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.”