SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: October 15, 2013

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Peking University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, has been dismissed from his position, allegedly because of the content of his public statements and writings.

Professor Xia had previously stated that in June 2013 university officials informed him that a faculty vote on  his dismissal would be taken and that the vote was in response his public statements and writings. Professor Xia is an outspoken intellectual who has published liberal political views and public criticisms of the Chinese government. He was among the first signatories of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08, which called for democratic reforms and respect for human rights, and has complained that since then his phone has been monitored, he has been followed by plainclothes police, and he has been pressured to keep silent on matters of politics and public affairs.  In 2011 Professor Xia was placed under house arrest due to government concerns about an Arab Spring-inspired push for institutional reforms in China. Professor Xia recently made a series of remarks online criticizing party censorship and President Jinping.

Reports of an impending vote grew in September, gaining international attention.  In an open letter on September 3, 2013 more than 100 faculty members at Wellesley College in the United States asked Peking University’s administration not to expel Xia. The letter stated that Wellesley faculty would ask the college to reconsider a recently announced partnership with Peking University if the university dismissed him for his political views, in violation of academic freedom. Professor Xia had been subjected to a faculty review in October 2012, which he passed. In mid-October 2013, a faculty panel voted 30-3 vote in favor of Professor Xia’s dismissal. Following the vote and media reports citing international criticism, the university’s School of Economics released a statement claiming that a poor teaching record was the reason for Professor Xia’s dismissal.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the apparent dismissal of an academic in retaliation for the content of his academic work and peaceful exercise of the right of free expression. Scholars at Risk is also concerned about allegations that shared-governance structures, namely a faculty hearing/vote, might have been misused against an academic because of his writing and expression of views. Although the institution denied that improper restrictions on expression were behind the dismissal, citing alleged performance issues, this claim is called into doubt by the lack of transparency in the proceedings, history of persecution against the scholar and others expressing similar views, and published comments by some faculty members suggesting that the scholar’s expressive activity warranted expulsion in the Chinese context, even if they might not at a university in another country. State and university authorities, wherever they are, have a responsibility not to interfere with academic freedom or expressive activity, so long as that activity is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Retaliatory discharge aimed at limiting such expressive activity undermines academic freedom and related higher education values including institutional autonomy and social responsibility.