A Teacher in China Learns the Limits of Free Expression

John told me that he was mortified to learn that the attack had been connected to his essay. I have claimed that in the fall of 2019 I have heard only that I have been reported. John didn’t post on Weibo, and he hadn’t seen the original attack. “I’m sorry,” he said. He had no idea how the editing comments had become public.

Over the years, I had talked about the incident with a few politically savvy students and professors. One teacher who knew John had told me that the boy didn’t seem like a Little Pink. The teacher and others imagined the same scenario: that some other student had seen the essay, or heard details from it, and then wrote the attack. When I spoke with John, he said that he had mentioned some of the editing comments from him to his roommates from him, and that he had also taken the paper to the institute’s writing center, where other students and tutors may have seen it. From looking at John’s face, and from his over-all reaction to him, I believed that he was telling the truth.

“Actually, after you gave the comments on the paper, I was a little upset,” he said. “I totally agree with you about the comments, if we don’t consider the politics. But I had to consider the politics, because I am under a certain circumstance in China. Your comments were against traditional politics.”

I asked if he would have the same reaction now.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s not that the comments are wrong. It’s just the feelings.”

For many students, the experience of the pandemic seemed to confirm a general idea that the benefits of the Chinese system greatly outweigh its flaws. In assignments, a number of them wrote angrily about the government’s initial coverup and missteps. But they recognized that China was the only large country in the world that, after early mistakes, had been able to dramatically change course and keep fatalities to a minimum. They were realistic, but I wouldn’t describe them as cynical. In the course of several semesters, I asked more than a hundred students if they expected their generation to have a better life than their parents’ generation had, and eighty-three per cent said that they did.

The Little Pink phenomenon, which seems to be amplified by social media, was not something I observed in the classroom. In my experience, the Chinese students of twenty-five years ago were much more nationalistic, and much less aware, than the students of today. Li Chunling, one of China’s most prominent sociologists, has carried out many large-scale surveys of young Chinese. In her book “China’s Youth,” she describes a pattern of less interest in joining the Party, in addition to a tendency for high income and higher education to correlate with reduced national identification. But Li emphasizes that this is not a sign of dissidence. “They see Western democratic institutions as better than China’s current systems,” she writes. “But they see little value in immediately instituting a Western-style democratic order, because China’s current situation seems to demand the institutions that it has.”

Li also writes that, with regard to highly educated young Chinese, “simple propaganda-style education will not be effective.” Over the course of four semesters, I couldn’t remember any student bringing up Xi Jinping in class. I recently reviewed more than five hundred student papers and found the President mentioned only twenty-two times, usually in passing. Undoubtedly, fear played a role. But there also seemed to be a genuine lack of connection to the leader. I often gave an assignment that I had previously given in Fuling, asking freshmen to write about a public figure, living or dead, Chinese or foreign, whom they admired. In the old days, Mao had been the most popular choice, but my Sichuan University students were much more likely to write about scientists or entrepreneurs. Out of sixty-five students, only one selected Xi Jinping, who left the President tied with Eminem, Jim Morrison, and George Washington. The student who chose Washington wrote, “The reason why I admire him most is that he gave up his political power voluntarily.”

In early April, 2021, my teaching contract wasn’t renewed. Dean Chyu had been in the United States since the start of the pandemic, and he e-mailed me with the news. First, he said that SCUPI had other candidates, but, when I checked with my department, I was told that there wasn’t any recruitment taking place—because of the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to get foreign teachers into China. After I wrote to the dean again, I added a different reason, citing a Chinese rule that supposedly prevented the university from extending a short-term contract like mine. I offered to sign a long-term contract, but he declined, without explanation. Recently, I wrote to Chyu, and he responded in an e-mail that he was too busy to do an interview. (When contacted by a fact checker, Chyu claimed that I never expressed interest in signing a long-term contract, and he said that he had made plans to replace me before the pandemic began.)

During the pandemic, there had been periodic social-media attacks on my writing, by Little Pinks and others. Two professors at Sichuan University told me that mid-level administrators had had to file reports about these incidents, which supposedly was one of the reasons my job ended. (Chyu and a former university official claim that they were not aware of any such reports.) The professors also told me that nobody at the top had issued a direct command to not renew my contract, because the system created enough nervousness that people were likely to err on the side of caution. “tianwei bukece,” one professor explained, using a phrase that means the highest authority remains unclear. “You have to guess what the exact order is.”

