On Xia Yeliang…

Posted: November 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

Note: This post is in regards to an article I published in The Atlantic on October 22 about dismissed Peking University Professor Xia Yeliang. After receiving excessive scorn, I wrote this post a few days later, but ultimately decided it was too long-winded and canned it after I was invited on Sinica to discuss the issue. However, even more than a month later, people continue to misrepresent what I actually wrote and said. Given the gravity of the case, I decided to go ahead and publish it (with a few tweaks). Apologies for the long-windedness…

One thing I’ve learned over the years I’ve been writing about China is that people love simple narratives. In fact, they often demand them. Things are black vs. white, good vs. evil or a brave freedom-fighting David taking on a wholly-despicable Goliath. So if you introduce a little gray, the white camp sees you as representing everything they hate about the black, and vice-versa.

Several years ago at the university I taught at in Nanjing, there was an English professor (a Chinese woman) who would constantly use her classes to aggressively proselytize Christianity to the point that she’d sometimes stand at the podium and tell students they were hell-bound if they didn’t embrace Jesus. Over the years, there were floods of student complaints about her. The school warned her repeatedly, whereupon she’d cool down for a bit, and then quickly return to her old habits. Eventually, she was fired.

But why? This teacher had some fans (many of whom were Christian themselves). There was another, better-connected teacher in the department who did more-or-less the same thing, but she kept her job; whereas the teacher who was fired wasn’t well-liked by her colleagues. And if she’d just as aggressively preached atheism in class, I find it highly unlikely she would have been dismissed in the end. So what did her in? Was it the student complaints, her Christian faith, national politics, office politics, or more likely, some combination of all these things?

I can’t say for sure, but I think it would be a gross over-simplification to yell “religious persecution!” and call it a day. However, that’s exactly what some people on campus did.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a similar thing play out with the case of Xia Yeliang – the Peking University (PKU) economics professor and political dissident who was recently dismissed from his post.

Most people (myself included) initially assumed this was a clear case of political persecution. Given all the very real political persecution happening throughout this country, it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. A few weeks before the dismissal, I had even asked the head of a Sino-foreign joint venture college in Shanghai how foreign schools could justify “making a deal with the devil” when there are cases like Xia’s.

But then a few days before Xia was officially terminated, I was chatting with a friend studying at PKU. When I mentioned Xia, she said, “Actually, a lot of students at the school are upset with the way the media’s been covering that story.” She said that he was exceptionally unpopular because of his terrible teaching.

Intrigued, I thought I’d follow up on the story and see if it led anywhere. I figured I’d find some fans and some critics, and then pit them against each other in an article. Unfortunately, that’s not what I found.

When I was seeking out students of Xia’s, there were a few types of people I wanted to avoid. Obviously, I didn’t want anyone arranged through Xia himself or PKU. I also didn’t want to cherry-pick commenters on Weibo who, for whatever reason, had self-selected themselves to speak out on the issue. I tend to avoid Weibo and online forums like the plague when reporting – too many people with disingenuous motives. For the same reason, I sure as hell wasn’t going to quote anything or anyone dredged up online where I couldn’t verify that the person was actually a PKU student who had taken Xia’s class. I also didn’t really want to spend time trying to find current students. Xia had known since the beginning of summer that his job was in danger and his dismissal vote was coming up. If it were me, I’d dramatically alter my teaching methods this semester.

I wanted to choose random people who hadn’t yet expressed an opinion and contact them out of the blue. So starting with some contacts I had from PKU (none of whom were employees, Communist Youth League members or anyone with a vested interest or political axe to grind) I started making some calls and sending out queries to try and track down Xia’s students. The secondhand sources I muddled through were relating similar accounts that Xia was widely disliked. Eventually, I landed on four students who had actually taken his classes across several years.

I contacted them out of the blue and separately from one another. Had they started listing the exact same bullet points and buzzwords, I would have been suspicious. However, that wasn’t the case. They all had their own complaints, but there were some consistent themes: that Xia was boastful, dogmatic and preachy in his political beliefs (which he argued incoherently), that he was awful at teaching the subject matter, and that he would spend huge tracts of class time on completely irrelevant topics.

As I was wrapping up the story, PKU came out with a statement (here’s a later English translation) which more-or-less seemed in line with what the students had already told me (in terms of the specific complaints; nobody’s quite sure what’s up with the procedures used to oust Xia).

Had I found a single student that said a positive (or even neutral) word, I would have quoted them in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this, and I wasn’t about to “balance” out the students I’d methodically sought out in order to avoid bias by quoting an unverifiable and easily manipulated source found through far less methodical means.

I don’t doubt Xia has fans out there though. I can’t think of anyone in history who’s had a 100 percent disapproval rating. But since I didn’t find any of them, I decided I would still present the segment of the student population that felt their voices were being ignored (a segment that seemed pretty large) and then give plenty of room for Xia to respond (but it seems a lot of people missed the half of the article where I laid out Xia’s side of the story).

In the end, I was only able to convince one of the students to use her (English) name in the article. This is something I wrestled with. No journalist likes to use anonymous sources – especially in a situation where they’re criticizing someone else. But having interviewed scores of Chinese students before, I knew that – even on completely benign stories – insistence on anonymity isn’t unusual. Whereas in the West, people are instinctively excited by the prospect of seeing their name in the paper, in China it’s often the opposite – especially among educated people who are well-aware of the country they’re living in (Helen Gao recently did a great piece exploring this). I considered myself lucky that the students even proceeded to talk to me when I said I was a reporter.

This case was extremely politically charged, but the students were more worried about being indicted by the greater public outside of PKU, which was firmly in Xia’s favor. They worried about being labeled wumaodang “50-centers” or CCP-stooges (labels I’ve unsurprisingly been given several times since). So I weighed the gravity of the case, the students’ reasons for wanting anonymity, Xia’s stature as a public figure and the fact that numerous people independently told me similar things. After weighing these things, I decided the story was much better off being told than shelved.

