Peking University, known in China as Beida, has long been a symbol of liberal thought, with its early teaching faculty including the free-thinking Lu Xun (see WiC44) and its students famously instrumental in the protests that occurred during the May 4 revolution of 1919.
But as it turns out, China’s most prestigious university doesn’t sound very fond of its reputation. It recently announced plans to invite students showing signs of “radical thought” and “independent lifestyle” for meetings with campus officials.
Administrators at the university say their focus is on helping those with academic problems. The announcement identifies nine other categories of “target students”, including those showing signs of internet addiction, psychological fragility, illness or poverty.
The new programme has triggered a backlash around the country. Many have queried the apparent concern with radical thinking, especially when independent thought has been upheld as a key principle at Beida since its founding.
“How do you define and determine ‘radical thinking’,” asked one netizen? “Is it up to the school? If so, may I request that the university’s Party committee publicise the standards so that all colleges around the nation can learn from it?”
“University is somewhere to cultivate people’s independent personalities and thinking, so it’s totally wrong for Beida to intervene in students’ freedom to express their different opinions,” says Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute.
Others are also worried that the programme will stifle creativity. “There will be no innovation without freedom of thinking,’” Shen Bin, a legal worker, wrote in his blog. “If Mark Zuckerberg was in a Chinese university initiating the creation of Facebook, he would have been regarded with bad taste and doomed to be a target.”
Peking University claims that its new programme has been misunderstood. The focus is students who fail exams or encounter difficulties in their studies, it says. There is no intention of a more sinister crackdown. “Maybe the term [radical] easily causes disputes, but students (with radical thoughts) have never been the main targets of the programme,” a teacher at Peking University told the China Daily, adding that students who do not want to join the consultation are free to reject the offer.
To convince critics that it means well, the school has also offered examples of students successfully overcoming their problems after receiving help through the programme, including one who even asked to be enrolled.
But given the amount of bad press that it has received, the school is also taking a step back from the headlines. Peking University says the consultation scheme, scheduled to be adopted by all departments in May, has now been delayed “to allow more time for further discussion”.
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