Near the end of June, less than a week before my wife and daughters were flying out of China, a deputy director of the university’s foreign-affairs office requested a meeting. The official told me that the university would have been happy if I had stayed, and that I was welcome to apply for a position with a different college. He said that the refusal to renew my job had been made by Dean Chyu alone. “He did not know the whole situation here,” the official told me. (Later, when contacted by a fact checker, the official denied saying this.) It impressed me as another way in which the system functioned effectively: in the hybrid arrangement, the decision to get rid of the American teacher could be blamed on the American institution.

When my final class of freshmen read “Animal Farm,” I asked them to reimagine the story at Sichuan University. In one boy’s version, a mob of students take over the campus and penetrate the administration’s central computer room, hoping to change grades, only to realize that the security cameras are still operating. Another boy, named Carl, described a revolt in which students successfully expel professors and staff. Afterward, all students are equal, but some become more equal than others:

Without teachers, the undisciplined people give up studying completely, while the self-disciplined people work harder every day, especially the people from the West China College of Stomatology. Although they said there was no discrimination, the students at Pittsburgh Institute were about 15 points worse than those of other colleges of Sichuan University in the college entrance examination.

Carl’s story ends with the stomatologists embarking on successful careers while other students fail to get jobs, thus destroying the university’s reputation.

When teaching Orwell, I often thought about why such books aren’t considered a threat to the Party. In the novels of the Dystopian Trilogy, futuristic societies distract and control individuals by various methods: the continuous war and rewritten history of “1984,” the sex and soma drugs of “Brave New World,” the surgical removal of human imagination in “We .” But none of these books anticipates how useful competition can be in sustaining a long-term authoritarian state. In China, nationalistic propaganda might be effective for children and other people at a lower level, but there’s a tacit understanding that it won’t work as well for the highly educated. As long as these individuals have opportunities to advance and improve their lives, they are less likely to oppose authority. And the system doesn’t need to be hermetically sealed in the manner of “1984.” The vast majority of Chinese students who go abroad choose to return—for them, it’s as simple as yinyefeishi. If they were truly afraid of choking, they would remain in the United States.

And there’s a point at which competition becomes a highly effective distraction. For most of my students, the greatest worry didn’t seem to be classroom security cameras or other instruments of state control—it was the thought of all those talented young people around them. In October of 2019, when China celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, I asked students what the holiday meant to them. One freshman wrote:

Holiday means others went out to play and I am studying, which is the time that I have the highest relative efficiency. I could learn more than others and I will get a higher GPA. Holiday is the best time that I can go surpass my classmates in study.

At Sichuan University, there is one independent and liberal student-run publication. changshior commonsense, was founded in 2010, and the name is partly in homage to Thomas Paine’s pamphlet. Somehow, commonsense has survived the current political climate, although it no longer publishes on paper, uses no bylines, and has no list of staff writers. During my final semester, the most prominent stories were an investigation into the sudden death of a student on campus and a feature about an undergraduate who was trying to sue the university because of low-quality cafeteria food. A number of journalists from the magazine had taken my nonfiction class.

The week before I left the university, I met off campus with the publication’s staff. There were about twenty students, almost all of them female. That was another aspect of university life that wasn’t quite Orwellian. From “1984”: “It was always the women, and above all the young ones, who were the most whiskered adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.” In my experience, female students seemed less nationalistic than the men, and I suspected they were less likely to jubao to professor.

During our meeting, the commonsense staff asked what I thought about young people today. I mentioned the intense competition, and I said that I had been impressed with my students’ understanding and analysis of the system around them. “But I don’t know what this means for the future,” I said. “Maybe it means that they figure out how to change the system. But maybe they just figure out how to adapt to the system. What do you think?

“We will adapt,” somebody said, and several others agreed.

“It’s easy to get angry, but easy to forget,” another woman remarked.

A third woman, one of the smallest in the group, said, “We will change it.” ♦

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