Context: in May 2005, because I was dissatisfied with the model of graduate entrance examination of the time, I declared that I would stop taking in Master’s students, which had numerous repercussions. In September that year, the presenter of Pheonix Satellite TV’s “Celebrity face to face”, Luqiu Liuwei, did an interview with me, around the topics of exams, education, the role of intellectuals, etc. Since last year, the exam for entrance in a Master’s degree in law at Beijing University has reverted to the more reasonable previous model, and I started taking in Master’s students again. The interview is issued here with some amendments to the text, and republished on this blog. I would like to express my thanks again to Ms. Luqiu Liuwei and friends on the Program. 23 April 2012.
Trigger response to enrollment suspension
Luqiu Luwei (below referred to as “reporter”): See, it’s a real coincidence, school is just starting today, and I would really like to ask you, now that school is starting, for you, the beginning of this year may be different from last year, now that you’ve become a man everyone talks about. But tell me, today that school is starting and you’re returning there, on that first day, how are you feeling?
He Weifang (below referred to as “interviewee”): We celebrate the start of the year with a ceremony, the new students gather, everyone comes together, the Dean gives a speech, the teacher representative gives a speech, and the student representative gives a speech. The School of law requires all teachers to take part in this ceremony, we all sit in the front two rows, and the host introduces every teacher. When I was introduced, the voices of the students may have gone up a bit, but there was nothing particular. In fact, all my colleagues rather understand me, they know that I am a person who is rather willing to express their views in front of others. In fact this is not the first time it’s happened; last time was in the affair of “一塌糊涂”的事, I also wrote an open letter, and many people know that. For the last ten years or so, I have published a few pieces in the popular media, but many of my colleagues don’t write this kind of articles, they think that you should only write these very long essays, but you shouldn’t write this kind of “newspaper article”.
Reporter：The kind of article you’re talking about, is it the “column” type?
Interviewe: The column type, the magazine essay type, the commentary type, I really like to write these things, writing this sort of thing is often a way to express my views on social phenomena, even do what some would call “point out problems”. So whatever I do, none of my colleagues is surprised.
Reporter: Yes, but these are colleagues, and I think an understanding among colleagues is something we can expect, because after all, if some people don’t understand, it doesn’t matter, everyone is a colleague. But you have to face the leadership, you have to face this School which is, after all, an institution, and in the end, you need to face things a bit more complex than an exchange among colleagues. Have you thought about this a little?
Interviewee: Maybe Beijing University is a special case: this university is too large, and so the distance between me and the leadership is huge – for instance, since Dean Xu Zhihong has been appointed to his role, I haven’t come within five meters of him.
Reporter: So there is no close contact.
Interviewee: I’ve only seen them from a distance, and so these leaders have very limited personal knowledge of what a teacher does. They may know who I am, but it’s not that easy for them to identify me. Another factor is the tradition of this university: through historical influences, Beijing University has a relatively liberal ethos. Of course, this is only compared with other Chinese universities. And that includes these people, the leadership, and these so-called “leaders”, they all understand, it’s just the Dean sometimes, he may feel that I’m too much of a troublemaker, and he will say to me: oh, what you’ve done recently… look, what you’ve done has given me a lot of trouble. He may have a few complaints to make, but he won’t really take administrative measures, or embarrass me. No, I still have classes. In fact, relationships between people at university are traditionally rather loose: when the class is over, everyone goes back home, and everyone is usually very busy, so everything is fine.
Reporter: In fact you see, many years ago, when you wanted to resign, when you had this idea, people wrote to you, I’ve seen the letter that those students wrote to keep you in, it’s really moving: although it’s very simple, still I really admire them, only Beijing University students, they’re really unique, can write a letter like this, so concise, and yet all the feelings are there. So this time, since you’re not taking in any more Master’s students, are there any students, either undergraduates or students from outside Beijing University, who have come to tell you: “I want to do a Master’s with you, but now you’ve closed the door on me” – has anyone come to tell you that?
