CHINAcongress-hall-chongqing1A Peking University economics professor who was sacked for his political views explains the underside of elite Chinese higher education.

The 21st-century romance between America’s universities and China continues to blossom, with New York University opening a Shanghai campus last month and Duke to follow next year. Nearly 100 U.S. campuses host “Confucius Institutes” funded by the Chinese government, and President Obama has set a goal for next year of seeing 100,000 American students studying in the Middle Kingdom. Meanwhile, Peking University last week purged economics professor Xia Yeliang, an outspoken liberal, with hardly a peep of protest from American academics.

“During more than 30 years, no single faculty member has been driven out like this,” Mr. Xia says the day after his sacking from the university, known as China’s best, where he has taught economics since 2000. He’ll be out at the end of the semester. The professor’s case is a window into the Chinese academic world that America’s elite institutions are so eager to join—a world governed not by respect for free inquiry but by the political imperatives of a one-party state. Call it higher education with Chinese characteristics.

“All universities are under the party’s leadership,” Mr. Xia says by telephone from his Beijing home. “In Peking University, the No. 1 leader is not the president. It’s the party secretary of Peking University.”

Which is problematic for a professor loudly advocating political change. In 2008, Mr. Xia was among the original 303 signatories of the Charter 08 manifesto calling for democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law in China. “Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises,” declared the charter, written primarily by Mr. Xia’s friend Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace laureate who is currently serving an 11-year prison term for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Mr. Xi, 53, says he had a mostly apolitical youth in Anhui province, west of Shanghai, where both of his parents were shipyard workers for China’s navy. He never considered himself a communist and says he always felt drawn to the West, thanks partly to foreign picture books from his childhood. He imagined life as a painter or translator, and after graduating college in 1984 went to work as an interpreter for the government’s Foreign Affairs Office.

His political awakening came later, in 1987-89, when he studied management at the University of Toronto, visited several European democracies—and read Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose.” Friedman’s writing helped make Mr. Xia a classical liberal and, by the mid-1990s, a student of economics. Today he cites F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Buchanan and Gary Becker among his intellectual idols. The list also includes Xiakoai Yang, the Chinese economist—and Mao-era political prisoner—who convinced him that China cannot thrive without imitating the institutions, and not just the technologies, of the West.

Institutions like multiparty constitutional democracy, which Mr. Xia and his Charter 08 comrades demanded five years ago.

The following year, Mr. Xia went out on his own to condemn government censorship in an open letter to Communist Party propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, who now sits on Beijing’s seven-man supreme decision-making body. Last year the professor helped start an online petition demanding an investigation into the suspicious death of democracy activist Li Wangyang, and more recently he has taken to Weibo (China’s Twitter) to criticize new President Xi Jinping and his signature “Chinese dream” vision of party-led national greatness.

Such is the context for Mr. Xia’s firing, but Peking University insists that the matter is purely academic. “Xia Yeliang’s teaching evaluation scores were for many years in a row the lowest of the entire university,” school officials said this week, adding that 25 professors have been similarly fired since 2008.

“Slander,” replies Mr. Xia, who says that his evaluation scores were stronger, and that in any case the school’s dismissal process was a sham based on “no written rule.”

Mr. Xia says he first heard of the dismissal proceedings in June, when the party secretary of the school of economics gave him a dressing-down over the telephone: “You could make suggestions and recommendations and we can send that to the leaders,” Mr. Xia recalls being told, “but you don’t have to say it this way in public. This is ruining the image of the party and the government.”

He had been hearing similar messages since 2009, when university authorities warned him to “take good care” of his position on the faculty (as he told the Associated Press at the time). The state-run Global Times newspaper, for its part, denounced the professor last month as an “extremist liberal . . . advocating freedom and democracy,” even as it too claimed that his professional troubles are entirely nonpolitical.

This claim would be easier to credit if Mr. Xia hadn’t already endured years of intimidation and abuse, on campus and off: blacklisted from providing commentary on state television, fired from two research institutes, tailed by plainclothes police, detained and interrogated repeatedly, harassed by nighttime phone calls, kept under house arrest for days, constantly monitored and occasionally hacked online. With these measures failing to silence him, denying him a livelihood is an obvious way for the government to escalate.