Some have dismissed what I found, saying it was “just a handful of students” and can’t be representative. I agree that it’s not at all on par with a comprehensive scientific survey, but I don’t think it’s negligible either. When two people corroborate the same things, maybe it’s a coincidence; three, a big coincidence. But when you have four people contacted randomly and separately without forewarning corroborating the same things, then that’s enough to make me comfortable that they represent a fairly sizeable group.

This is not the type of article a journalist gets excited about publishing. David vs. Goliath stories are straight-forward and a slam dunk in terms of public reactions. When you report that David might be flawed, however, many people don’t take very kindly to it. I knew I’d get backlash, and that publishing this story would bring me nothing but headaches. But when you find a story like this, you do a great disservice by sitting on it. I knew it would be a lonely few days, but I was more than confident in my reporting. I expected that eventually others would come out and confirm the same things I did, which is indeed what ended up happening (and here and here).

Still, even weeks later, the backlash continues to trickle in – some fair, some absolutely absurd.

The most frequent criticism I’ve gotten goes along the lines of “How can you rule out politics with all the other political repression going on in the country and all the other terrible teachers who are never fired?!” As it turns out, I never did rule out politics. But again, people like latching on to black and white views.

The debate after my article was framed as “Xia Yeliang: bad teacher or victim of politics?” Of course, that’s a false contradiction. There are plenty of possible scenarios involving varying degrees of both of those things. There are indeed countless terrible teachers that are never fired in China, but there are also outspoken dissidents that aren’t fired. Nobody knows for sure why Xia was dismissed though except for his superiors. You can’t rule out politics as a factor or definitively say it was the only factor.

You also shouldn’t ignore aspects of this case just because they complicate the nice neat David vs. Goliath narrative. Academic freedom is an important cause– one that I’ve written on many times – but letting an incomplete narrative prevail doesn’t help that cause; quite the opposite in fact.

Another criticism that I’ve received goes along the lines of “Yes, students are saying these things, but this is China. They’re either brainwashed or being instructed on what to say.” Another variation of this criticism involves the fact that I used to write for Global Times (a newspaper I quit writing for in disgust over two years ago and have written critically of many times since).

According to a group of surprisingly influential professors in the U.S., this is all some conspiracy wherein students were instructed on what to say and, being the government stooge that I am, I gleefully went along with the ruse (never mind that the majority of what I’ve written in the past is critical of the Chinese government – in Global Times, this blog, several Western media outlets and the newspaper I worked at for 18 months that’s nearly been shut down by the government several times).

If it’s easier for you to believe in a massive conspiracy than it is to believe in the possibility that there are real complaints about Xia’s teaching, then fine. I learned long ago not to waste time trying to sway conspiracy theorists.

Were the students told what to say though? Given the way I contacted them (and the other reports that have come out since mine) that would have to involve the university sending out unique instructions to thousands of different students going back seven years – many of whom aren’t even at the school anymore – without the instructions being leaked. If you think that’s a possibility, I suggest you read what happened when this obscure Chinese high school tried that route.

Are the students just brainwashed nationalists taught to hate people like Xia? I suppose I can’t definitively rule that out except to say I bore this possibility in mind while interviewing, and the students I spoke to certainly came off as very open-minded and intelligent.

The students all told me they’re happy (or at least tolerant) to see liberal politics discussed in the classroom in general. Two of them said they were huge fans of He Weifang, a PKU law professor and signatory to Charter 08 who’s been aggressively critical of the government in the classroom.

I appreciate all the people who emailed to inform me that China is under a Communist dictatorship (who knew?), to tell me what Chinese universities are REALLY like, and to explain that I was duped into writing this piece. But to anyone who’s spent even a cursory amount of time in a Chinese university over the past few years, the idea that Chinese college students are all programmed conformist robots that would unanimously fall in line when pushed to do so should be patently absurd.

While plenty do ride the herd mentality, there are A LOT of independent individualists out there today that wouldn’t think twice about speaking out against injustice if they saw it. Again, see what happened at this much lesser school when administrators pushed students to fall in line. And let’s not forget about the college students across the country that uploaded pictures of themselves with their faces shown to support Southern Weekend in the name of free speech and democracy last January.

Also, if you’re going to believe the “brainwashed” angle, you have to believe that Valentina Luo, a former researcher for The Telegraph and AFP, is also brainwashed (or in on the massive conspiracy with me).

Some have said since Xia has been branded a political pariah, students who support him wouldn’t dare speak out now; so it’s useless to try and get balanced comment on his teaching from student interviews. This seems like a big cop out to me – one that conveniently allows people to dismiss information that challenges their views. Why not try to randomly contact multiple students out of the blue and see what they say? I know that in the internet era, which allows people to simply quote from Weibo and “report” in their pajamas, actually speaking to people has become a novel concept. But catching them off guard is the best way to get their true feelings. So if they really loved Xia, perhaps they’d say so. See if they’ll even say something supportive anonymously. Heck, even if they hang up the phone, that would tell you something.

Tracking these people down takes effort though – a lot more effort than it takes to track down Xia Yeliang. But if people wanted to challenge what I and other reporters have found, this seems like the best way to do so.

Still, the debate goes on…which it should. There are many unanswered questions. There are ideological politics, office politics, and at Chinese state-run institutions, often a very blurry line between the two. I don’t doubt for one second that there are political components to Xia’s story. As I addressed in my article, Xia sees some big irregularities in the university’s position and the dismissal procedures, which need to be clarified.

Skepticism is good. I absolutely welcome RATIONAL skepticism of my piece and my work in general. But in the absence of any concrete evidence, skepticism should be divvied out to all sides. People who are skeptical of my piece should ask themselves honestly if they applied that same skepticism to earlier reports that sourced nobody other than Xia himself.