Interviewee: There are. There’s one from Nanjing University, a boy, who’s in senior year at Law School, and will graduate this year. When I went to Nanjing last year, he gave me an article, a study on the history of French civil law, a very professional article, he had written it himself, very well written, and I thought he really had potential. After I declared I would stop the examination, he sent me a letter, saying he felt really sad, saying he had a great hope, a dream, of studying at Beijing University, but because I would not do the examination, he did not want to do it, and did not do it. Indeed, for a situation like this, my heart feels really sorry, with a student like him.
Reporter: This seems to be a real dilemma, I know the reason you wrote this letter, and the reason you made this decision, is hoping that we will address the issues facing us; but on the other side, there are people who have high enthusiasm and great ideals, like these students, and they hope to come and study law very well, and become very good at this profession, but your decision may deprive them of this opportunity in the next few years. When you made your decision, have you thought about this?
Interviewee: I think it’s rather the results of our last enrolment session that made me despair a little. Of all the student who sat the law exam, and really wanted to learn the subject I teach, history of western law, just one passed, the others all failed. In the end, students who passed the exam for another subject were enrolled, but they have no interest for the profession, they haven’t done any research. They may not be very interested: after they arrived, we asked them a few questions about the profession, and of course, they couldn’t answer any of them. I have the feeling that, the more you like our profession, the less likely you are to pass the test. And so I have this idea in my heart – maybe it’s just as a kind of consolation – that this student I mentioned would not have passed the exam. The current examination system is too heavy, I think we really should not design our examination in this way, and so I would rather suspend it for a period of time. At present, it’s just a pressure maching, and only if Departments and Schools and colleagues seriously reflect on our postgraduate examination system will we, in the end, design a system that will allow the really good people to stand out. The only system we want is the one that identifies those who really love academic study, really love the legal profession and the history of law. You know, legal history is not a thing that everyone particularly enjoys, but the people who enjoy it, like Catholics, can show a devotion that borders on fanaticism. Reaching excellence in education is a teacher’s biggest expectation and biggest source of job satisfaction, But if there’s no way of attaining it, or if what you reach is not excellence but mediocrity, I consider there’s a problem with the system, and so we need to find ways of changing the system itself.
Reporter: That’s one method. I believe that many teachers, many of your colleagues or colleagues from other universities, share the same feelings, but not everyone would take your approach, there may be people who would do what you did before, speak out, using various channels. Have you thought about it? When you used this method then, did you think that you had to do it, that only then would people start noticing the problem, did you think that for you, this was the only choice?
Interviewee: Before resorting to this method, I made a lot of other efforts, I went to talk to the relevant Departments, I went there very sincerely, hoping that they could understand how serious the problem was. Not very long ago, we organised a forum, where my colleagues and I could debate with the management. I remember my first statement, where I presented my views, and also received support from colleagues. This forum was originally organised so that they could listen to the views of us teachers, and with such unanimous views, the people in charge, even if they did not accept them entirely, should at least have adopted our recommendations in part. However, what is disappointing is that in the end, there was no change at all, nothing changed at all, we did not even have a minor result.
Another factor I’m considering is that the problem that arose at Beijing University is not an exceptional case, but probably exists in large or small part in many universities, and it was just a miniature version of a problem affecting the entire higher education system. And so I thought it was necessary, not only to have the people in charge at Beijing University think about it, but for society as a whole to reflect on the problem. All sorts of other universities must face the same difficulties we faced, so that’s the reason why my open letter, after it was sent out, received such strong and widespread attention — I’ve never done anything that received so much attention. That’s how I also got the attention of “Celebrity face to face”, I had become a “celebrity”, suddenly the media from all over the country, including local newspapers from places I had never been, started posting about me – some people even sent me the newspaper clippings. This shows clearly that the question of higher education is not just an internal question for universities, but is a question that can attract attention from all society. Farmers in remote mountain districts who take pains to bring up their children and send them to university, of course they’re interested in the kind of education that their children will receive in the future when they come to the city and go to university. So I think this system requires the efforts of society as a whole, and those of us engaged in higher education have a responsibility to make our voices heard. Considering that, I did not hesitate to send the letter online. Among the medias of our time, I think internet is the best, it does not require painful reviews: when something is posted on the internet, it can attract more attention, and it will bring to more people’s attention issues which traditionally had to be seen by censors and broadcasters first.
