Peking University fires outspoken professor, prompts outrage

UPenn professor cites University's strong academic exchange program with Peking, calls U.Va response to incident 'inadequate'

A top Chinese university fired an outspoken, pro-democracy professor last week, and outside academics are deeming the response from the University of Virginia insufficient. The University has sustained several student-exchanges with Peking University, who dismissed economist Xia Yeliang last Friday for purported academic reasons.

The College has been partnered with the Chinese university since 2009, when administrators opened an office at the Beijing school.

Meredith Woo, dean of the graduate and undergraduate Arts & Sciences schools, posted on her personal blog at the time that the two institutions had numerous parallels. “We expect to put this office at Peking University to good use to facilitate research collaboration and faculty and student exchanges between the two universities,” she said. “I am full of hope for the future and for greater collaboration between our two great institutions.”

Xia is one of 300 prominent Chinese individuals who signed Charter 08, a 2008 document calling for democratic and constitutional changes in China, including an end to one-party rule. Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize winner and co-author of Charter 08, was detained shortly after the release of the democratic manifesto and sentenced to 11 years in prison for undermining the authority of the Chinese government.

“[Peking administrators] are angry about the international response to [my firing],” Xia said in an interview with Inside HigherEd. “They think that I intentionally manipulated this issue to ruin the image of the School of Economics and Peking University. They think that they have sufficient academic freedom.”

The University released a statement upon the announcement of the firing, acknowledging that the University is “disappointed” in the actions of Peking University but maintains its belief “that the engagement between Western higher education and universities in China contributes to an intellectual discourse that helps everyone involved to grow.”

Arthur Waldron, an international relations professor at the University of Pennsylvania, criticized the University’s response to the incident. In an email to University spokesperson McGregor McCance, he called it an “attempt to gloss over the facts, as if there were any doubt at all that Professor Xia is being fired, at the behest of the university’s party committee, simply for teaching what in any other country would be considered normal academic economics.”

Waldron added that, as a peer institution of Peking University, the University has the power and responsibility to assure the protection of human and intellectual rights in the institutions with which it associates.

“We Americans need to decide how closely we can cooperate with a country that not only doesn’t share our values, but actually opposes and tries to stamp out our values,” Waldron said. “The point is that, by giving China a free pass and never raising human rights issues, we essentially rule out human rights as something … the United States is taking seriously.”

Xia’s firing did not come as a surprise. As early as July 31, the Committee of Concerned Scientists released a letter addressed to President Wang Enge of Peking University their impending expulsion of Xia, who at that time was a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

In September, 130 professors at Wellesley College signed a letter asking the school’s administration to reconsider the student-exchange partnership with Peking University should Xia be dismissed.

“We believe that dismissing Professor Xia for political reasons is such a fundamental violation of academic freedom that we, as individuals, would find it very difficult to engage in scholarly exchanges with Peking University,” the letter said.

On Friday, the Peking University faculty vote on the matter was made public. Of the 34 faculty members, 30 voted to dismiss Xia, and three voted to retain him. One faculty member abstained from voting.

Xia said he is worried about the cessation of student-exchange programs as a response to his firing. “That wouldn’t help Chinese students and academics,” Xia said in an interview with The New York Times.

This move by Peking University came just four days before China defended its human rights record, for a second time, at the United Nations’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva on Oct. 22.

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