Information surrounding Xia Yeliang’s dismissal remains unclear
By SIZHUANG MIAO ’15
In his letter to the editors last week, Professor Thomas Cushman expressed his concerns regarding a “distorted presentation of certain aspects of [Xia Yeliang’s] case” by Professor Charles Bu in Bu’s previous op-ed. Professor Cushman pointed out, rather sharply, that Professor Bu had taken the reasons of Xia’s dismissal directly from Peking University (PKU) without further justifications. He also noted that PKU “still remains firmly under the control of the Communist Party of China,” a regime that has a long history of “systematically stepping up its campaign of repression against intellectuals.” What seems to have escaped Professor Cushman, however, is the controversial nature of Xia’s case. This is manifested not just by the outcry of intellectuals in the United States but also, more disturbingly, by the remarkably unfavorable opinions of Xia from people identifying as PKU students who claim to have taken classes with Xia.
Opinions on Xia’s case can be found on a major social network website in China, Renren.com. The website is a close imitation of Facebook, and many of its users are students or other young people. Several users, identified as students from the School of Economics at PKU, have described in great detail how Xia boasted about his experience for 80 percent of his class time while hurrying through his course materials in the remaining several minutes.
On another occasion, Xia’s course was canceled due to under-enrollment. There are also claims that around 20 PKU students organized a rally against Xia for blatantly neglecting his teaching responsibilities. Xia’s academic achievement also seems to raise concerns for not meeting professional standards: it has been pointed out that he has had few or no publications in the last five years. These accounts overlap significantly with the official reasons for Xia’s dismissal.
While the validity of all such claims needs further verification, these accounts call for more investigations on the entire matter. The overwhelming criticisms of Xia’s irresponsible way of teaching should not simply be dismissed as a manipulation of public opinion. If the accounts about Xia are true, then not only is Wellesley on a less than firm ground while deciding whether to discontinue the program with PKU, but the glorious liberation cause of inviting Xia as a visiting fellow might also be called into question.
This is not to say that there are no political motives behind Xia’s dismissal. Nonetheless, the criticisms do raise an important question: if such allegations are true, and I am by no means suggesting that they are, is Xia even worthy of being granted a position with the Freedom Project at all? The mere act of political dissent does not automatically make an individual a person of principle, let alone a “distinguished public intellectual.” Academic integrity and work ethic are also crucial in Xia’s case.
Professor Cushman rightly pointed out that the Communist Party tends to distort facts that place the government in an unfavorable light. This does not mean, however, that the highly controlled PKU is deceitful all of the time, especially when certain facts about an opponent could largely serve PKU’s own advantage. If Xia is indeed less than a respectable teacher, then PKU is justified in dismissing him for incompetence. At the same time, Wellesley may also need to reconsider inviting Xia to the College.
To further justify his support for Professor Xia, Professor Cushman argued as such in the latter parts of his letter:
“Professor Xia was terminated because he is a courageous public intellectual who stood up to one of the more repressive regimes in the world today. … Wellesley College is now the subject of extremely favorable world public opinion based on the support of so many faculty members for Professor Xia. To the extent that people continue to spread unsubstantiated accounts of Professor Xia, and accept the narrative of the regime that has repressed him, our reputation can only be diminished.”
I find myself unable to embrace Professor Cushman’s argument entirely. The respectability of Wellesley College does not rise from catering to public opinion, either favorable or unfavorable. On the contrary, the reputation of Wellesley College, as one of the leading institutions of higher education in the United States, comes exactly from the kind of integrity demonstrated in the intensive debates arising from Xia’s case.
As far as the current information about Xia’s case is concerned, there is little evidence that either “substantiates” or “unsubstantiates” rumors of Xia’s teaching ethic and his academic integrity. What seems to have made Xia the hero so far is simply the fact that he has criticized the government and has seemingly been punished for it by his dismissal.
However, there should be a much more comprehensive investigation on Xia that can bring about a fuller picture of the entire situation. In the meantime, no one should be discouraged from arguing for or against Xia. Wellesley College’s reputation will only be elevated by being a responsible institution that approaches Xia’s case with discretion.