Reporter: I think there is one goal you reached, and that is attract everyone’s attention, because like you said, after you announced your decision, and you sent this letter, really, getting media coverage, or support from all sectors of society, from everyone really, that was good, and raising all sorts of conversations, that was good, but in the end, for you doing this thing, the most important was that you hoped to influence the decision makers. But have you thought then that maybe everyone could talk about it for a while, and then after a while, everyone would forget about it, because in this society now, often things pass very fast, something is really hot for a while, and then it’s forgotten, and so this situation, are you dissatisfied with it, or has nothing changed, at the time, how did you think of it?
Interviewee: Indeed, the development of the media has often reduced the possibility for people to give sustained attention to certain issues. Many things come in a rush, go in a rush, turn into smoke, and leave no trace. But I always considered that the situation I addressed may have been one that would not go away so easily . Issuing an open letter may have been a media event, but the problem behind it is persistent. We take in new students every year, and every year we face the same question, and so if we survive it this year, next year the problem comes again, and if it’s not resolved, it will always repeat itself periodically and persistently. As I said, scholars train their own successors, the next generation in their profession, and in all manners, they carve and polish their talent, this is their daily work, their mission every day, this is our highest aspiration, but it’s also our job. So I’ve always felt that this matter was likely to attract continuous attention, as its effect was more lasting than other situations which trigger concern. But now that school has just started, we don’t know what the next step will be, for example how my colleagues will react, but I learnt, yesterday I met many of my colleagues, and they consider that we should find ways to push it a step further, and not let the thing go after a few shouts, that’s not how it should be.
Reporter: This is to say, like your colleagues expressing their intention, everyone thinks there should be a next step, this is quite a positive message, but the problem is, why, when everyone is dissatisfied – have you thought about this – why are you the first to stand up and talk about this?
Interviewee: Maybe… this is just a matter of different personalities. In fact, many people before have used all sorts of channels to express their dissatisfaction, trying different ways to promote change in the system, and they did many things. Not everyone necessarily likes to express their views in the media. I’ve personally had relatively many contacts with the media in the last few years, so all the views I expressed, to an extent, were likely to receive some attention from the media. There’s two ways to look at this, on the one hand, many people actually do a lot of work, and they’re not insensitive people; on the other hand, it’s like the person who speaks also needs to be in a position where his words will have the maximum influence.
Reporter: So you think that your current status, your own personality, and add to that your current influence on society, as well as your recognition from the media, these allowed you to play such a role, to stand up at the time, and then…
Interviewee: Actually, ah, I’m really slightly ashamed of it, over the past ten years or so, of course I can say that in the Chinese legal world I’m one of the scholars who had the most contact with the media. Apart from expressing my views in the media, I’ve also had the opportunity to make speeches in various places, such as universities, courts, bar associations, even the army, and so on. So, for instance, the “People’s Southern Weekly” did a special issue where they listed 50 public intellectuals in China, I’m from the legal world, they listed four figures from this world, and I was one of them. I may often be willing to go and publish my own views on public affairs. But frankly, a question such as this about the reform of the education system, actually affects everyone, and there are some elements which are beyond my reach, so I will continue to reflect on my own position, basically, how to organise graduate education, whether there should be different exams for the law and for other professions, and then whether there should be differences between education in law and education in other professions, I believe these questions require in-depth research. When I called for a reform of the graduate examination system, another question was of particular concern, and that is the autonomy of universities. As an institution, does the university pay more attention to the views of its teachers for making decisions, or is it more concerned with the indications or desires of some power outside the teaching body. I believe that this problem came up incidentally when I raised the question of student enrollment, but it was also bound to come up, because they are closely linked together. There is no doubt that university autonomy is is a bigger problem, and relates more closely to the future development of Chinese universities.
This is the first part of the interview. Click below for the other three parts: