Chinese scholar tries to seek justice against Tsinghua University six years after his dismissal

Independent Chinese scholar Wu Qiang filed a lawsuit against the Tsinghua University in Beijing in recent days, demanding the university to pay him the wages and benefits that he was supposed to get over the last six years after what he described as an unfair dismissal of him in 2015. However, even though a district court in Beijing has accepted the case, he doesn’t have too much faith in the ruling as he has witnessed how political influence can affect the trial.

Wu Qiang was a lecturer at the Political Science Department at Tsinghua University in China until 2015 when the university unilaterally ended his employment contract. Six years after his dismissal from the prestigious Chinese university, Wu finally received the official dismissal notification earlier this year.

Now, he is trying to seek some “basic justice” by filing a labor lawsuit against the university. In February, he applied for a labor arbitration but it was rejected on June Fourth.

However, Wu immediately filed a labor lawsuit at a local court in Beijing, demanding the university to pay him the wages and benefits that he was supposed to enjoy over the last six years. The court has reportedly accepted the case on June 15.

“While I was not under the school’s supervision over the last six years, I was also not set free from my employment relationship with Tsinghua,” he said. “In a way, this ambiguity gave me more freedom to conduct research and speak out on important issues. However, this is also the helpless political skill to survive in China.”

Even though Wu applied for the labor arbitration in February, he said the overall prospect for labor arbitration has been bleak in China in recent years. The percentage of laborers winning the arbitration is getting smaller so he wasn’t surprised when his application was rejected on June Fourth.

“I was trying to start a new battle with the Chinese government based on their principle of ‘ruling the country by law,’ as I hope to defend my rights through legal means,” he said. “Even though we know how the court functions in China, I’m still happen to close one chapter of my fight and open a new frontier for a new battle.”

However, Wu doesn’t have much hope for the result of the case he filed against Tsinghua University, as he thinks the immense political impact that the university possesses could influence the court’s ruling. “Tsinghua’s political influence is very dark and it could manipulate the court’s ruling,” he said.

“I already felt the influence during the labor arbitration process, so I believe the university and its party secretary will continue to use extrajudicial means to interfere with the judicial process,” he added.

China’s space for academic research continues to shrink

Wu began to teach at the Department of Political Science at Tsinghua University in 2009, but whenever he went on field research, he would often be followed and warned by officials. After he tried to conduct another field research in Hong Kong following the Umbrella Movement in 2014, he was trapped at home and his office by security guards from the university. Tsinghua terminated their contract with him unilaterally in 2015.

Other scholars who have publicly criticized the Chinese government through articles have also been persecuted by the government or dismissed from their universities. Prominent Chinese legal scholar Xu Zhangrun, who also used to teach at the law school at Tsinghua University, was dismissed by the university in 2019 after he published some articles criticizing the Chinese President Xi Jinping. In July 2020, he was arrested and detained for six days under the charge of soliciting prostitution.

Wu said China’s political atmosphere began to change dramatically in 2014, as the government released a series of strict regulations related to academic exchange as well as academics’ public and online opinions. Under such circumstances, fewer Chinese scholars are willing to comment on issues related to China in foreign media.

“I continue to do interviews with foreign media, and I was called in for a chat by different departments at the university,” he said. “This is one of the main reasons why I was dismissed by the university ultimately. However, as an academic focusing on social movement, interacting and observing the media is a necessary aspect of my work.”

As the space for academic freedom keeps tightening in China, many liberal scholars began to conduct research related to authoritarian rule and the “Chinese model” of governance. He said basically, these scholars are conducting research about “how to tell good China stories” and they are laying out the narratives for China’s rise as a great nation.

“This means that there will be no independent research and very few people are willing to criticize the government openly,” he said. “This is why China has been accumulating a lot of mistakes because no one is able to correct these mistakes. Intellectuals and bureaucrats have lost the ability to compete with each other. This is the most dangerous development for China.”

“Intellectual poverty” of the liberal academics

Apart from turning away from sensitive research topics and giving up research commissioned by the government or the Chinese Communist Party, Wu thinks there is also a phenomenon of intellectual poverty among liberal intellectuals. The limits that the Chinese government adds onto intellectuals is causing their ability to think and analyze to degrade, causing there to be an emergence of intellectuals who support former US President Donald Trump’s ideologies.

“They lowered their own level of knowledge and this is the degradation of China’s elites,” he said. “There is almost no room for independent research and scholars who continue to do independent research will be taking greater political and legal risks.”

Even though the number of independent intellectuals has become very few in China, many scholars who refuse to conduct research related to the government or the CCP will be conducting their own research privately. Wu said this is a way for them to stand their own ground.

“Whether they are conducting their own research under the disguise of an official job or they are conducting their own independent research as I do, the risks are both very high,” he said. “Intellectuals in China could be forced into disappearance or persecuted through extrajudicial ways. This is the arrival of the ‘White Terror’ era in China.”

The piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.