People (especially those not actually in China) should also remember that even though the country has scarcely changed politically in the past few years, it’s changed by leaps and bounds socially.Things can get more complicated than we’re able to fully comprehend. This government does indeed give us plenty of clear cut black and white, good vs. evil stories. So it makes it all the easier to miss the complications when things aren’t so simple. The story I did is certainly a complication I would have missed had it not been for a random conversation I had with a PKU student.

That conversation allowed me to realize that my initial knee-jerk bias meant I wasn’t as critical of the prevailing narrative as I should have been. When a fair number of people who had firsthand experience with Xia challenged my assumptions, I REPORTED what they said (which is quite different than ENDORSING what they said). You can make your own judgments about why they said it or if it warrants a dismissal. I expected to get quite a bit of heat for this piece, but at the end of the day, self-respecting reporters can’t sit on stories just because they don’t like their implications. I believe I did this story fairly and as thoroughly as the circumstances allowed, so I stand by it without regrets.

  1. Love, Peace, and Flower Power says:

    Excellent piece, Eric. I salute your courage to report things as they are, rather than catering to cheap political correctness. It never amazes me that so many people from the so called free society can only accept stories consistent with the world view that they have been brought up with, rather than processing information as free and open-minded individuals. It raises the question about how many self-righteous individuals in the so called free society are actually brainwashed (by the so called free media, which caters to political correctness and a set of fixed world views), without realizing it.

  2. FOARP says:

    Just as was likely the case with Ai Weiwei’s tax woes, this may well have been a case of selective enforcement. I’m quite willing to believe this guy sucked (many university lecturers the world over do) and went on about pet subjects (again, many university lecturers do this), but I can’t remember ever hearing about a Chinese professor ever getting the sack simply because of this.

    BTW – I hate to say this, but whilst blowback from writing for GT may not be fair, it was entirely forseeable given that paper’s role in the CCP’s propaganda operation. I said as much about working for CCTV/China Daily/CRI etc. during my time in-country. Of course, I then ended up working for Foxconn, but in my defence this before all the stories about them started to emerge.

  3. I love what you write. You are one of my favorite reporters in China, and I hope that you continue to write for a long time to come. I think that the media needs more intelligently written articles that highlight the many shades of gray, and you are providing that.

  4. Mark says:

    There are plenty of people with an interest in making China look bad and plenty of people with an interest in making China look good. There’s a much smaller constituency for nuanced articles that explain China is a complicated place. Looks like you’ve been bundled into the apologists group for ease of explanation. Criticism from both sides is probably the best indicator you’re in the right place.

  5. Jay says:

    I would tend to believe the four randomly chosen students as well. In my experience, how well the students like the teacher makes a HUGE difference in the department’s attitude toward the teacher.

  6. Jennifer says:

    This is very thoughtful, Eric. I’m a reader who definitely felt frustrated that you wrote what you wrote. It’s not that I questioned your or the interviewed students’ honesty. I didn’t see any stooges or apologists in your story, you included. I did wonder about your logic, though. You are obviously right to say that it is *not* either/or. This is likely to be a case of ‘selective enforcement.’ Bad teaching AND the politics sure didn’t help matters! I think it’s interesting that the Beijing professors (at PU and other Beijing universities) I talked to about this case while it was unfolding did not show much sympathy for Xia. They seemed to be sort of irritated with him and yet they definitely all said — to a person — that he would not have been fired for bad teaching alone. (I talked to seven faculty members.) That’s enough for me, I guess, to say that the overall picture is one about politics. How many full professors have been dismissed at PU over the last decade? Until PU actually does dismiss faculty for bad teaching alone, then in some basic way this dismissal *is* politically motivated? Surely, his dismissal sends a message to other faculty that they need to be careful? No faculty member can be confident that his teaching evaluations will always be stellar and so they will self-censor accordingly.

    • sinostand says:

      Thanks jennifer. Your criticism is a fair one, unlike most of what I’ve gotten. I suppose I could have included other professor’s thoughts (I have since talked to some saying what you said) but ultimately, my piece more or less ended up being intended to show that the complaints the uni cited appear to be real, as opposed to falsified, whether or not they’re the true reason for the firing. And I felt I gave xia ample space to lay out the issues suggesting it’s political.

      And re your comment on yaxue’s piece, yes, I was angry, and perhaps a bit knee jerk in my response, when someone put words in my mouth I never said and criticized my ethics without so much as seeking comment from me. Say what you want about my reporting, but when I wrote a piece on xia, I had the decency to contact him, get his side of the story, and devote a huge chunk of my article to telling it. This is a pretty fundamental principle of journalistic ethics. I can’t speak to what she wrote about Charles bu, but the tiny paragraph on me contained 4 verifiable inaccuracies that could have easily been avoided had she asked me first. It’s a bit perplexing how some of the very same people who criticized the ethics of my piece are holding up yaxue’s, which neglected to even seek comment from the people it attacked (She confirmed to me on twitter that she didn’t seek Bu’s response either).

  7. Jennifer says:

    Thanks for responding, Eric. Trying to write honestly about China without getting slammed is impossible and what you wrote required real courage — for precisely the reasons you give above, the same reasons the students had for not wanting to give their names (not fear of the CCP but fear of being pilloried by democracy activists). In fact, knowing that the criticism of the teaching is probably a valid criticism in one credible journalist’s assessment does enrich everybody’s understanding of the situation, even the democracy activists’. Far better we have a more nuanced account of how things are playing out. PU did not lie, it invoked professional standards to dismiss a professor whose political views were contentious. This makes the playing field trickier. And it is not something we’re unfamiliar with here. I was head of a dept. that housed a faculty member who got withering teaching reviews but she was also active in university politics. If I had attempted to dismiss her on teaching grounds, I am sure she would have claimed political retaliation. How to know for sure when someone’s motivations are covertly political when there are always many other variables? It’s a real difficulty with the concept of academic freedom. How to fully protect academic/political freedoms and simultaneously enforce standards of teaching and research? And yet there is a world of difference between countries that issue Document 9s and imprison people who write Charter 08s and countries that don’t. Of course, that’s the fear your story generated in those of us who wish people in China enjoyed more political freedoms: that if people don’t stick to the black and white narrative, everyone will lose sight of that fairly black-and-white fact.

