Beijing, China — As China celebrates the 30th anniversary of its reform and opening, many Chinese are still struggling to attain basic rights and freedoms, with the legal and education systems seemingly unable to keep pace with the country’s economic progress. In a telling example, two Chinese students reported their professor to the authorities for being a “counterrevolutionary” after he made controversial comments in class.
Yang Shiqun, a professor at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, was grilled by two female students in his ancient Chinese language class after his in-class remarks on the current culture, politics and administration of China. The two students, reported by Yang to have had tears in their eyes, angrily asked the professor, “How could you criticize our government like that?”
Yang claimed he had a right to express his viewpoint, saying, “If you don’t feel like listening to me in class, then don’t choose to attend my class.”
To Yang’s surprise, the two students later went to the local Public Security Bureau and the Municipal Education Committee to report Yang as a “counterrevolutionary.” Moreover, the Public Security Bureau put the case on file for investigation, according to Yang.
Yang revealed his side of the story on his blog, in which he described the students as “whistle-blowers” and denied that he had mentioned in class the forbidden topic of the Falun Gong – a banned religious group in China – and its famous tract, “Nine Criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Although the content was later removed from the blog, some netizens were able to copy the article and circulate it on the Internet. Since the moment it was posted, the professor’s story attracted a great deal of attention from both sympathizers and critics.
Most people, including well-known scholars and media critics, sided with Yang, declaring that a professor should be granted the academic freedom to criticize the government and comment on social issues.
Furthermore, many supporters compared Yang’s case with other well-known cases in which Chinese professors or ordinary citizens were punished for the crime of slander. Even worse, several scholars were reminded of the heinous tradition of “reporting to the authorities” during the Cultural Revolution. Thus, his supporters firmly defended Yang’s right to free speech, a right that is upheld by the current Chinese Constitution.
Some critics were concerned as to whether or not Yang could possibly be accused and sentenced under the law. Fortunately for Yang, the crime of “counterrevolution” was abolished under China’s criminal law in 1997. The Public Security Bureau certainly cannot charge Yang with this crime.
Some may think of the crime of slander, but this does not apply either. In China the government cannot be the victim of slander, since it doesn’t have the right to protection of its reputation.
The only other possible accusation would be the notorious and frightening “incitement to subvert state power,” a criminal charge used to gag free speech on politics. To qualify for this charge, one would need to “seriously jeopardize the social order and state interests.”
Senior media commentator Yu Ge expressed the opinion that criticizing the government in a class setting falls within the realm of academic freedom and could not be considered to seriously jeopardize the social order or state interests.
This charge of “incitement to subvert state power” is highly controversial and as outdated as the idea of “counterrevolution,” in the eyes of many educated Chinese, including Yu. Many lawyers and scholars have advocated its revision or removal from the criminal code. Yet the authorities continue to apply this charge to dissidents, activists, journalists and writers that cannot be found guilty of any other crime.
No matter what the result, the fact that a case was filed against Yang at the Public Security Bureau reveals the unsoundness of China’s legal system, Yu said. “In any case, for one to be legally penalized for one’s words demonstrates the backward and barbarous legal system of one’s country,” he said.
Other netizens expressed sympathy for the two students or reflections on the type of education they must have received. Ran Yunfei, a famous critic, said the two tattletales were the sad outcome and the epitome of the obscurant education that has fooled ordinary Chinese into being blindly patriotic and absolutely believing that all the government’s actions are correct and good for the people. The existence of such students is a disgrace to China’s university education, Ran said.
A few people blamed the two students for trying to take political action by reporting to authorities rather than expressing their disagreement with the professor in some other way, such as a class debate. Some felt that the girls were trying to threaten and frighten their professor, as there have been many cases in which citizens have received criminal punishment for politically incorrect speech.
“Taking such a shortcut and using political means proved nothing but the students’ incompetence in persuading their opponent through reason,” one netizen commented online.
Other critics sympathized with the two girls, blaming the country’s lack of civic education for the fact that students cannot recognize the rights to free speech and academic freedom.
Xu Kaibin, an assistant professor of organizational communication at Temple University in the United States, was brave enough to offer a view opposite to mainstream Chinese opinion.
Xu argued that, even in the United States, teachers are not allowed to use the disproportionate power that their occupation grants them to promote their political beliefs in class; otherwise, it might offend students and invite lawsuits. Other than Xu, few thought the two students were doing the right thing by reporting their professor or that certain topics were inappropriate for classroom discussion.
Not many Chinese compatriots seemed to buy Xu’s opinion, based on his experience abroad. Some Chinese scholars even responded by criticizing Xu. Perhaps, as some netizens suggested, the best solution might be for the professor to sue the two students for slandering him, as a practical lesson in law.