OPINION> Chen Weihua
Speaking up a virtue, not sin
By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-12-06 08:03

Tragedies keep happening at Shanghai universities.

Three weeks ago, it was four students jumping to their deaths from a burning sixth-floor dormitory at the Shanghai Business College.

This week, news from the Shanghai-based East China University of Political Science and Law was not of physical injury, but it deeply traumatized many Chinese.

Yang Shiqun, a professor of ancient Chinese language at the school, wrote on his blog (shiqun2007.blog.sohu.com) that two of his students reported him to the city's public security bureau and education committee, accusing him of making counter-revolutionary comments during a lecture, critical of government and Chinese culture.

This is bizarre.

While revolutionary, counter-revolutionary and reactionary were among my first English words added to my vocabulary in the 1970s, they have rarely been used since 1978, when the country opted to forget slogans like, "Never forget class struggle".

Counter-revolution, once a top crime according to the Chinese criminal law, was abolished in 1997. Students from such an elite law school are supposed to know more about this than the average Chinese.

Counter-revolutionary crime, even under the old criminal law, referred to those whose aim it was to overthrow the government. That surely had nothing to do with Professor Yang's criticisms of government practice and Chinese culture.

At the same time, students as young as these two, born many years after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), cannot fully understand what counter-revolutionary means for the many people who were persecuted under such a name during the several leftist movements three decades ago.

By accusing their professor of being a reactionary, the two female students have done nothing but opened old wounds on such crimes that once tore apart our nation.

It is truly regrettable. But, what it has profoundly revealed is the lack of academic freedom present on our campuses.

Our students, taught under the same crammed system since kindergarten, are not used to critical thinking and listening to opposing views, let alone enjoying and embracing them.

As the saying goes, "let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend". Freedom of expression is a constitutional right guaranteed for every Chinese citizen, so Professor Yang ought to be free to criticize in the classroom, without fear of retribution.

Besides, universities are supposed to be a platform for exercising this right, otherwise, there is no need to send our children to these institutions.

In fact, the word revolutionary means a sudden, complete, or marked change, while a counter-revolutionary is one who acts after a revolution to try and overturn or reverse it.

In this sense, being counter-revolutionary could be good or bad depending on the outcome and beneficent or pernicious character at the heart of the revolution that is reversed.

We have heard critics call the pre-emptive strike in Iraq revolutionary. And in this case, it certainly does not refer to anything positive. So a counter-revolution to reverse the notion of a pre-emptive strike would indeed be a good thing for humankind and world peace.

We also know that in the last 30 years, China chose reform, not revolution.

The word reform is in stark contrast to revolution because it advocates a gradual change, not an abrupt one.

While many Chinese intellectuals are appalled by the action of the two students, those in support of them, who believe Professor Yang should be restrained from making such comments, is equally disturbing.

If another revolution is ever needed, it should be one to change our education system and bring back academic freedom to our schools.