And why wouldn’t Peking University play enforcer? Well, perhaps the school could be discouraged if it had to pay a price—within China, where it still maintains some reputation for relative liberalism, or more likely abroad, where it has established lucrative partnerships with Western universities that supposedly cherish liberal principles. These include Columbia, Stanford, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, UCLA, the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, the London School of Economics and the University of Toronto.

But as he waited between his June conversation with the Communist Party secretary and the university’s ruling, only Wellesley College in Massachusetts took up his cause (with 40% of professors calling to make his fair treatment a condition of the school’s continued ties with Peking University). No other Western schools have raised their voices in the days since his ouster.

“I don’t want to encourage them to cut off the exchanges and the cooperation,” says Mr. Xia of Peking University’s partners in the West. “I don’t want to be blamed by people from both sides. I think that they have the freedom to choose.”
OK, but if he were among the deciders? “If I were working in the U.S., I would say always take academic freedom as a basic principle. I don’t want to sacrifice the principle to have some kind of cooperation or exchange.”

He continues: “Some American faculty members and leaders like to favor the Chinese Communist Party and the government. Because those guys, when they come to China, sometimes they are treated as honored guests.” That includes, he says, fat speaking fees, grand banquets and five-star accommodations.

Of the Wellesley faculty, Mr. Xia says, “I’m very grateful for their support.” Yet clearly it wasn’t enough. “If Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Columbia [and] Chicago did the same thing,” he notes, Peking University might have held off: “The top leaders would seriously consider it.” Even now some outside pressure might help: “I don’t know whether they could call me back or not, but they might try to make some kind of compensation.”

Mr. Xia speaks pointedly about the broader matter of China and the West. Westerners have a mistaken impression of his homeland, he says, “because the Chinese economy looks so good, and people are getting a better material life. But I think that we have very huge social costs. With pollution, with poisonous food, with a very bad, party-controlled ideological education system. I think that it’s very dangerous.”

He is scathing about what he sees in universities: “The nature of the scientific research in China is just unbearable. We expend huge expenditures for scientific research, but there’s very little real scientific research done.” Some 70% of research funds, he says, goes to personal use—”travel, hotels, meals, computers, mobile phones, iPads, printers, all things you can imagine”—and professors routinely falsify invoices. “Universities have the same problem” as the China Railway Construction Corp. 601186.SH +0.39% , he says, where officials were recently disciplined for spending $135 million on receptions for guests last year.

Which brings us back to the U.S.-China academic romance. Chinese universities, Mr. Xia argues, “need famous foreign brand names to protect their very vulnerable capabilities for research and teaching.” The Chinese may “boast” that Peking University is one of the world’s best, “but no people really believe that.” Nowadays in China, he says, “the middle-class and rich persons and officials’ children—they’re sent to the U.S. to study. They know which schools are good and which are worse.” President Xi and his disgraced former rival, Bo Xilai, chose Harvard for their children.

Western academic ties provide China with “a kind of coating or makeup,” says the professor. “Because in Chinese universities we don’t have real freedom of academic research, so there’s no way to train great masters. Whether it’s in science or in humanities and arts—no way.”

Asked about China’s prospects for change in light of recent events, Mr. Xia surprises with some optimism. Waiting for a Chinese Gorbachev would be like “Waiting for Godot,” he argues, but there are stirrings from below, including the Internet’s power to educate citizens, expose officials and organize movements; the increasing willingness of business leaders to challenge the political status quo; and the roughly 200,000 local-level protests a year against injustices such as unpaid military compensation, environmental degradation and illegal land seizures.

“Within 10 to 15 years,” he believes, China’s Communist Party will collapse. “I’m very optimistic about that.”

The professor’s personal situation is another story. He’d like to continue teaching, “but I don’t think any university in China would dare to accept me.” His wife works as an accountant—at Peking University, of all places. And he accuses the administrators who fired him of threatening her job, too, by warning that his treatment could worsen if he spoke out publicly. “I feel sorry for my family members,” he says. “In China if you want to make institutional change, you must prepare to sacrifice or pay some high cost.”

It’s admirable, then, that on Thursday Wellesley College said it wants to host Mr. Xia as a visiting scholar through its aptly named Freedom Project. The brave economist could be a powerful presence in an American academy that often checks its principles at the door when it enters China.

Mr. Feith is a Journal editorial writer based in Hong Kong.

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