The announcement of new inspections to be conducted of the party committees of 29 top universities in China as part of the country’s anti-corruption campaign is not just about rooting out malpractice but is also the latest move by the government to tighten ideological control of universities, experts say.
The Communist Party Central Committee’s discipline authority announced the new inspections on Wednesday – the 12th round of such disciplinary inspections of universities and other government organisations in the past four years.
This is an article from University World News, an online publication that covers global higher education. It is presented here under an agreement with The Chronicle.
Top universities such as Peking University, Tsinghua University, Beijing Normal University and Nanjing University will be among those inspected.
The inspections aim to ensure universities – which are overseen by Communist Party officials – follow the Party’s leadership. They will also monitor possible cases of corruption in the universities, and other government and provincial organisations and institutions, according to a statement released on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection's website after a meeting on 22 February.
Experts note that although the inspections are billed as being part of China’s anti-corruption drive, the inspections were also about ‘political discipline’ at a time when the general anti-corruption drive is slowing.
Overall , the number of officials expelled from the party and prosecuted for corruption in 2016 fell for the first time in five years, according to figures from the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which this January noted a drop of 20% compared to 2015 in actions against officials.
Meanwhile ideological control – notably of the country’s media, social media, and of lawyers – has been stepped up, with many websites shut down and lawyers jailed in the past year.
“In some ways this is the next step in a broad-spectrum effort to tighten restrictions over the Bar and media, and this is beginning to roll now into higher education,” said Carl Minzner a professor of law at Fordham University, USA, an expert on Chinese law and governance.
‘Clean political environment’
The university inspections “should focus on rules implementation and discipline in elections and official selection to ensure a clean political environment”, said a statement released on the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection’s website.
The commission called for officials to stick to the principles mentioned by President Xi Jinping during a speech in December, in which he asked centrally-funded universities to adhere to the party’s leadership, which requires higher education to be “guided by the principles of Marxism”.
At the two-day December meeting on ideological and political work in universities and colleges attended by university officials and several party politburo members, Xi called on the country’s universities to pledge allegiance to the Communist Party and said the country’s universities would be turned into “strongholds of the party leadership” which firmly uphold “the correct political direction”.
Minzner said some of the statements in the past months on the role of universities and professors in upholding the party line resembled language used prior to a crackdown on lawyers in China in the past two years and was the latest stage in a process of reining in universities that started a few years ago.
“The signs of this go back two or three years with respect to the idea that [the Party] needed to encourage people to watch what they say and watch what they do in institutions of higher education,” Minzner told University World News.
In 2013, universities received a party directive to steer away from seven topics in teaching, including press freedom, Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil rights and questioning whether China’s system was truly socialist.
Two years ago universities were told to avoid textbooks that promote “Western values”.
At the beginning of 2015 the Central Party Committee and State Council – roughly equivalent to cabinet – issued a joint document on strengthening ideological work in Chinese universities.
“That was at the highest level. After something like that things begin to percolate down and then you get the pressure within universities themselves to implement that directive,” Minzner said, referring to the current stage.
“That’s different from a big spectrum propaganda effort at the top of the system which says we need to watch discussion on the seven topics. This is now more tied into things within the universities themselves.”
Minzner suggested it would lead to self-censorship within universities, “although there will always be those who speak out”.
“People are already a bit more careful about what they say and what they publish. Institutions themselves realise it may not be so good to have certain types of conferences or work on certain types of issues. That self-censorship will begin to permeate in a much stronger way,” he said.
Academics on the Chinese mainland report that visits abroad were already restricted by anti-corruption rules that limited overseas trips to just five days for a one-country visit and seven days for a three-country trip, and total overseas visits by academics and university officials were limited to just two trips a year. But the anti-Western rhetoric as part of the ideology drive makes the situation worse.
Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Centre for China studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said mainland professors had not been allowed to go to the United States and Western Europe for certain academic conferences, and had even been prevented from visiting Hong Kong for conferences.
“Hong Kong used to be easier because it is part of China and so there has been frequent academic contact between the mainland and Hong Kong by professors, but since late last year many of our friends have not been able to get permission to come to Hong Kong,” Lam said.
“Several professors of fairly famous universities in China have lost their jobs and have been disciplined by the party secretaries of the universities or penalised or otherwise expelled. And a number of academics have also left the country. It is much worse than before,” Lam added.
While in the past those who were expelled from universities or left the country became high profile for their open dissent, now professors were leaving quietly, unwilling to put up with the new pressures.
For example, late last year an official at Beijing’s Tsinghua University was quoted in official media as saying "instructors’ political stances would be made central" in employee reviews.
The normally liberal Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Southern China, reportedly issued a list of 10 things teachers were prohibited to talk about in classrooms, extending the seven taboo topics even further, for example to include religion. And other universities have been issuing similar directives, keen to show they are following Party guidelines.
Academics note that subjects for research are more closely vetted and that some research topics, particularly in law, history, social sciences and other humanities which may not have been controversial before 2016, have been turned down for research funding.
“The atmosphere in the classroom has tightened. Professors are afraid that some of the students might be spying on them; students have been offered money to report on professors who have strayed from the official directives regarding ideological purity, for example, singing the praises of foreign democratic systems,” according to Lam, who said that it had come to light in talking to some professors in China that students had been offered money by state security to report on what was going on during classes.
Surveillance cameras have also been installed in many classrooms and lecture theatres in recent years.
Influences on students
While the officials are targeting teachers, the main concern for the party is that political indoctrination of college students has been ineffective and ‘Western ideas’ have been taking hold.
The official party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said in a December commentary that students’ “intellectual, ideological, emotional and psychological makeup” had not matured and so students needed “guidance”.
Education Minister Chen Baosheng said in a commentary published just days after Xi’s December speech that the education system is the “frontline of ideological work” as this is where 80%-90% of social science and humanities graduates were employed. “There are intense battles being fought at our education frontline now,” he said.
Lam said the ideological crackdown in universities “in general has to do with the insecurity of the Communist Party” and the possible role of students in sparking unrest, as was the case with the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Party leaders “fear students influenced by so-called dangerous Western ideas about democracy and so forth, might join workers and other elements in society to stage demonstrations and this might constitute a threat to the regime’s security,” Lam said.
“China’s economic miracle is over,” Lam added. “Economic growth is coming down, so the authorities anticipate social disturbances which happen on a large scale every time economic performance is not up to scratch.”