  8. Potomacker says:

    “Of course, that’s a false contradiction.” I think you mean to say dichotomy, not contradiction, here.
    In your analysis of Xia Yeliang dismissal, I think it might have been helpful to mention to very vague wording of labor contracts in China. Very often they are full of inscrutable clauses and might even allow for somebody (a foreigner in my case) to gain employment while in violation of the contract. As a general rule, nobody is ever fired for the reasons that are given; instead, one of the contract clauses is cited so that all parties (well, the Chinese) can save face. For example, I’ve met some elderly expats who work as teachers with contracts that forbid the hiring of teachers older than 50. I suppose it might be comforting for some to know what reason will be given when they are fired or the contract is not renewed when the real reason will be kept secret. The example of Prof. Xia fits within this same narrative.
    On a side note, I am disappointed to see that your English language work with the Economic Observer has been indefinitely suspended. What reasons were offered or does it, accordingly, really matter?

    • sinostand says:

      Potomacker – Yes, there are innumerable aspects that may or may not have been factors in this case. No single article could hope to capture all these subtleties and possibilities. But it’s good that others are raising these aspects.

      As to Economic Observer, the English department was “indefinitely suspended” – but more likely permanently shelved – for simple business reasons (nothing sketchy or political that I know of). I think it’s mainly a money issue. The English site was never really intended to make money – it was more to raise awareness of the paper’s brand overseas – but it definitely cost money. In the context of the newspaper business at the moment and the general economic slowdown in China, I think it’s just not money they can afford currently. But we all left on very good terms, and I’m happy to have worked there while I did. I think it remains one of the best Chinese newspapers.

  9. Thomas Cushman says:

    Hello, I am a sociologist at Wellesley College who has been at the forefront of helping Xia Yeliang in his ordeal, and was painfully aware of Eric Fish’s article. I can assure you that neither I nor my colleagues at Wellesley College accepted a “cheap narrative” of events. Speaking for myself, I have no doubt that Fish could readily find students who could make the case against Xia. Any of us can find professors that love us and hate us. But to take four students from a completely unsystematic sample and use that as a basis for going along with the regime narrative is unconscionable. Fish is trying to convince us that he is the hero here, but what what he really is is a young and untrained journalist who does not know know how to balance his coverage, has written an account that is sure to won him points with the regime ( and thus maintain his access to China), and is being completely misleading in asking us to accept that if there were students who liked Xia they would have come forward ( we are being asked to believe that any Chinese student would speak approval of Xia when the latter has been labeled as an enemy of the state!).

    Of course there is enough dirt on Xia to make the “bad teaching” rationale plausible. But the real evidence that is important, and if you talk to PKU students privately, is that there are far worse professors who have not been terminated.

    It is a shame that he has no regrets about the article. Doubling down on a bad hand is always a bad idea — surely he has left out the most important context of Xia’s political activity, the central facts that would have established that Xia was a marked man and that his teaching was used against him. Everyone knows that even in the West teaching evaluations can be used politically – if you were, say, a public critic of your university president, making him or here look bad, he or she could use adverse information in your record against you for, say, a low merit pay raise.

    Fish fails to not that student comments that he managed to cull from some hasty sampling on the weekend ( four students) cannot be looked at outside the “raw data” of the evaluations: Xia was never allowed to see all his evaluations, they are simply reported on from the administration, and Fish has done great disservice by ignoring the fact that party secretaries are deeply involved in these processes. To say a professor is a bad teacher, whether here or in China, based on four students chosen at random is unconscionably bad sociology and bad reporting. What is worse is how his reporting was used on the PKU website, an official CCP source, as the only media evidence supporting their claim. How does Fish feel about the objectivity of his account given this fact?

    This is only the tip of the iceberg as to what one could say about this bad piece of reporting.

    • FOARP says:

      “to take four students from a completely unsystematic sample and use that as a basis for going along with the regime narrative is unconscionable.”

      Eric Fish can speak better to what his position is, but I doubt very much that he would recognise this characterisation of what he wrote. At the very least I do not recognise it. He did not ‘go along with the regime narrative’, all he did was try to locate students and ask them what they throught of Xia – and all four of the ones he did find had negative opinions. You criticise this as an “unsystematic sample”, but it was not represented anywhere a systemised survey, simply as the opinions of four students who he managed to find. Would you really rather he hadn’t tried to find anyone?

      If I were to criticise the original piece, it would be that he did not give enough time to describing the frequncy with which professors are removed from Chinese universities merely for incompetence (which,as far as I’m aware, is very rare indeed).

    • First of all, I want to say that I have great respect for Thomas Cushman and his work. Don’t let out disagreement about this issue convince you that I don’t hold you in the highest esteem, for I do.

      Thomas, you claim that Eric doesn’t know how to “balance his coverage,” so I’d like to raise the question of whether coverage should be balanced or be true? I would prefer accuracy and truth rather than balance in the news articles that I read. If 90% of my sample claims X and 10% claims Y, should it be balanced by proportioning similar time/space to each side to make their arguments? I’m sure that is not what you mean, but I don’t grasp the meaning that you want to portray. Could you please elaborate or share a link so that I can understand a bit better what you want to say.

      You seem to express incredulity “that any Chinese student would speak approval of Xia when the latter has been labeled as an enemy of the state.” This isn’t so rare , actually. Lots of students disagree with the official CCP narrative. I think that those who would do so openly are in a minority, but under the guise of anonymity and in a one-on-one conversation there are many who do so. I’ve had multiple conversations with young Chinese people about political dissidents, Taiwan, the ethnic unrest, and other topics that revealed opinions different from that of the party line. As Eric writes, “to anyone who’s spent even a cursory amount of time in a Chinese university over the past few years, the idea that Chinese college students are all programmed conformist robots that would unanimously fall in line when pushed to do so should be patently absurd.” Have you a response to that?

