Former China politics lecturer slams curbs on university research

Since he published an open letter criticizing “Cultural Revolution-style” ideological controls of China’s higher education system, former Tsinghua University politics lecturer Wu Qiang has found it a little harder to move around Beijing.

Wu, whose former school is the fictional location for the gruesome Cultural Revolution political ‘struggle session’ scene that opens Liu Cixin’s popular science fiction trilogy The Three-Body Problem, told RFA Mandarin in a recent interview that he is now regarded as a “sensitive person” by the country’s state security police, which means restrictions on his day-to-day activities.

“The Beijing police stop me from entering the embassy district because I have a lot of contact with foreign journalists and diplomats,” Wu said. “I get identified through facial recognition technology, then my ID card gets checked at the next intersection, and I’m told to leave.”

“Ten minutes after that, I may get a call from state security police telling me not to remain in the area,” he said. 

Wu studies mass protests and demonstrations, a highly sensitive topic termed “mass incidents” by the increasingly security-obsessed ruling Chinese Communist Party. 

He was suspended from his lectureship at Tsinghua University in 2015 for researching the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, as well as protests and land-related campaigns in the rebel Guangdong villages of Taishi and Wukan.

Since the Chinese Communist Party enshrined Xi Jinping’s personal brand of ideologyXi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era — into the party charter in 2017, colleges and universities have scrambled to launch research programs and institutes to study “Xi Jinping Thought.”

Stepped up surveillance

In January, RFA reported that the ruling party was taking more direct control over colleges and universities, with the ongoing mergers of university-level Communist Party committees with university presidents’ offices, something that didn’t even happen during the political turmoil of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

It is also using technology to step up surveillance and monitoring of anyone deemed a potential threat to state security, including Wu Qiang.

People walk near the gate of Tsinghua University in Beijing in 2016. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Just a decade ago, it usually took the authorities at least a few days to put an end to Wu’s research activities, Wu told RFA.

“Now it takes them just 10 minutes,” he said. “Even normal communication with foreigners has become dangerous, even though I have no access to any secrets — the system is highly sensitive.”

The increased restrictions came after Wu penned an open letter in March to newly appointed Tsinghua University President Li Luming calling on him to drop a lawsuit against him which the school is pursuing despite its having been rejected by a Beijing court in 2021.

Wu, who was placed under house arrest around the same time, also took the opportunity to note that many former politics lecturers and professors at top schools in Beijing, Shanghai and across China have fled overseas to escape the political repercussions of doing their jobs.


A friend of Wu’s who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals said he believes the lawsuit against Wu is a form of intimidation.

“I believe that the plaintiff is trying to make an example of Wu Qiang by repeatedly suing him, so as to tame other Tsinghua lecturers,” the friend said.

A former colleague who gave only the surname Hu for fear of reprisals said the authorities have targeted Wu entirely due to his academic interests.

“Tsinghua University blacklisted Wu Qiang in the spring of 2020, and continues to do so to this day,” Hu told RFA Mandarin. “They have banned him from living on campus, and they are demanding so-called liquidated damages of more than 1 million yuan.”

Former Tsinghua University lecturer Wu Qiang is interviewed at his apartment in Beijing in June 2021. (Leo Ramirez/AFP)

“A court has already ruled that the school has no jurisdiction, but Tsinghua University just keeps filing these trumped-up lawsuits, which means that this a form of persecution,” he said.

The school has also targeted Wu’s colleagues, including the outspoken sociology professor Guo Yuhua, who was last year stopped by border guards while trying to leave China, and former law professor Xu Zhangrun, who was fired from his post in July 2020 after he called online for political reforms. 

‘Truth has been ripped to pieces’

Wu has continued with his research despite being banned from lecturing, but is finding it more and more difficult to make headway, something he blames on an overriding obsession with the political security of the regime under Xi Jinping.

“There is no regular field research happening any more,” Wu said. “Everything is performance-based from top to bottom.”

“Just as communities were locked down during the three years of zero-COVID, China has been shut off from the rest of the world, and the truth has been ripped to pieces,” he said. “Isolation is what is happening to China, and it’s also what’s happening to me.”

Wu started studying social movements for his PhD in political science at Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen, and was able to continue fieldwork for a few years on his return to China, although the authorities began obstructing his work as early as 2003 in various ways.

“It became increasingly difficult to obtain that kind of material [first hand],” he said. “I was followed by police while carrying out fieldwork and had them carry out checks on me in the middle of the night at my hotel.”

“I even got expelled from one city,” said Wu, who studies popular protest and resistance to the government, including spontaneous mass demonstrations and long-running attempts to redress grievances through official channels by petitioners.

Xia Ming, a professor of political science at New York’s City University, confirmed Wu’s account.

“Major universities in China are all infiltrated and tightly controlled by the state security police, the regular police, the political security police … and so on,” Xia said.

He described Wu as a rare and professional scholar capable of facilitating communication between China and the rest of the world.

Yet that’s precisely what makes him a target.

“What Tsinghua has done to Wu Qiang is an indicator for the tightening of controls over colleges and universities in China generally,” said Xia, who has previously worked at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Influential universities in China are always subject to selective control by the Chinese Communist Party.”

“Very active and influential academics with international academic connections are monitored, warned, and eventually heavily persecuted,” he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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