The Chinese Communist Party’s drive to cleanse universities of liberal Western textbooks and other ideological heresies has assumed the features of an archetypal political campaign. After orders from the party leadership, officials and university administrators, with the education minister leading the way, have lined up to demonstrate their allegiance, and state-run media outlets have offered a chorus of approving commentaries.
Until Monday, when one university president added a sharp caveat to his endorsement.
Gong Ke, the president of Nankai University in the northern port city of Tianjin, told the People’s Daily website that the allegations that universities were infested with subversion evoked dangerous parallels to the two worst purges of intellectuals in the People’s Republic of China: the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 and the Cultural Revolution a decade later.
“Recently, I’ve read people on the Internet saying that the ranks of academics must be cleansed, purified and rectified,” Mr. Gong said. “I can’t agree with this. This was the mentality of 1957 or 1966.”
According to the People’s Daily website, Mr. Gong warned, “In enhancing ideological work, we cannot go to another extreme. We cannot re-enact this history of ‘leftist’ errors against intellectuals.”
Mr. Gong did not break ranks from the official line, but rather added a note of caution. He urged a milder, more trusting approach to academics, while conceding that some had “problems in their political outlooks.”
Mr. Gong’s comments have attracted widespread attention in China. Liberal academics have derided the campaign against Western textbooks, and students have expressed bafflement. Nine lawyers have challenged the education minister, Yuan Guiren, to explain himself, according to an open letter that appeared on Chinese websites but was later removed. Mr. Gong, however, appears to be the most senior figure to have drawn parallels with the brutal purges of Mao Zedong’s time.
In 1957, Mao launched the Anti-Rightist Movement against academics and other citizens who had criticized the party after Mao himself had urged people to come forward with criticisms. And then, in 1966, the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution began after Mao embraced accusations that intellectuals and writers were part of an effort to subvert his revolutionary goals.
Nobody has suggested that China’s president and Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, intends to re-enact Mao’s deadly excesses. But comments from officials and party ideologues have fed fears that the current campaign could metastasize into a reckless purge. Those fears grew after a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Zhu Xudong, urged that critics of the education minister be punished.
Mr. Zhu said that academics, media commentators and others who have voiced dissent “have not been punished as they should be,” and he blamed foot-dragging officials.
“The inaction from certain people in the relevant organs had led to the participants in these attacks to become increasingly arrogant,” Mr. Zhu wrote. “Therefore, the relevant organs certainly have to strictly investigate and punish these people or forces, and seize and impose stern punishments on several of them to serve as a lesson to others.”
Mr. Gong is no dissident. He is minor Communist royalty as well as a party member, and senior university administrators like him are appointed by the party’s organization department. Mr. Gong’s father, Gong Yuzhi, a former prominent party propaganda official, was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.
In the same online discussion where Mr. Gong raised his worries, several other university officials took a notably more strident line.
“We must prevent holding up the banner of academic freedom and academic research in order to malign us,” wrote Jin Nuo, the Communist Party secretary of Renmin University in Beijing. “That’s something we have to be aware of and keep crystal clear.”
Originally written by CHRIS BUCKLEY for the New York Times on February 10, 2015.