When Xia Yeliang returned to his home here in September after spending the summer as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, he came back to an uncertain future.
In June, Mr. Xia, an economics professor at Peking University, said he was told by a Communist Party official there that he would face a faculty vote on whether he would be fired. The vote, which is practically unheard of in China, is scheduled for this month and has received international attention, including protests from American academics.
Mr. Xia said he had not yet received confirmation of when it would take place. Despite the uncertainty, he has started teaching three classes this semester.
The university has not said why he is being subjected to the vote. The professor said it was related to his liberal political views and his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government. Administrators at the School of Economics and elsewhere in the university declined interview requests from The Chronicle.
In 2008, Mr. Xia was one of the first people to sign Charter 08, a petition that called for democratic freedoms and human rights in China. Eventually more than 300 intellectuals signed the statement.
In the following year, the professor wrote a letter on his blog to Liu Yunshan, then director of the Communist Party's propaganda department and now a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the group of politicians who run China. The letter criticized Mr. Liu for "how he thinks he has the power to control other people's thoughts" and called for an end to censorship.
For years, Mr. Xia said in an interview, Peking administrators have pressured him to keep quiet about his political views. He said he had been followed by plainclothes police officers and his phone had been monitored. But never did he think his situation would become serious enough that his colleagues would be asked to determine his fate at a university where he has taught for more than a decade. "It is very strange," Mr. Xia said.
Protest From Wellesley
Mr. Xia's case has garnered attention in the news media and among American academics. In early September more than 100 professors at Wellesley College wrote an open letter to Peking's president, the dean of its economics school, and the university's party secretary, urging the university not to fire Mr. Xia. (The Chinese professor visited Wellesley in August at the invitation of several faculty members, which helped draw attention to his case).
The letter said the pressure he faces raises questions about a Wellesley-Peking partnership, announced in June, to support student exchanges and joint research projects.
"We believe that dismissing Prof. Xia for political reasons is such a fundamental violation of academic freedom that we, as individuals, would find it very difficult to engage in scholarly exchanges with Peking University," the letter said. "If he is dismissed, we will encourage Wellesley College to reconsider our institutional partnership."
H. Kim Bottomly, president of the Massachusetts college, said in an e-mail to The Chronicle that she was concerned about Mr. Xia's situation and would speak with officials at Peking University "about the importance of academic freedom to all of us at Wellesley."
She said if the Wellesley faculty chooses not to support the partnership, then it would end. But she added, "I believe it is important not to close doors, especially when it involves the exchange of ideas with other universities and with other countries—an exchange that is more important than ever ... I am optimistic that our partnership with PKU will continue to develop."
In response to the letter from Wellesley faculty members, China's state-run Global Times newspaper published an editorial stating that Mr. Xia had failed to pass a teaching evaluation and that his liberal beliefs were "in conflict with mainstream values." Mr. Xia said he had never failed an assessment of his teaching or academic work.
A number of Chinese academics interviewed by The Chronicle said that Mr. Xia's situation was emblematic of an academic environment that has become far less free since Xi Jinping became China's president, in March. They suggested that the government was making an example of Mr. Xia to intimidate other academics whose views do not fall in line with the party.
In May, Beijing ordered university administrators to ban the discussion of seven topics in classrooms, including human rights, civil society, and the historical mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party. That same month, the government urged universities to "enhance the ideological and political training for young teachers," according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Most recently, the government began shutting down social-media accounts of liberal academics and opinion leaders. Dozens have been detained in an Internet-censorship campaign that the government says is intended to curb the spread of rumors and other false information online.
Aside from Mr. Xia, at least one other high-profile faculty member has been punished for his beliefs.
In August, Zhang Xuezhong, a lecturer at East China University of Political Science and Law, in Shanghai, was told that he was being suspended from teaching. Mr. Zhang said the university had done so because of articles he wrote earlier this year urging China to adopt a constitution. One article directly criticized President Xi. He said the university's decision to suspend his classes probably stemmed from government pressure.
"The authorities have enhanced their control in universities recently," Mr. Zhang said. "It is a very severe punishment to not allow teachers to have class. Most would not be ready for that. The authorities are imposing psychological pressures on them not to challenge the government. Many teachers will be more careful than in the past."
Zhang Ming, a prominent political-science professor at People's University, in Beijing, said that while the seven taboos have not been overtly enforced, they have created a chilling effect on campuses. He said that younger, liberal-minded professors also face more scrutiny. "Recently, it has gotten worse," Mr. Zhang said. "I feel that the pressure on the freedom of speech is unprecedented recently."
'A Post-Totalitarian State'
Chinese academe has experienced such crackdowns in the past, often flaring up every few years as part of changes in the government or in reaction to a specific event. But today there is more uncertainty about how far the government can go with an ideological campaign aimed at abolishing Western ideas and reinforcing leftist doctrine, in particular Maoist ideology. "I don't think the top leaders really want to return to Mao's era," Mr. Zhang said. "I feel like the recent speech control is more like a short-term contingency plan."
Professors say that China has changed. Students have access to information online, and more young people have studied in the West. Many are disillusioned by government propaganda, though there are signs that few really care that much about politics.
"Ideology is no longer a very effective tool in governing China, but they still have to use it," said Zhan Jiang, an outspoken journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "They have no other choice. If you talk to many officials in private, they don't believe in it. China is now a post-totalitarian state."
Mr. Zhan added that Mr. Xia and Mr. Zhang would be in trouble regardless of the government's ideological campaign on campuses. "You can do anything, but once you hurt their interests, they will crack down on you," he said.
Zhang Qianfan, a law professor who teaches at Peking University, said very few faculty members have defended Mr. Xia and his potential expulsion this month. "Not everyone seems to know about the case," he said. "I guess it is because people think it is quite unlikely to happen."
Earlier in September, Mr. Zhang said university officials had warned him not to talk publicly about certain so-called sensitive topics. "I certainly feel there is more pressure, but I don't want to overexaggerate," he said. "China is very different from its past. Nowadays leaders can say one thing, but society will go the other way."
Corrections (9/13/2013, 12:19 p.m.): This article originally misstated how Mr. Xia had been informed about the pending faculty vote. He was told by a Communist Party official at the School of Economics, not in a letter from administrators. The article also misstated the number of courses he is teaching this semester. It is three, not two. The article has been updated to reflect those corrections.