How the Humanities and Social Sciences Are Holding China Back

China Heritage:

Gong Renren (龔刃韌, 1954-), the author of the following essay, is a professor (retired) in the Law School of Peking University (see here for details) and the head of the Institute for Human Rights 人權研究院.

On 21 June 2019, Professor Gong published an essay that is nothing less than an indictment of China’s academic culture, an accusation of mediocrity and a critique of a cowed and compliant intelligentsia. In his analysis of the ever-deepening crisis in the Chinese humanities and social sciences, Gong contrasts the failures of today with the achievements of the country’s universities during the turbulent and war-torn decades of the Republic of China.

The following essay is thus an elegy for the long-lost world of pre-1949 Chinese academia, a warning about the bedevilled state of the country’s universities under a reinvigorated Party ideology and a caution about the global blight of metrics- and ranking-driven, industrial-scale for-profit education. In particular, the author skewers the Chinese academy for having barely sloughed off the Maoist past only to become a laboratory for a dual experiment: one in which the culture of neo-liberal metrics in line with the concocted laws of the global educational marketplace is combined with stifling ideological controls that serve the policy shifts of a monolithic party-state.

The author also deftly encapsulates the dilemma of Global China. The People’s Republic has the economic and intellectual heft to contribute to the betterment not only of its own people but to humanity as a whole. Over recent decades, mature policy makers have developed ways for the country to engage creatively with the world, but resurgent Party dominance also demands every greater, and absurd, levels of fealty to its inward-looking dogmas. As a result, higher education is a battleground on which China’s best angels and worst spirits tussle. There may be no clear winners, yet, for many, the struggle itself is of great significance.