When outspoken economics professor Xia Yeliang was dismissed from his post at Peking University last week after a panel of his colleagues voted to oust him, the move was seen as punishment for his politics and an attempt to cull liberal voices in Chinese universities. Summarizing the popular reaction, the New York Times published an op-ed yesterday that claimed that “The dismissal of Professor Xia is part of a wide crackdown on scholars, lawyers and writers who have discussed democracy and freedom.”
At first glance, this explanation seems justified. Xia has frequently criticized the Chinese government—both in and out of the classroom—and has even tried to organize political gatherings. He was a signatory to the “Charter 08” pro-democracy petition (a document that landed its author, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, an 11-year prison sentence) and last year he called for intellectuals across the country to gather in public squares to debate political reform.
However, Xia's dismissal may have had more to do with his performance in his classroom. Some of Xia’s former students cited poor teaching and overzealous preaching, rather than liberal values, as major problems.
“Most of us students were dissatisfied with him,” said a Peking University finance major who took Xia’s Principles of Economics course in 2010, and spoke on condition of anonymity. “The general feeling was that he didn’t teach the subject he was supposed to teach.”
On October 19, Peking University issued a statement on its Weibo account saying that since 2006, the Economics Department has received over 340 complaints from students about Xia’s teaching content and working attitude. “For many years in a row, Xia’s teaching evaluations have been the lowest in the entire department,” the statement said, adding that according to Peking University rules, a special evaluation of Xia was held in October of 2012 where it was decided that his contract should be ended. However, the school decided to wait a year to enforce the decision in order to “give him another chance.” Then, this past week, 30 out of the 34 faculty members present on the special committee voted to uphold the original decision and go ahead with Xia’s termination.
“I still feel surprised at the result,” Xia said in a telephone interview. “I feel normally I have a good relationship with those [faculty] members; though not everyone. I didn’t realize there could be so large a majority against me. So I think it’s abnormal.” Xia says that in October 2012 he passed his teaching and publication assessments, but an unusual vote to renew his contract resulted in an 11-11 tie, giving the school another opportunity to dismiss him.
The person answering the phone at the Peking University School of Economics said they couldn’t comment further on the issue.
Xia insists that he was fired for political, rather than academic reasons. Despite being a professor at one of China's most distinguished universities, he hasn't received an offer to work at another institution, leading him to suspect that universities were reluctant to hire him. And while he is aware of dissatisfied students, Xia says that given the hundreds he teaches each semester, 340 complaints since 2006 is not an especially high number. If teacher evaluations were an important criteria, Xia adds, he believes he'd hardly be the only one exposed.
“You could ask how some professors got promoted,” he said. “It’s not from academic achievements. [There are] so many scandals. Maybe when I leave China and write a book, I can tell everything. If I exposed them, it would be a real earthquake for the School of Economics.”
But four former students, contacted independently of one another, say that Xia was an exceedingly unpopular professor who spent most lectures espousing his political views at the expense of teaching the course curriculum. “This was a basic class during our freshman year,” said the student from Xia’s 2010 Principles of Economics course. “We needed to learn this information for later on in our study. But he didn’t teach it well at all. We had to teach it to ourselves later.”
Lesley Zhang, a Peking University student who took the same course in 2008, said she withdrew after several sessions for the same reasons. “He spent most the time boasting about himself as ‘China’s greatest fighter for freedom and democracy’ and criticizing China’s current regime,” she said. “This disappointed those who wanted to learn economics. His political indoctrination disgusted many students.”
Peking University is known for its politically liberal professors. It was there that many of the student leaders in the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests originated, and it’s an open secret that teachers at the school and neighboring Tsinghua University often broach topics critical of the government in the classroom. Earlier this year, a leaked Communist Party memo warned universities that seven topics, including freedom of press and universal values, were banned from class discussions. But even still, the students currently at Peking University said these directives appear to have had little actual effect in the classroom, and agreed that it’s unlikely Xia’s political views were the primary reason for his dismissal.
“Many professors talk about political things that have nothing to do with the course, which I think is ok,” said the student from Xia’s 2010 class. “We Peking University students are very open; some of the most outstanding students in the country. Most of us are very liberal minded, so it’s ok to talk about sensitive political things, but a teacher should also teach what he’s supposed to.”
A student in the Economics Department, who took two of Xia’s courses in 2006, agreed. “He doesn’t care about teaching at all,” the student said. “I think 99 percent of the students in the Economic Department would agree to fire him.”
The incident has sent ripples through Chinese academia, and may have far-reaching effects on Peking University’s international standing. In July, the Committee for Concerned Scientists issued a statement urging the college not to go through with the vote on Xia’s dismissal, and in September, over 130 professors at Wellesley College signed an open letter calling on their school to reconsider its ties with Peking University if Xia’s termination went through.
Lesley Zhang says this is all playing into a bogus narrative. “Xia is a so-called ‘democrat’ and was fired by Peking University,” she said. “When these things are combined, most people make assumptions. Xia is fully aware of this and he is taking advantage of it. He uses media to portray himself as a victim of political views and says nothing about his students, who he should serve. In my view, he’s a selfish clown; not a qualified teacher.”
Xia contends that claims of spending the majority of class time on issues unrelated to the course are exaggerated, and says he feels saddened by accusations from these student and wonders whether they “have a conscience or not.”
“I don't mean that I don't have fault myself, but for many years, there are also many students [who] think highly of my teaching,” he said. “They wrote and thanked me in different ways.”
He added, “Just imagine how hard [it is for] a person fighting with the regime and thousands of manipulated persons.”