‘It Is Especially Scary to See Students’

Professors in China React to New Levels of Control in Their Classrooms

As in many other aspects of public life in China under Xi Jinping, the space for independent inquiry and discussion within the academy has shrunk significantly in recent years. The Xi administration has released a slew of guidelines and communiques cementing the Party’s control over the classroom; state media have criticized university professors for “lacking a sense of identity with the Party’s theories, policies, and sentiments.”

As part of the newly-published compendium New Threats to Academic Freedom in Asia, Jue Jiang, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at SOAS, University of London, examines this change through the system of student informants within China’s universities. “In addition to the high-tech cameras that are already installed in classrooms for monitoring lectures and discussion, student informants are viewed by authorities as key information nodes for a bottom-up, masses-based form of surveillance and control,” writes Jiang. “In this sense, the system of student informants provides a crucial lens for examining academic freedom in China under the leadership of Xi Jinping.”

Jiang interviewed 10 professors working in mainland China, Hong Kong, or Macau about their experiences with student informants. One chilling conclusion: that instructors fortunate enough or obedient enough to avoid getting informed on can develop “a demeaning or nihilistic attitude toward those who do not toe the line or those who challenge the official line eroding academic freedom.”

What follows is an excerpt from Jiang’s chapter in the book, describing (anonymized) interviews with mainland professors about the student informant system. Professors 1 and 2 had been reported on by student informants; the other professors Jiang quotes had not.

Regarding the impact of this system, both Professors 1 and 2 expressed their deep sadness and dismay about the consequences this system has brought to themselves, their teaching, and the wider context—although they were accused of having “immoral” or “unethical” speeches or acts. Also, both professors talked about taking a nonserious and irresponsible attitude toward teaching (e.g., simply reading the textbook or even asking the students to read the textbook themselves) as self-protection. Professor 1 stated that:

They were going to fire me, and I was so depressed—I nearly jumped off a building. There is nothing wrong with what I said, but they simply said, “You had evil thoughts.” That is a political crime, like in the Cultural Revolution, they accused you of bad political performance. Now they accuse me of degraded morality (dexing buhao). What is virtue? Is their morality good? They are poor in academics and even poorer in character (renpin), but they can reckon on this word of “morality” to bully you to death.

I think Hu Shi [a diplomat and scholar of Republican-era China] once said, when a country talks about morality every day, this country is particularly immoral. I really feel the degeneration of this country now—this country is hopeless. As so many people have profited from such a degraded environment, they are very supportive of such a system. A bad environment is where good people cannot do good things, so that you can only fall.

I feel that I myself am a little degraded now, because my classes are just water classes (shuike) [i.e., I teach in a perfunctory way]. I am safe only in this way, otherwise, I would be snitched on by student informants. My mistake in the past is that I was too serious; I even risked my life.

Likewise, Professor 2 said:

Several professors have been reported on by their own postgraduate students. I do not want to be complicit. I just want to listen to my heart. But I cannot be like that now. The scars inside me are so deep that I am really very disheartened when you ask me this question, and it hurts me so much talking about it. Nowadays, civility has fallen to such a level. Universities have degenerated to such a level (sigh).

There are plenty of “water classes” (shuike) in the university. Students and teachers are all irresponsible. I have been especially cautious in class this semester, and it is especially scary to see students. Nowadays, we teachers are all like this and students are not serious. We used to get angry when we saw students not being serious with study, but now we do not feel angry anymore—you snitch! Why should I be so dedicated to you?

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The professors who had no such experience with student reporting and [as quoted elsewhere in the chapter] who voiced their justification for this system said they were not affected by student informants. For example, Professor 4 said:

I do not have any problems. Maybe those teaching the Constitution would have some problems? But I never talked with them, thus know nothing.

Professor 6 said:

I believe that the classroom is not a private space—it is public. So I do not think it matters if it is recorded or taped, and I will not be affected by it. The content of my classes is all discussions within the academic context, and we will also talk about the problems and shortcomings, but of course we will certainly talk about the progress and the positive aspects of the law first.

The pedagogical philosophy of teaching “within the academic context” seems to be recognized by these professors as the most crucial factor for not being impacted by student informants. They seem to believe that they will never “cross the line” and touch upon the “forbidden zones.” Perhaps most importantly, they identify themselves with the official restraints [imposed by the Party-state] and disapprove of “dissidents.” For example, Professor 3 stated:

The [classroom surveillance] technology is so advanced; thus, you know what you say may be filmed or recorded. You cannot say it forms pressure, but you would know it does—do not talk loosely (luan shuohua). If it is not necessary to say, you do not say it. Anyway, we professors are not critics (fenqing, 愤青), right?

Professor 5 also mentioned his pedagogical philosophy as categorizing officially banned topics as “politics” and leaving “politics” outside the classroom:

I do not think there is any problem with the content of my lectures, so I am not particularly worried. I do worry a little when I see reports about it [i.e., the student informant system]. But looking back at what those professors said in class after we saw the punishment, I felt that what they said in class was not quite the same as what I think Max Weber contends in Science as a Vocation (Wissenschaft als Beruf) [i.e., that politics should not have any place or role in the classroom and that teachers should not talk about their political attitudes or teach anything from a political perspective], and I agree that is not what a scholar should say in class. I am pretty sure that I will not talk about those issues myself, so I would not feel worried or nervous.