Beijing slams 'smart alec' varsity academics

Minister says some of them have challenged 'political baseline', amid graft-linked sackings

China has warned its academics not to "challenge the political baseline" even as President Xi Jinping's anti-graft drive came knocking at university campuses recently, raising concerns that it could stifle academic freedom.

In an interview with a newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party's discipline watchdog last week, Education Minister Yuan Guiren said that some party members in the education sector lacked a clear understanding of major issues or had taken the wrong stance on them.

"A few people's speech and behaviour have challenged the political and legal baseline," he said.

He criticised those implicated in recent corruption cases, calling them "smart alecs" and describing them as having an "inflated sense of self-worth".

"All levels of party organisations, party members and cadres in the education system must remain vigilant, take action and adopt a strict attitude," said Mr Yuan, who is a former president of Beijing Normal University.

Mr Xi launched a ferocious anti-graft campaign across various sectors such as the energy industry and state-owned firms after he took power in November 2012. Graftbusters have recently turned their attention to some of China's top schools, with three university heads sacked last week alone.

Mr Wang Cizhao, director of China's top music school, the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, was fired after throwing an extravagant wedding for his daughter. Mr Yang Fangchun, the vice-president of the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, was sacked for allegedly filing fake expense reports.

University of International Business and Economics vice-president Liu Ya was dismissed for taking part-time jobs.

Experts say that while the recent cases seem to indicate moral failings among academics, it is difficult to determine if they could also be related to ideological differences with the party.

"While some cases might indeed be directed at corrupt professors, others might be political and used to silence government critics. There is a certain concern and danger there," noted City University of Hong Kong political science professor Joseph Cheng.

"This could affect academic freedom because Mr Yuan's latest comments might be seen as another warning to professors and reflect a trend of tightening restrictions on academics."

In January this year, the outspoken minister stirred controversy by writing in party magazine Qiushi that hostile "enemy forces" were trying to infiltrate universities in order to turn young minds against the party. He recommended the creation of a textbook system based on Marxist guidelines and a boycott of "textbooks from the West that spread wrong ideas".

Professor Zhi Zhenfeng of the government-linked Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the Global Times newspaper that the campus crackdown was meant "to strike fear in people and to reform their behaviour".

"In China, ideological work from the party extends to universities. Politics and education cannot be fully separated," he said.

But other experts say that with Mr Xi's determination to stamp out corruption, the targeting of the education sector was only a matter of time due to the large amounts of cash moving around in the form of research grants or under-the-table payments by wealthy families to gain their children places in some of China's finest universities.

Renmin University's former admissions chief Cai Rongsheng, for instance, confessed during his trial to accepting bribes worth 23.3 million yuan (S$5.1 million) to help students get enrolled or to change majors, state media reported last week.

"Corruption is a problem whenever you have power without proper supervision," Beijing-based education expert Cheng Fangping told The Straits Times.

"This is the case in China because our systems aren't robust enough yet, but rather than simply making arrests, systemic oversight should be introduced instead."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'Beijing slams 'smart alec' varsity academics'. Print Edition | Subscribe