Peking U. Fires Scholar, Threatening Academic Freedom and Wellesley Ties

Adam Dean, The New York Times, Redux

Xia Yeliang, an economist at Peking U. who has called for democratic freedoms and human rights in China, said the university had used the pretext of his work as a teacher to dismiss him for political reasons. "The vote was not based on my academic evaluation," he said.
October 18, 2013

[Updated (10/20/2013, 9:24 p.m.) with information about Peking University's statement over the weekend.]

A Chinese scholar known for his liberal political views says fellow faculty members at Peking University have voted to fire him, a move that threatens Peking's ties with at least one college in the United States and has raised concerns about academic freedom in China.

Xia Yeliang, an economist who has publicly called for democratic freedoms and human rights in China, told The Chronicle that a committee in the university's School of Economics had decided to terminate his contract, effective January 31. The vote was 30 to 3 with one abstention.

The professor was informed in June that he might be dismissed and began speaking to the news media about his plight, which he said the university warned him against. He said the decision by his fellow academics had nothing to do with his work as an instructor or researcher.

"The vote was not based on my academic evaluation," he said. "It was based only on whether they would like to employ me anymore. They just voted on this."

His case has drawn international attention, and faculty members at one American institution, Wellesley College, have said that if Mr. Xia were dismissed, they would push Wellesley to reconsider its nascent partnership with Peking, which is one of China's most prestigious universities.

"We don't want a partnership with a university if it's purging faculty members," said Thomas Cushman, a professor of sociology at Wellesley who this past summer organized a petition in Mr. Xia's defense that more than 130 Wellesley professors signed.

Wellesley Considers 'Next Steps'

Faculty members at Wellesley have yet to meet on what to do next about the Peking partnership, which includes student and faculty exchanges, but Mr. Cushman said he and other professors there were working to secure Mr. Xia a position as a visiting scholar on their campus.

Sofiya Cabalquinto, a spokeswoman for Wellesley, said the college's administration was aware of Mr. Xia's case and was "reviewing next steps."

In September, H. Kim Bottomly, president of the Massachusetts college, said that if the Wellesley faculty no longer supported the partnership, then it would end. But she added, "I believe it is important not to close doors, especially when it involves the exchange of ideas with other universities and with other countries—an exchange that is more important than ever."

Several other top American institutions, including Stanford University, have ties with Peking. Stanford, where Mr. Xia was a visiting scholar this year, opened a research center at Peking in 2012.

Observers say Mr. Xia's firing is a sign of broader academic restrictions that have been imposed since Xi Jinping became China's president, in March.

In May, the government ordered university administrators to ban the discussion of seven topics in classrooms, including human rights, civil society, and the historical mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party.

And in August, Zhang Xuezhong, a lecturer at East China University of Political Science and Law, in Shanghai, was told that he was being suspended from teaching. Mr. Zhang said the university had done so because of articles he wrote this year urging China to adopt a constitution.

'Academic Reasons'

Administrators at Peking University and at the economics school did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

According to Agence France-Presse, however, the university said this weekend that Mr. Xia was the institution's worst-ranked teacher and had been the source of 340 student complaints since 2006. In a statement posted on its microblog account on Saturday, the university said that a committee had voted in October 2012 to let Mr. Xia go, but gave him one year to improve. (Mr. Xia said he had never failed an assessment of his academic work.)

Zhang Qianfan, a law professor at Peking University, said that administrators had told him that Mr. Xia's dismissal stemmed from "academic reasons."

"The university did tell me that he did not publish enough and that he got low evaluations on teaching by students," he said. "It is easy to suspect it is because of political reasons, but we don't know for sure. I think it is bad news, and as I told the university it might be better if this happened during some other time or to some other person who is not so politically high profile, so people won't link the two together."

Mr. Zhang also said Peking administrators had warned him not to talk to the news media about the faculty vote.

As for Mr. Xia, he said that, despite knowing about the impending vote, it was still a shock.

"For a long time I have had psychological preparation for this, but I still felt very surprised when I got the official notice," he told The Chronicle. "I knew it would come someday, but I did not realize it would come so soon."

He said that he would continue to teach until the end of January and that he would try to negotiate with the school, but he doubted that would help. He said he would start to look for other employment opportunities, including at American universities.

"Of course in my mind, I feel very angry," he said. "I am trying to control myself."