Many years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at Tsinghua University, considered one of the best educational institutions in China. I was impressed as faculty at the university struggled to remain intellectually active under the repressive controls of the Communist regime. It is a perilous existence as academics fear that they will write anything that annoys the government. Now, one of the best known law professors in China, Xu Zhangrun, has been arrested. Xu predicted the crackdown after he recently wrote a piece criticizing the government’s response to the coronavirus. His colleagues have been forced into silence at the risk of their own arrest. The arrest comes at a time when many are concerned about the loss of free speech in this country, not by the government but private companies and universities. I have chastised faculty around the country for their silence in the face of the increasing intolerance for opposing views on campuses and actions against professors raising dissenting views of the current protests. Indeed, many have joined in the call for such punitive measures. Xu is an example of the courage that academics in places like China have shown in the face of imminent threats to their liberty and even their lives.
Xu has been under house arrest and was taken away from his Beijing home on Monday. He has shown amazing courage in speaking out against the totalitarianism of China’s current leader, Xi Jinping. Reports indicate that he may have been charged with soliciting prostitution while in the city of Chengdu with other liberal academics. The charge is being ridiculed as absurd by many, particularly when Xu knew he was under continued surveillance.
Police seized all of his computers and records, a further indication of the true motive behind the arrest.
Xu was prevented from teaching due to his dissenting views at Tsinghua University. When he wrote about the coronavirus, he stated that it would likely be his last column.
He was right.
Xu is an inspiration for everyone who believes in free speech and academic freedom. His is also a cautionary tale of the ultimate costs of how speech regulation quickly becomes retaliation for those with dissenting views on campuses. Such dangers are not confined to totalitarian nations. Intolerance to free speech can have the same chilling effect in this country as professors watch colleagues put under investigation or subjected to campaigns for their termination over unpopular views. Even journalists have been forced out for allowing opposing views to be heard.
We fortunately do not face the totalitarianism of China. However, free speech and academic freedom are also under attack in this country. As an academy, we need to rally around Xu as well as the principles that he has steadfastly defended for all academics in being to voice dissenting views and values.