13 years after he started teaching there.
Rumors that Xia was facing expulsion had swirled in academic circles and on discussions on China’s popular microblogs for months, with many commentators saying such a move would be an assault on already limited academic freedoms in China.
Xia’s expulsion comes as China’s recently installed leadership has further tightened controls on public discourse, arresting popular bloggers for spreading so-called rumors and activists who have called for anti-corruption measures. Communist Party authorities reportedly issued a directive to some college campuses that certain topics are now barred from class discussions, including press freedom, judicial independence and civil society.
In August, East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai banned Zhang Xuezhong, also an outspoken professor, from teaching any course at the school.
Xia has been a vocal advocate for democracy in recent years. In 2008, he helped draft Charter 08, a bold call for sweeping changes to China’s one-party political system that landed its main champion, Liu Xiaobo, in prison.
Xia wrote an open letter in 2009 addressed to a senior Chinese leader criticizing him for imposing tight controls on expression. Xia said he believes that letter to Liu Yunshan, then the party’s central propaganda head, is the reason for his dismissal.
He said he was notified of the decision by school officials, who told him that the faculty committee — which had earlier approved of his academic performance — was not pleased with remarks he made against the university. Xia, however, has generally been critical of the government’s politics and its interference with the academic world.
Xia said the officials insisted that the dismissal was nonpolitical, although they also told him that the support he had received in the last several months did not do him any good.
Overseas, Xia has gained support among academia from Wellesley College in Massachusetts, the Committee of Concerned Scientists and, according to Xia, two foreign professors at the Shenzhen campus of Peking University.
A group of Wellesley professors had signed an open letter urging the school to reconsider an academic partnership with Peking University, in a high-profile case of U.S. professors pushing a Chinese university to hold up the principle of academic freedom at a time when educational partnerships between the two countries are proliferating.
An open letter from the Committee of Concerned Scientists also urged Peking University’s president to consider the institution’s ambitions of making itself a “world-class seat of learning and research.”
“We therefore urge you to prevent a vote by your faculty that would punish Professor Xia, one of your respected academic colleagues, for his opinions, and deprive Peking University of his expertise,” the committee wrote in the July 31 letter.
But in September, China’s state-run nationalist newspaper Global Times criticized Xia for using social media to attack Peking University and urged the school not to yield to outside pressure.
“Only Peking University can decide whether it would keep Xia,” the Global Times editorial read. “After all, Peking University is a venue of teaching, not a place for political fighting.”