A boy reads a book next to copies of British writer George Orwell's 1984 at Hong Kong's annual book fair on July 15, 2015. The book's fictional superstate of Oceania is easily recognizable as President Xi Jinping's China. (Photo by Aaron Tam/AFP)
The Chinese thought police are on the rampage with an escalation of interference in universities and fresh curbs on academic freedom alongside a renewed focus on "re-education" for religious folk including underground Catholic priests.
The moves in universities have been underway for several years under the increasingly repressive regime of leader Xi Jinping. Their scale and scope were underscored in October when Lin Jianhua, president of Peking University, was suddenly removed from his position and replaced by Hao Ping, a professor and former Communist Party secretary of the university who had also served as a vice-minister of education.
Qiu Shuiping, a cadre with no education sector experience, was brought in from the legal sector and appointed party secretary of the university in order to enforce tougher discipline.
The Communist Party committee at the university then set up new bodies responsible for disciplinary inspection tours and campus control and management. A mass meeting of students was warned against protesting as some students had joined labor activists in protesting against job cuts. One prominent student leader was arrested. With even the faintest whiff of the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, party leaders are taking no chances.
This repressive trend threatens not only China's tertiary education system — Peking University is generally seen as the model for other universities — and the research that underpins it but also the interests of Western universities that have bought into the system in recent decades.
Alongside this has been the campaign to Sinicize religion. This could be seen as simply a move for more inculturation, making religious ceremonies developed in other parts of the world more Chinese and incorporating local culture and traditional spiritual beliefs into Christian and Muslim services and teaching.
The reality has been far more disturbing and writ large in the appalling creation of what the Chinese government even calls re-education camps for Muslim Uyghur people in the northwest province of Xinjiang that now hold as many as one million people.
Reports recently revealed that a fresh campaign is underway against priests and bishops in the underground Catholic and Protestant churches to try and force them to join official government-run church associations.
This came only a month after the signing of an agreement between the Vatican and Beijing on the appointment of bishops. Four priests from Christian-heavy Hebei province were recently taken away for one month of re-education aimed at developing loyalty to the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The crackdowns on academic freedom and religious beliefs, plus the forced education of university students in the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the Chinese Communist Party that started a few years ago, are prime examples of Xi Jinping's continued and alarming repression of thought. To use an overused but nonetheless appropriate term, it is Orwellian, referring to George Orwell's dystopian novel of the future, 1984.
In Orwell's book, the government of the superstate of Oceania polices not only the actions of its repressed citizens but also their thoughts through the secret police force known as the Thought Police.
"The Thought Police would get him just the same," the book's protagonist Winston Smith says. "He had committed — would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper — the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you."
Right now, Oceania — a fictional warning created only a year before the Communist Party took control of China — is easily recognizable as Xi Jinping's China.
It's not just inside China's universities where the thought police are making their presence felt. Last year, in England, Cambridge University Press's prestigious China Quarterly journal capitulated, albeit temporarily, to Chinese censors and removed hundreds of articles.
This was a wake-up call for the global academic community about the stifling of academic freedom. Many academics knew about this rising problem but have been more interested in their own sinecures, but the problem cannot now be ignored.
"The pressures of authoritarianism and what I call market fundamentalism have come together to bring perhaps severe constraints on research in China, which is not to say, by the way, that there isn't some excellent research coming out of China … but it's not easy, and it's getting much, much harder," Cambridge University Press chief Tim Pringle said recently.
As far away as Christchurch, on New Zealand's South Island, respected Canterbury University professor, China scholar and critic Anne-Marie Brady has had her home burgled and car tampered with; international security agencies are investigating Chinese spies.
Other foreign academics, some of whom have voluntarily left China and others who have been forced to flee, have commented on the increasingly restrictive atmosphere.
At a time when China is determined to outstrip the United States in technology (including defense) advances, this all seems terribly counterintuitive — an open system where debate and criticism are encouraged has been proven by history to be the best way to innovate.
The nature of the beast — in this case the Chinese Communist Party — is so often its own worst enemy.