China: Obedient autonomy

EducationWorld March 17 | EducationWorld

With Chinese academics explicitly banned from talking about civil rights and press freedom, university campuses may seem unlikely places for murmurs of political dissent. However, despite efforts to crush any appraisal of China’s human rights record on campus, scholars are still finding ways to foster “creative dissent” among their students and to exert a progressive influence on the Communist party-state, claims a research study.

As part of a study by two researchers from the University of Macau, 26 academics and ten students at a “typical” provincial Chinese university were interviewed about teaching and researching in an environment where state surveillance and diktats from Beijing exert considerable pressure on their day-to-day working lives. For instance, academics are officially banned from discussing seven taboo subjects, outlined in a party memo of August 2013, which include civil society, legal independence and the historic wrongdoings of the Communist Party, according to the paper, titled Professors as Intellectuals in China: Political Identities and Roles in a Provincial University, published recently in the China Quarterly journal.

Instead, lecturers are encouraged to transmit “positive energy” about China to their students — a phrase popularised by President Xi Jinping, who has cracked down on liberal thought since taking office in 2012. While few of the academics interviewed were able to take an overtly critical stance towards China, many confessed they have made efforts to broach sensitive subjects with students and to encourage them to think for themselves about these issues.

“One professor suggested that a way to do this is to put arguments and counter-arguments on the table and ask students to judge for themselves,” says the paper, written by Zhidong Hao, professor of sociology at Macau, and Zhengyang Guo, a Ph D student at Macau who is also a lecturer at Shanxi University in north-west China. “This interviewee believes it’s not necessary to tell students what the professor thinks — students know how to judge (for themselves),” it adds.

Another professor explained that if a topic was deemed too sensitive to tackle, he would simply touch on it and ask students to think further. “It is unnecessary to challenge the system — as long as one gets students to think, that is good enough,” says the interviewee, illustrating an approach “typical of a non-establishment/professional attitude” in which academics are “in the establishment, but not agreeing with its ideology; not openly challenging the ideology, but approaching it from a… professional point of view”.

Described as a form of “obedient autonomy”, this type of resistance shows that many professors are “doing as much as they can under current conditions”, the paper says.

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