China's scholars fear curbs on freedom

Law textbook taken off shelves as Beijing targets universities in anti-West campaign

BEIJING • A constitutional law textbook written by one of China's best-known, reform-minded, legal scholars has been pulled from bookshops, apparently the latest text to run afoul of a government campaign against "Western influence".

The author, law lecturer Zhang Qianfan of Peking University, known for his advocacy of constitutionalism and judicial reform, dismissed any suggestion that his writing excessively promoted Western ideas as "utter nonsense", and said the academic world should not be politicised.

Since taking office in 2012, President Xi Jinping has tightened the Communist Party's control over society, including the legal system and education.

While the authorities have not confirmed if they had ordered the book withdrawn, and no reason for its disappearance has been given, it comes after the government launched a sweeping review of teaching materials.

The Ministry of Education launched early last month a nationwide check on the contents of all university constitutional law textbooks, according to posts on the Jiangxi and Zhejiang province education ministry websites.

Universities were told that the "fact-finding" sweep was of great importance and they must accurately fill in a chart detailing titles and authors of the books they used, with "no omissions", the ministry's posts said. The campaign drew criticism from some legal academics, which was amplified by a rumour that the sweep was triggered by an accusation by a professor that certain texts were "promoting Western thinking and agitating for a Western system".

China's Constitution promises freedom of speech, religion and assembly, but it is trumped in practice by legislation and regulations, and it is rarely invoked in legal cases. The Constitution has long been a focus for political reformers, who argue that its status should be elevated within the legal system.


Professor Zhang's book could not be found on China's main online bookstores when searched by Reuters yesterday.

In an interview published on the WeChat social media platform, Prof Zhang rejected any suggestion that his texts promoted a "Western" system over alternatives.

"To criticise purely for the sake of it and to shut our nation off to the outside world is closed-minded thinking," he said.

"Constitutional law, as an academic discipline, should not be politicised," he said. "Any academic discipline should retain a certain political neutrality.

"At this time, constitutional law is a 'sensitive' topic. As far as I can see, there is basically no public discussion. It seems that everyone is scared."

Prof Zhang's interview disappeared soon after it was posted, to be replaced by a notice saying the content had broken "relevant laws and regulations".

He did not respond to a Reuters e-mail seeking comment.

Many legal scholars took to social media to voice support for Prof Zhang.

Some posted the foreword from his book, in which he stresses the importance of giving people who have suffered injustices the chance to defend themselves using the Constitution.

Some voiced concern that some academics might accuse others of failing to toe the party line.

"The worst part about this incident is that in the current environment, not only are these people not inhibited, but rather they are given a channel, or even rewards," Associate Professor Zhang Taisu, who teaches law at Yale University in the United States, wrote on Weibo, referring to the accusers.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2019, with the headline 'China's scholars fear curbs on freedom'. Print Edition | Subscribe