      You also claim that “there are far worse professors who have not been terminated,” which I think is probably true. But Eric himself never made the claim that this is Xia Yeliang’s firing was due to his teaching. Indeed, he stressed that multiple factors affected this, so it is completely unsurprising that worse teachers who lacked Xia’s politics still have their jobs.

      To claim that a professor is unequivocally a bad teacher based on four students chosen at random is horrible sociology and also bad reporting, but the comments of four students chosen at random can certainly suggest that the argument of a professor being a bad teacher is not implausible.

    • sinostand says:

      @Thomas Cushman – Eric Fish “has written an account that is sure to won him points with the regime (and thus maintain his access to China)” ?

      So are you really suggesting I did this report simply to endear myself to the Communist Party and “maintain my access to China”?

      With such an absurd and groundless implication, I can’t believe I’m even wasting my time addressing the rest of what you said. I don’t see how anything I wrote about Xia even comes close to being as reckless and uniformed as that statement.

      What I’m sure you’ll never be able to wrap your head around is that before I started working on this article, I WAS ON BOARD WITH THE WHOLLY POLITICAL NARRATIVE… which there is proof of. Watch this video I made 2 months ago: https://sinostand.com/2013/09/22/video-behind-chinas-college-military-training/ Or listen to this podcast I did weeks before Xia’s dismissal: http://www.eeo.com.cn/ens/2013/1022/251001.shtml If I were out to get Xia and “win points with the regime,” why would I have previously endorsed the narrative that he was fired for wholly political reasons? It was once I started actually investigating that I realized things are a bit more complicated.

      Like most of the people who have implied I’m in on some conspiracy with the government and PKU, it appears you’ve not bothered reading any of what I’ve written in the past. Look to the left of this page at all the posts I’ve done before. Click on 5 random pieces and then tell me just how hard I try to endear myself to the Chinese government.

      I never said Xia was a bad teacher, as you claimed I did. The students said he was a bad teacher and I reported what they said and then reported Xia’s response – big difference. I wasn’t looking for students who would say bad things about him. I looked for any of Xia’s students and was willing to listen to whatever they had to tell me. What I found wasn’t a matter of students who just “hated him” or simply said he was “a bad teacher” and left it at that. If that was the case, I never would have published this article. I published this article because the students all corroborated the same specific complaints. And other journalists after me have also found students corroborating these things – a fact that some people are conveniently ignoring.

      So would you rather have this aspect of the story ignored? PKU says they fired Xia for specific complaints about his teaching. Whether or not that’s the real reason they fired him, do you not think it’s relevant that students have indeed made these complaints? Because previously a lot of people seemed to believe the university was just making all this stuff up. It’s true that we don’t know for sure how many made these complaints, but the fact that four separately contacted students, plus those that other reporters have found, corroborated them suggests it’s not a negligible number. I don’t pretend for one moment that I’ve solved the whole puzzle – nobody has – but this is a piece of the puzzle that was missing in previous reports. So I’m curious if you found any other reports not objective?

      A number of people have suggested a very wide range of other things I should have included in my piece, which if I’d included them all, would have resulted in a ten-thousand word treatise. If you think I should have included other aspects, fair enough. But no piece has or could possibly give a full picture of the situation and all the potential variables. Ultimately, my piece was intended to show that A) the university said Xia was fired for specific complaints, B) Multiple students have indeed corroborated these complaints, C) Xia sees many irregularities in the process by which he was fired, says the complaints are exaggerated and points out that obviously complaints alone are not a normal basis for firing (part of the article it appears you glossed over). Other reports had already explored some of the things you mentioned, which is great, but those were pieces of the puzzle that were already filled in.

      Rather than just saying I’m “being misleading,” about students’ willingness to speak out, could you address my specific reasoning about how recent precedents say otherwise? Perhaps they wouldn’t speak out if contacted, but I think assuming that they wouldn’t and using that assumption as a basis to ignore all students’ opinions is indeed a big cop-out.

      I’ve done many articles in the past where I interviewed Chinese college students who had no qualms about expressing their contempt for the party line: (ie: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/MF28Ad01.html – if you read nothing else, read that one). I’ve probably done over a hundred interviews with Chinese college students on sociopolitical issues IN CHINA. But I’m sure you must be in a better position to comment on what Chinese university students would and wouldn’t do and how things work here. Just out of curiosity, exactly how much time have you actually spent in China?

      I’ve seen a lot of circumstantial evidence in this case, but I’ve seen nothing that proves anything definitively either way. You say “Everyone knows that even in the West teaching evaluations can be used politically.” Yes, and that’s a possibility Xia brought up THAT I QUOTED IN THE ARTICLE (but by this point, it’s become apparent you’ve glossed over a lot of what I actually wrote).

      This case unfortunately remains a ‘he said, they said’ where you can’t make a definitive judgment in any direction. If you somehow have any concrete (not circumstantial) evidence pertaining to anything in this case that would hold up in court that the rest of us aren’t privy to, please do everyone a favor and share it.

      I’m also curious where you’re getting your information that “I hastily culled sampling on the weekend.” I started before Xia was officially fired – as I said in this piece – which you also appear to have glossed over. Altogether I recall it took about 5 days or so. This piece of information that you’ve publicly stated, is false.

    • sinostand says:

      Oh, and incidentally, He Weifang was also branded an enemy of the state in the same PLA video Xia was, and two of the four students in my piece said they were big fans of He Weifang without my even mentioning him. So out of four that I randomly spoke to, two did in fact express support for someone branded an enemy of the state.

