The news of Xu Zhangrun’s suspension is paradoxically both shocking—there did not seem to be any immediate cause—and not shocking at all. Not only had Xu been a constant critic of China’s political institutions, but—perhaps most unforgivably—he had also personally mocked Xi Jinping, writing pointedly that “the speeches of officials, originally nothing more than some clichéd officialese written by their secretaries, are now assembled into finely bound volumes and distributed free all over the world, wasting vast amounts of paper. It’s enough to make you spit out your food with laughter.”
That Chinese academics (like everyone else in China) do not enjoy the freedom to speak their minds is not news. Some people used to say that you could say pretty much anything in China, provided you didn’t say it in an organized way. That has not been true for a while. (Mockery of the leader, it seems, is especially serious: one man was sentenced to 22 months in jail in 2017 merely for referring to “Steamed-Bun Xi” in a closed WeChat group.) The government is steadily ratcheting up pressure on academics who do not toe the line. The more outspoken ones get fired. Others find themselves banned from publishing, find their existing work removed from bookstores and university reading lists, or are banished to the library.