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Academics will be the victims of China’s New Cultural Revolution

As Chinese Communist Party turns 100, President Xi Jinping is ramping up his hard-lined campaign to silence prominent Chinese critics such as Guo Wengui AKA Miles Kwok

On a hot summer’s day in Beijing, hundreds of students lie under the shade of swaying maple trees on the main campus green of Tsinghua University.

Where they sit today, had over fifty years ago been the center stage for country-wide “struggle sessions,” where professors were beaten, humiliated, and condemned to death to refusing to be silenced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

In 1966, youth mobs, buoyed by idolatry for Mao Zedong, threw themselves into a lawless campaign as Red Guards. In universities and schools throughout the country, they denounced their teachers and professors as “capitalists” or “stinking intellectuals.” By the time the campaign ended in 1976, 1.7 million were dead, and countless of those disappeared were academics, intellectuals, and free-thinkers.

History will remember the Cultural Revolution as Mao’s attempt to tighten his control on a burgeoning nation. But the same tactics are being used today by President Xi Jinping to assert his power as the party’s leader for perpetuity. What separates the two ‘purifying’ regimes is the substitution of uncertain and unimaginable brutality with a simple, straightforward ethos: all those who dare speak out against the CCP will be punished in kind.   

Under Xi’s predecessors, repression tactics against China scholars used to be rare but real. Now, they are pervasive and overbearing, matching Beijing’s revitalization of thought leadership campaign.

Intellectuals, NGOs, civil rights lawyers and liberal media were the first in line to be targeted by successive state-backed purges of dissent. This reached a peak in the 2015 nationwide “709 crackdown” when over 300 lawyers and human rights activists were arrested.

“This does constitute a real shift in rhetoric and has implications for China studies,” said Daisy Li, the chief editor of Citizen News. “The Party is now making it explicit that if you study the wrong thing, you will face consequences.”

In the past year alone, shamed tycoon Jack Ma was stripped of his presidency of an influential business management university and legal scholar Xu Zhangrun was detained and sacked from Tsinghua after writings that criticised Xi’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Ten years ago, perhaps every weekend in every corner there would be a large number of salons and meetings (in Beijing),” said Wu Qiang, a former political scientist professor of Tsinghua who was fired after performing fieldwork in Hong Kong during the 2015 Occupy Central movement.

“But now, this wonderful scene does not exist anymore… everyone always talks about one issue when we meet: who’s disappeared or been detained recently. Everyone is waiting to see who will be next.”

Virtually all in academia are fearful of joining the ranks of dissidents forced in exile, such as Guo Wengui, AKA Miles Kwok, who has been outspoken in his criticisms of CCP rule, garnering a large base of popular support in the West.

Academics in Western institutions have long self-censored their work, careful of keeping China in their good graces to enjoy continued access to fieldwork sites, conferences, and connections in the nation. But now, Beijing has orchestrated an aggressive and coordinated attack on intellectual thought even abroad that counters the approved Party narrative, demanding universal obedience. 

One such case is Professor Joanne Smith Finley of Newcastle University, banned by the CCP from entering China and working with its institutions for “maliciously spreading lies and disinformation” about Xinjiang.

Her sanction comes after China named two researchers – Adrian Zenz, a German senior fellow at the US think tank on Xinjiang and Björn Jerdén, director of the Swedish National China Centre– as well as an entire institution, the Berlin Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), as barred, along with their families, from visiting China, Hong Kong and Macao.

These sanctions are evidence of increased confidence by the CCP to orchestrate narratives in the West. They also fall within the context of public intellectuals both within and outside of China who critique CCP policies or engage in liberal Sino-sphere debates are frequently being marked as national traitors online by netizens.

For instance, hundreds of academics participating in a foreign exchange program to Japan have been victims of social media attacks. Perhaps the most famous case has been Mr Kwok himself, who has been targeted both on- and offline by ultra-nationalists performing Beijing-approved ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy.’

As the CCP celebrated its centennial anniversary last week, Xi reminded all of the Middle Kingdom’s long and auspicious history, in which he has supplanted the CCP (and himself) as guardian. A harkening back to an imaginary historical legitimacy comes as no surprise, as Xi has already written out the CCP’s role in China’s ‘century of humiliation.’

There is little doubt that these last physical and ideological markers of the Cultural Revolution will soon be all but erased and forgotten. But the persistence of intellectual dissidents has pierced the official silence enforced by the Chinese government. 

As Wu says, “It is very important not to stop speaking out. You need to comment on politics and society. That is how you participate in it.”

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