    • Matt Sheehan says:

      The following is an email I sent to Professor Cushman after reading his comment on this blog post:
      Professor Cushman,
      After reading your response to Eric Fish’s blog post on the Xia Yeliang story, I simply had to take some time to reply. The attacks you launched against Fish are extremely biased, closed-minded and based more on your personal investment in the story than advocacy for “freedom” in any form. The fact is that this is a case that was sold in the western media as a completely straight-forward instance of state infringement on academic freedom, but in fact may be a lot more complicated. Before Fish wrote his piece there was absolutely no discussion of the “more complicated” part.
      In looking through stories following Xia’s dismissal in the Washington Post, the New York Times, or earlier in the letter you signed protesting Xia’s impending dismissal, there was absolutely no attempt made to verify the university’s claim that Xia was the worst-reviewed teacher at the school. Current writing on the matter accepted Xia’s narrative 100%. The only mention I could find in which any student voices were heard was an earlier New York Times piece in which the author appears to have told the students that Xia was fired for speaking out, and asked what they thought about it. That piece quoted two students, neither of whom was an undergrad in Xia’s classes.
      What Fish did was go out and do the actual leg-work of contacting Xia’s former students to see if the university’s claims about student dissatisfaction had any basis in fact. In searching for the students, he made sure to contact them independently, out of the blue and without the knowledge of PKU administrators who would pressure or influence them.
      You repeatedly take issue with Fish’s “completely unsystematic sample” in his story. Was the sample systematic? No. Are any samples of public opinion used in journalism going to be “systematic” by the standards of academia (your universe)? No. Prior to Fish’s piece, had other journalists attempted to cull a systematic sample of student opinion on Xia’s teaching? No. But for some reason I didn’t see your name appearing in the comment sections of those articles castigating the journalists for “unconscionably bad sociology.”
      What we have here is a major controversy in which one side (Xia) claims he is being fired for political reasons and the other side (PKU) claims he is being fired for being the worst-reviewed teacher at the school (and for allegedly publishing one acadmeic paper in the last five years). What Eric Fish did was investigate, listen to both sides, and write a story that took both claims seriously. In his story Fish quoted Xia four times, giving him almost as much space as the other four students combined (as well as the important “final word” in the story). Fish never claimed that politics had nothing to do with the firing. What he did do was add a new dimension challenging the narrative unequivocally accepted by all major media outlets and the faculty of your school.
      What’s important in understanding your extreme reaction to Fish’s piece is your own skin in this game. You are the head of Wellesley’s “Freedom Project” and appear to have a personal and professional connection to Xia Yeliang. If Fish’s story gained sufficient traction, it might also complicate your efforts to bring Xia to Wellesley. In attacking Fish’s “unsystematic” sampling of Peking University students while saying nothing about other stories that completely ignore the opinion of these students, you reveal much more about your own motivations than about the quality of the reporting.
      The fact is that no single article will be able to completely explicate all aspects of this case or of the complicated beast that is Chinese academia. In actually listening to the voices on the other side, Fish changed the debate on this topic, prompting major media outlets like the New York Times to revisit the issue and attempt to give a fuller picture. Fish could have done a better job of elaborating many alternative scenarios (teaching was the problem, politics is what made Xia vulnerable, or vice versa), and that is something he did in this follow-up blog post (which you castigated). If you want to take issue with the initial piece, I believe the most objectionable part was the original headline (“Even in China, dissidents can be fired for just being bad at their job” or something like that, it’s since been changed to a far more accurate headline). But if you have any experience in journalism you’d know that the headline is not written or approved by the author; it comes from editors who are far more concerned with hit counts than accuracy.
      Professor Cushman, you work on something called the Freedom Project. If you take that task seriously, and want to engage in critical studies of the Western classical liberal notions of freedom then you’re going to have to take a more open-minded approach to these things. The minute someone suggests that one of these beloved freedom fighters may have flaws, you can’t just put the blinders on and launch ad hominem attacks. In your attack on Fish you repeatedly paint him as a CCP lackey and anything emerging from PKU as the self-serving lies of a totalitarian state. This sentence in particular stands out for narrow-mindedness and a total lack of understanding about China: “What is worse is how his reporting was used on the PKU website, an official CCP source, as the only media evidence supporting their claim. How does Fish feel about the objectivity of his account given this fact?” You wrote that sentence in all seriousness? By that logic a New York Times editorial critiquing the U.S. healthcare system that was then linked to by a Cuban university’s web site would immediately be dismissed as propaganda hand-crafted for evil authoritarian regimes.
      On top of that, your description of the PKU website as “an official CCP source” reveals a real ignorance about the way China operates. Using your standards for what constitutes an “official CCP source” virtually every major Chinese company, many foreign companies in China (who also have CCP branches within their China operations), every single academic institution and 95% of all media produced in China is a CCP source. If disengagement with all of that allows you to better understand “freedom” from your perch in Wellesley, Massachusetts then fine, but please don’t try to drag down or intimidate those looking to inform the rest of the world about the messy reality that exists here.
      Fish’s story was an incomplete but very valuable contribution to a previously one-sided debate. When you launch this kind of ad hominem, ill-informed and vitriolic attack on that kind of journalism, you help to box in debate about China, fitting it into a set of neat but well-worn narrative packages. If freedom is what you strive to promote, how about beginning with the freedom to explore all sides of a debate.
      Thanks for your time.
      Matt Sheehan

    • Matt Sheehan says:

      Looks like the comments don’t allow for a bunch of hyperlinks used to support my point in the last post… Email me if you’d like to see them.

  10. Potomacker says:

    says Prof. Cushman: “Of course there is enough dirt on Xia to make the “bad teaching” rationale plausible. But the real evidence that is important, and if you talk to PKU students privately, is that there are far worse professors who have not been terminated.”

    And there certainly is an argument to be made for terminating more ineffective faculty in Chinese higher education. Is that the overarching goal of the freedom project?

  11. BrianDell says:

    “exactly how much time have you actually spent in China?”

