Shi Jiepeng, an assistant professor of classical Chinese at Beijing Normal University, was fired on July 25, 2017, apparently at the behest of government officials, in retaliation for political statements he had made in newspaper articles and social media postings.
Professor Shi had earned a reputation as an iconoclast, having been publicly critical of Mao Zedong – including in online comments in which he referred to Mao as a “devil” for his role in the Great Leap Forward and Chinese Cultural Revolution. Shi had also criticized Emperor Wu, the ancient Chinese ruler of the Han Dynasty.
The action against Professor Shi occurred against the backdrop of an effort by Chinese authorities to strengthen socialist and Marxist thought on campus, while pushing out liberal and foreign ideas. This effort was reportedly spearheaded by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), which sent inspectors to 29 top Chinese universities, in an apparent effort to ensure that they were promoting party ideology consistent with the wishes of government officials.
Conservative professors who opposed Shi’s views allegedly reported Shi to CCDI inspectors shortly after they arrived on campus in February 2017. University officials fired Shi in late July 2017, on the grounds, among others, of “expressing views outside the mainstream of society.” The note dismissing Shi, which was circulated on line, further stated that he “had for a long time made mistaken comments online, which cause a negative impact in society.”
The university and Chinese Ministry of Education declined to comment on Professor Shi’s dismissal.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the termination of a scholar in retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression – conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally. States and universities have a responsibility to refrain from wrongful disciplinary action in retaliation for nonviolent expressive activity.