News Analysis: Internet Censorship and the Role of University Presidents in China

May 24, 2011

It took a student's throwing eggs and a shoe at Fang Binxing during a guest lecture last week to catapult Mr. Fang, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, to global notoriety.

He is a long way from fitting Western ideas about a university president's role. He is among the chief architects of the Great Firewall, as China's Web-filtering system is known. He has been proudly public about his role in blocking foreign Web sites to protect China against "democracy activists."

"They sit comfortably at home, thinking only of how, through their fingertips on a keyboard, they can bring chaos to China by taking advantage of the Internet's effectiveness as a multiplier," he said during a recent commencement speech, reported The New York Times.

He shrugs off hostility expressed by Internet users: "I regard the dirty abuse as a sacrifice for my country."

Mr. Fang is outspoken, but among his colleagues there is nothing unusual about his commitment to the status quo in China, or his involvement in national-security research. "Others would be a little more discreet, but, in his case, he basically sees it as his mission to manage access by the people," says Dali L. Yang, a professor of political science at University of Chicago, who spends much of his time in China.

Mr. Fang's dual roles as Internet censor and university president open a window on some of the hurdles to academic reform in China, where the relationship between higher education and the state is tightly bound, particularly in terms of scientific research.

Academic freedom is constrained by the Communist Party's monopoly on power, which is enshrined in the Constitution, and by the party's deep involvement in the operation of Chinese universities.

The presidents of China's 70 or so top universities are appointed by the Ministry of Education and are viewed as civil servants. They move frequently, averaging perhaps half a dozen years in a post, says Yong Zhao, a professor of education at University of Oregon. Presidents of prestigious institutions like Peking University or Fudan University, in Shanghai, carry vice-ministerial rank.

"Universities in China should not be considered the same way as universities here" in the United States, says Mr. Zhao. "Most Chinese universities are really a branch of the government."

Job swaps between universities and the education ministry are commonplace at the very top, he says, citing the example of the vice minister of education, Du Yubo, who was Communist Party secretary at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Although presidents' reputations are built in academic administration, careers depend on the approval of government and the party.

Universities play up or down their ties to the Communist Party to different degrees. The Web site of Mr. Fang's university prominently highlights its party ties, with red flags waving across pages dedicated to 21 subcommittees. Announcements mention the university's party secretary, Wang Ya-jie, ahead of Mr. Fang, as is correct form. To outside partners, Mr. Wang is chairman of the university board.

Party secretaries must be involved in all personnel issues and major investments decisions, says Mr. Zhao. Whether the president or party secretary carries more sway depends on factors specific to a particular university; either way, the Communist Party is central to running academic institutions.

'Pillar Industries'

China's pursuit of industrial modernization through generous government support for science means that university interests are also closely aligned to national-security concerns.

As head of a telecommunications-research university, Mr. Fang is tasked with developing a "pillar industry" in China's modernization. Every five-year plan issued by the government specifies such sectors as telecommunications, nanotechnology, and biotechnology for research funds. Mr. Fang "has a university that is a major participant in China's telecoms revolution," says Chicago's Mr. Yang.

Mr. Fang, who earned a doctorate in computer science from the Harbin Institute of Technology, joined China's National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team, where he designed the national firewall's Web filters. He became the organization's director in 2000.

Comprehensive universities in China are involved in national-security research. Almost all top universities "would probably be doing some sort of contract work for the Chinese government and military. That would include Peking University and Tsinghua University," says Gregory Kulacki, an expert on China's space program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

When it comes to higher education's role in society, China's history of poverty and its Soviet-inspired development have shaped national attitudes. The Maoist idea that education should be oriented toward nation-building has taken priority over beliefs that academic freedom is paramount.

Academic freedom is "valued to a certain degree, but there are certain other priorities," says Mr. Zhao, of Oregon. Education "has to serve the nation, which is defined by the government's best interests."

Those ideas are strong particularly in science and are growing in conservative quarters, says Richard P. Suttmeier, a professor of political science at Oregon who studies China's science-policy making. "Science is to make China strong. It is not a sense of wonder, a sense of exploration."

The government itself knows that sustained economic growth requires a better education system. It has drafted a long-term, gradualist plan for higher-education reforms, emphasizing more autonomy for universities.

This month the respected Caijing Magazine, which covers business and industry, ran a cover story about these reforms, bluntly titled "No Independence. No Universities." Three former university presidents argued that without more institutional autonomy, there would be "no great nation."

The shoe that reportedly hit Mr. Fang in the chest was a weapon in that very debate, a reminder of the anger that censorship evokes among increasingly sophisticated, professionalized, and internationalized Chinese.

Government calls for economic innovation are undermined by controls on information, Mr. Zhao points out. "When you filter unwanted information, you may have filtered out wanted information. Then you're not exposed to broad diversity of opinion. If you're not aware, you may not be able to develop other ways of thinking."

As one of the many anonymously gleeful online commenters on the incident said—as Mr. Fang's name was wiped from Internet searches to damp down antigovernment comments—"a moment of historic irony has arrived."


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