    Get over yourself already. This from the guy who has elsewhere mocked people who present themselves as “China experts” telling them to exercise more “humility.” I’ve been spending most of the year in China in recent years (coming since 2007) and I could not agree more with Thomas Cushman’s observations. The retelling of anecdotes is not journalism. I recall when you claimed that “the US maintains one of the world’s most complicated and aggressive visa application processes” My girlfriend, who had never been abroad before and had no assets or even any financial institution documents to prove she even had an income, got a U.S. visa in less than two weeks from first going online to start the application process to having her passport returned. You claimed that is was “common” for an applicant to be denied a visa despite the fact the odds of getting a U.S. visa for any given PRC passport holder is currently on the order of 90%. Do you have experience of a Chinese national trying to get a Canadian visa? a visa for Japan? If your girlfriend applies a second time for a U.S. visa it is almost a slam dunk she’ll get a 10 year multi-entry visa for stays of up to six months and not have to bother with any applications at all for all that time. Meanwhile I have to apply again and again, every year to get a visa for China that usually allows just a short stay and they want me to show I’ve booked a flight out of China in the future as part of the visa application. If only it was like Chinese trying to get into the U.S.!

    What, may I ask, was stopping you from responding to “joel bee”‘s comments on your story on the Atlantic website? Or responding to them here?

    Guess who the Global Times used as their Chinese academic expert in their article on the passing of Ronald Coase? Why, one “Xia Yeliang, a professor at the School of Economics at Peking University and a visiting scholar to Harvard University”! When the Global Times then turns around and run a piece titled “Beware of those who cry ‘persecution’” and declare that Xia’s “renown” is undeserved, I suppose you think the contradiction occurred because the Global Times suddenly came to realize, without government guidance, that it was previously in error about the extent to which Xia is an authoritative voice in his field.

    I do recall the yeoman’s work you’ve done for the regime over at the Global Times, with one of the most notable being when you actually had the chutzpah to argue that Beijing was too indulgent of Christians and assert that “religion is detrimental to the scientific and social development of a country.” Spoken like a true Marxist.

    Another Global Times piece that really stands out (besides the one where you insist that anyone trying to making a claim about public opinion should restrict themselves to using the conclusions of studies where “the sample must be sufficiently large” and “scientific methods [were] carried out by trained professionals”) is the one where you argued that students can’t really think for themselves and are “easy prey” for missionaries. As if the shadow of the Christian missionary looms over these young people with anything like the destiny-shaping power of the Party.

  12. sinostand says:

    @BrianDell – Rather cute how you tried so hard and went back several years to drudge up hypocrisy and proof that I’m a CCP shill. But what you found is pathetic at best, complete BS at worst. And I don’t respond to every dumb comment I get, but against my better judgment, I’ll waste more time by responding to yours.

    It seems you expect me to defend Global Times. Like I said in this post, I quit writing for them in disgust over two years ago. I will confess a degree of naiveté for ever writing for them in the first place. It was early on in the paper’s English edition and, based on conversations with editors, I thought it was going to try to compete with China Daily by using its leeway as an English language publication to be more critical of the party line. Yes, that sounds stupid now in retrospect, but there were (and still are on occasion) reports in the paper that seemed to back that up. I think that was indeed the hope of the staff there in the beginning.

    Being that the bulk of what I intended to write (and did write) would be critical of the government line, I saw no problem with writing for the paper either way. I had a very naive notion that people could judge articles themselves, rather than judge them based on what publication they’re in. But as time went on, I became disgusted with what the paper was becoming and then I started seeing unacceptable edits to my articles published that I’d never ok’d. So like I said, I quit writing for them in disgust.

    I never said “Beijing is too indulgent of Christians” or argued that at all in that piece. This was the first of your complete BS assertions. It is also complete BS to say that I “argued that students can’t really think for themselves” in the missionaries piece. Where did I ever say those words? As in any country, some students are vulnerable and can be susceptible to manipulation by people with all kinds of aims. I never said there aren’t indeed students who are manipulated in China. But to say they are unanimously manipulated anywhere in the world is so obviously wrong, which is why I would never say that. And someone being manipulated on one issue doesn’t equate to them being “unable to think for themselves.” What you said I said in this case is complete and utter BS, but I’m starting to realize that putting words in my mouth is recurring tactic my critics are relying on. If what I’ve written is so bad, why can’t you just quote what I actually said instead of making stuff up?

    Re: U.S. visas – I’m hardly the only one to have written on that topic. And I spoke with a US consular official who used to do the visa interviews in Beijing and he confirmed everything I wrote. Of course, it seems you disagree, but I would consider 1 in 10 applications rejected to qualify as a common occurrence.

    Re: China experts – Yes, I do believe people need more humility when commenting on China. Xia’s case is a perfect example. Some are expressing with complete confidence that they know what happened in the case. I don’t think my time here makes me any more certain about what happened than the next guy, and I never claimed anything either way. I despise the pissing contests foreigners in China get into about why their experience makes them more qualified than others to comment on the country. But to think that no one would dare counter the party line – even anonymously – simply isn’t true. This happens every day. I’ve done so many interviews with young people who counter the party line and express admiration for dissidents like Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei, so I can say this definitively. Cushman has been presenting himself as someone in the know, so I think knowing whether his take on students in China is firsthand experience or secondhand assumptions would be good to know.

    Re: the online polls piece – As I said in the piece, even unscientific online polls are ok to mention in journalistic articles so long as they’re not misrepresented to suggest they’re anything more. I don’t know why people keep acting as if I presented my Xia article as a comprehensive scientific survey. Did I ever present it as anything more than what it was? PKU wasn’t so kind as to give me the contact list of all Xia’s former students that would enable me to do a more scientific survey – they blew me off when I called – so I had to make due best I could. Even if the school had handed over the original student evaluations and raw data, I don’t think I or my critics take them at face value. I can’t imagine it would be hard to forge such documents, so I would still want to find students to talk to myself. If you think it would have been better that I talked to nobody involved in the case other than Xia, then fine. But this presented an aspect to the story that was missing before. Once again, this wasn’t just a matter of 4 students saying Xia was “a bad teacher.” They corroborated the same specific reasons why they thought he was a bad teacher – reasons that the university cited as reasons they fired him. My article didn’t and couldn’t present a scientific survey and I never pretended like it did. But it did show that there are real students with the same complaints the school mentioned – whether or not they’re the true reason for the dismissal.

