Freedom in ideas matters

By Paul Walker 30/08/2013

In their recent book, “How China Became Capitalist,” Ronald Coase and Ning Wang argue that the market in ideas matters for the future well-being of China. Coase and Wang deplore China’s lack of a free market for ideas and the damage that this has wrought on universities and on the Chinese economy’s capacity to innovate.

But just how bad are the controls on academics in China’s universities? A part answer to this question may be reflected in this recent posting on Greg Mankiw’s blog:

A professor in China brings this story to my attention:

A renowned professor has confirmed online rumours that his peers will decide whether he will be expelled from China’s most eminent university after he made a series of remarks in favour of free speech and constitutional governance.

Economics professor Xia Yeliang of Peking University was told by his department that his fate would be decided by a faculty vote, he told the South China Morning Post on Monday.

“They told me it’s because of all the things I have said and written,” Xia said. “They have threatened me before, but this is the first time they will vote on my expulsion.”

My correspondent says that the vote will likely take place in September. He also reports that this is not an isolated incidence. He writes, “Though you may not be aware, there is a quiet crack down currently under way in China with other professors being removed for similar offenses….I can tell you from my personal experience here, most Chinese faculty at PKU and other elite Chinese institutions having been educated at top schools in the US are appalled but are quite fearful to speak out.”

There are some very obvious issues here about the role of academics in Chinese society – “critic and conscience of society” in New Zealand terms – and for the freedom of speech but if Coase and Ning are right then the effects of such repression could go further than just the social and political spheres, it could negatively effect the future growth of the Chinese economy. Growth that in recent times has resulted in millions of people being raised out of poverty. Anything which retards the enormous potential for future growth that the Chinese economy has must be of concern to anyone who is worried about the well-being of the many millions of people who are still poor in China today.