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: July 12, 2020

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Tsinghua University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On July 12, 2020, Tsinghua University(THU) fired legal scholar Xu Zhangrun in apparent retaliation for his writings and public opinions.

Xu, a renowned scholar of constitutional law, has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping. In at least three previous incidents, his public expression regarding the government has resulted in retaliation by state and university authorities. In March 2019, THU suspended Xu and banned him from teaching, writing, and publishing for a July 2018 essay he published that criticized President Xi Jinping and the government’s removal of presidential term limits (see report). In February 2020, authorities put Xu under house arrest after he published an essay critical of the Chinese government and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, first publicly reported in Wuhan (see report). And on July 6, 2020, police arrested Xu on allegations of soliciting sex workers, an accusation Chinese authorities have previously used against government critics ostensibly to tarnish their reputation (see report). Xu had published a collection of essays not long before this latest arrest.

After Xu was released from custody, on July 12, THU fired Xu for “moral corruption.” According to a report by the South China Morning Post, a dismissal decision letter given to Xu “stated that he was fired because he was soliciting prostitutes and publishing articles in violation of regulations.” Colleagues have commented that the university’s decision was in retaliation for Xu’s outspoken criticism of the government and the Chinese Communist Party.

Following his firing, in August 2020, Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies offered Xu the title of associate-in-research. Xu accepted the title, which provides him access to Harvard library collections.

Scholars at Risk is concerned by the dismissal of a scholar, in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to academic freedom and freedom of expression—conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. University authorities should refrain from retaliating against academic or expressive activity, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, suspensions and dismissals aimed at restricting or retaliating against such activity undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.