    And it’s absurd to think that you can’t report on something just because there’s no systematic data available or possibly obtainable. When news of things like famines comes out of North Korea, should journalists not report it at all? There isn’t any way to do anything even approaching a scientific survey; they can usually only rely on defector accounts. So in cases where you can’t possibly get systematic data, are you really saying journalists should just forget about things numerous people are independently corroborating?

    Looking back, I won’t deny that some of what I wrote back in GT and other places several years ago was pointless and stupid – as the op-ed genre tends to be in general (another reason I quit was I was sick of opinion and wanted to focus on reporting). There are things I argued in GT (and on this blog for that matter) that I no longer hold the same opinion on (including that one about religion – I’ve since written several more articles exploring that topic with different conclusions). It’s not wise to hold the same opinion on Friday as you did on Monday no matter what you learn in between. But to suggest I wrote stuff to try and ingratiate myself with the CCP is completely disingenuous. Like everyone else who’s suggested I’m a CCP shill, you also seem to be ignoring the catalogue of my work that is unambiguously critical of the CCP line – a catalogue that’s much larger than that of articles that might back up the CCP line. But this is pretty predictable. This week people like you and Cushman suggest I’m in bed with the CCP. Next week people equally willfully ignorant from the other side will say I’m anti-China and bent on seeing the country collapse (I get the latter slightly more often).

    But whatever. People who don’t like what you write will always find ways to misrepresent it and try to discredit you though other dubious means. So I’m now done wasting my time responding to it.

  13. BrianDell says:

    “Where did I ever say those words?”

    Merriam Webster gives an example of how the word “insinuation” may be used:
    “He criticizes his opponents by insinuation rather than directly.”

    I would have no problem at all with your publicizing your opinion about Christianity on American campuses. I might disagree with it, but democratic pluralism welcomes such expression. In the context of the People’s Republic’s apparatus for managing public opinion, however, it serves an illiberal agenda. There has been more than one left-liberal grad student type who has imagined a need to open the minds of their countrymen back home in the west to a competing narrative to the mainstream media line about the country they recently moved to and if that country were, say, Japan I say have at it. But to go into the PRC with that mentality is not just naive but ultimately insidious.

    So you’re not a “CPC shill”. I never said you were. I rather suggested that when it comes to China you are serving a dissident-suppressing agenda by wittingly or unwittingly taking on the guise of playing dissident to the prevailing narrative in the western media. About a month ago you asked readers to “imagine it’s in an ultra-competitive industry where you’re not sure you’ll get another break.” Another break in the Chinese media system? There ARE NO BREAKS to be had that don’t involve being ultimately being used as a tool for the party, the only difference is the extent! You either take the approach of the New York Times and do investigative reporting independent of the Chinese domestic media system or you go over to the dark side. If it were your first week in China and you thought such an either/or to be typical of the black-and-white thinking of the stereotypical conservative American, an attitude you’re too liberal minded to be limited to, that would be one thing, but you’ve been in China long enough to know that your “options” inside this particular system are ultimately illusions.

    “it’s absurd to think that you can’t report on something just because there’s no systematic data available…”

    The context here was not trying to provide news. If we are in the dark, a likely but unconfirmed story may be better than no story. Here the effort was to CHALLENGE news, and when that effort results in muddying the waters, people are left more in the dark than before. From your perch in the Middle Kingdom, you felt it necessary to question the conventional wisdom of Americans with regard to an overseas story, as all good liberals do. But please see the story in today’s New York Times titled “Chinese Professor Who Advocated Free Speech Is Fired”. It’s about one Zhang Xuezhong in Shanghai. If you want to salvage some legacy value for your “reporting” on Xia Yeliang, I suggest you again try to support Beijing’s view that the “martyr” narrative surrounding a fired professor be questioned, this time for Zhang Xuezhong. If you cannot produce any such supportive reporting, please explain why “the west’s” takeaway about Xia – namely that there wasn’t academic freedom in China – was false or misleading such that it needed any correction.

  14. Thomas Cushman says:

    I appreciate so much Brian Dell’s interrogations of Eric Fish. I’ve spend my career studying the relations between “intellectuals” and authoritarian societies and regimes. My particular expertise is on scholars who present themselves as “sophisticated and balanced”, who claim the noble high ground of telling us about “shades of gray” and then proceed to offer accounts that ape, mirror, amplify and legitimize the accounts of the authoritarians. The old term for this kind of fellow-traveling was “useful idiot’, but that is not really fair because Fish is not an idiot. He knew exactly what he was doing, and knew that his account against Xia would win him favor with the regime. At some point, even the most supposedly sophisticated of people have to match up their accounts with those in power and, speaking for myself ( and what I think is the ideal behavior for an intellectual), I’d much rather have my account favor the dissident than the persecutor. That said, it does not mean that dissidents like Xia Yeliang are not flawed, do not themselves engage in theatrical and dramatic displays meant to win sympathy for themselves among well-meaning Western observers. But, still, the remarkable thing is the gusto with which Xia was attacked by some constituencies, even at my own colleagues. By the way, except for the Chinese nationals that are in bed with the regime who went after him, almost all the attacks against Xia have come from the left factions. That may be because the right has tended to support Chinese dissidents a bit more, but also because the left is set up for this kind of thing: in its whitewashing of Mao’s staggering crimes, in its sympathies to collectivism even of the violent sort, its tendentious rendering of any intervention in China as “cultural imperialism” or “orientalism.” All that said, the remarkable thing about the Xia case was support for him included many from the left, center, right, all over the spectrum. I don’t want to be too harsh on the left, since it is only the fringe, reactionary left that is always frothing at the mouth to carry water for dictators.

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