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China tries to stop academics from taking its constitution literally

A YEAR BEFORE Xi Jinping became China’s leader, a 47-year-old professor at Peking University, Zhang Qianfan, delivered a talk to mark the 100th anniversary of the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty, in 1911, charting the history of efforts since then to instil respect for constitutional principles. Students unable to find seats in the packed lecture theatre stood shoulder-to-shoulder around the walls. They grinned and clapped when he started by saying: “I have written down my true feelings…They may sound fierce. Forgive me if they cause offence.”

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The thin, bespectacled academic held his audience spellbound. Those who, unable to find space in the room, had crowded by the doorway, were still there when he finished, almost two hours later. That was fortunate, because his final point was the most powerful in a lecture packed with indictments of China’s failure to implement the guarantees of its constitution, including freedom of speech, of assembly and of association. Mr Zhang wrapped up by listing 12 places where authoritarian rule had (at least briefly) crumbled, from the Soviet Union to Taiwan to countries that had recently experienced the Arab spring. “What [their] people can do,” he said, “the Chinese”—and here he paused briefly while the audience began to laugh and clap—“people can certainly do.” Wild applause ensued. Someone cried, “Good!”

Such a scene was extraordinary even at the time. The authorities were determined to prevent any attempt to replicate the Arab uprisings; anonymous calls online for public gatherings in support of them drew more police than protesters. Mr Zhang says he was reprimanded for his speech. Invitations for him to talk on campuses dried up. But he kept his job. And remarkably his textbook, “An Introduction to the Study of Constitutional Law”, first published in 2004, was republished in 2014 by Law Press, which is controlled by the Ministry of Justice. The preface sets the tone: “The study of constitutional law must break down forbidden ideological zones, because the rights of Chinese citizens accept no forbidden zones.”

Mr Xi initially appeared to agree, at least rhetorically. In 2012, shortly after he took power, he gave a striking speech on the supremacy of the constitution and how “no organisation or individual” could stand above it. Ceremonies to swear allegiance to the constitution, such as the one pictured, proliferated. But it soon became clear that his main interest was in Article 1, which says: “Disruption of the socialist system by any organisation or individual is prohibited.” In 2013, after small protests broke out in the southern city of Guangzhou over censors’ efforts to prevent a newspaper from publishing an editorial in praise of “constitutionalism”, state media launched a propaganda offensive against the term. They said it was just another way of calling for Western-style democracy. To the dismay of liberals, Mr Xi last year secured a constitutional revision that allows him to remain president for life.

Under his rule, the Communist Party has been waging its toughest campaign against dissent and liberal values since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests nearly 30 years ago. In 2015 police rounded up hundreds of lawyers and legal activists who had been trying to help citizens use the courts to reverse injustices perpetrated by officials—the kind of cases that, as Mr Zhang says in his textbook, touch on constitutional matters, not just ordinary legal ones. Many of the detainees have been released but banned from doing legal work and kept under surveillance. Some have been tried and imprisoned. The final related trial ended on January 28th with the sentencing of Wang Quanzhang, a human-rights lawyer, to four-and-a-half years in prison for “subversion”.

Now the party is focusing more closely on campuses, where many legal scholars still support constitutionalism. The party is right: the word for this, xianzheng, is often just a veiled way of referring to Western-style democracy, or at any rate just the nice bits of the constitution. In January the Ministry of Education ordered every university to report to the authorities which textbooks they were using for constitutional studies. It said reasons for this “thorough investigation” included a need to “implement Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” and “revise and improve textbooks in a timely manner”.

Mr Zhang’s popular textbook is likely to be a victim of the purge that is all but sure to follow. There is evidence that the book is in the party’s sights already. In the past few days online bookshops have stopped selling it. Those trying to buy it see messages such as “this product has been removed from the shelves” or in the case of Amazon’s website in China, “stock is currently not available”. (Censors, however, have yet to eradicate a pirated digital version of the book, a link to which was circulated in late January on Weibo, a microblog site, by an academic in central China.)

The authorities have long tried to impose orthodoxy on campuses. In 2015 they ordered tighter controls on the use of imported books that spread “Western values”. The minister of education urged universities to ensure that comments in classrooms do not “attack or defame the rule of the party or smear socialism”. Nor, he said, should they “violate the constitution and laws”—meaning, presumably, the bits of the constitution that affirm the party’s primacy. Closed-circuit television cameras have been installed in many lecture theatres to allow classes to be monitored. About 15 years ago the government launched what it called the “Marxism Theory Research and Construction Project” to produce sanitised textbooks. Some universities have begun to demand that only these be used for legal studies.

In spite of this, and the occasional sackings of academics for their political views, elite institutions are still full of liberals. Mr Zhang reckons there are probably thousands of people who teach constitutional law in China. He suspects most of them share his views. Cracking down is hard: many academics at leading universities are people who have studied in the West. Mr Zhang has a PhD in biophysics from Carnegie Mellon University and another one in the theory of government from the University of Texas at Austin. Purging these professors would be a huge setback for China’s efforts to attract talent from abroad and create world-class universities.

But a sensitive year lies ahead. Officials are mindful of two looming anniversaries: the 100th of a student movement that called for China to introduce (Western) science and democracy, on May 4th; and the 30th of the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, which were also led by students, on June 4th. Mr Zhang’s institution, Peking University, played a central role in both upheavals. In the coming months the authorities will be more than usually worried about scholars who inspire students with liberal views.

Some students clearly support Mr Zhang. On Peking University’s chat forum, several messages have appeared criticising the removal of his textbook from online bookshops (but also some attacking him). Mr Zhang says that, were he able to give another lecture like the one he gave in 2011, students would be even more supportive than they were then. “We are moving even further away from constitutionalism. Everybody can feel the restriction of speech,” he says. “More people are discontented about our political reality today.”