On April 18, CMP fellow Xiong Peiyun (熊培云), a young scholar who is also one of China’s most prominent bloggers and columnists, was scheduled to deliver a well-publicized lecture at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. The title of Xiong’s lecture, which was sponsored by Phoenix Online, was “Will this Society of Ours Be Good?” (这个社会会好吗?). Unexpectedly, the 500-person lecture was “cancelled” at the last minute, though it eventually went ahead in a much smaller university venue, with an audience of just around 30 students and faculty.

After Xiong concluded his downsized lecture, Fan Zemin (樊泽民), the deputy director of the university’s Student Affairs Division — one of the men many now suspect was behind the sudden cancelation — issued an insulting rebuttal in which he refused to address Xiong as “teacher.”

With respect to Mr. Xiong Peiyun. Why do I not call you ‘teacher’? Because I am a teacher here at the University of International Business and Economics. This is the first time I’ve met you face to face, sir. What I know of you is still from your time at Window on the South magazine. First of all, a moment ago you said you left Window on the South some time ago. Well, I feel that what you delivered to us today lacks sufficient depth of thought, lacks sufficient depth.

Fan’s critique hardly lived up to the rigor to which he somewhat patronizingly pretended, however. He offered no specific criticisms, but instead indicted the lecture on the grounds that “these ideas don’t represent China’s mainstream, or this society’s basic essence.”

“This is certainly not the standpoint of mainstream values,” Fan continued, to which Xiong interjected with a wry smile, drawing laughter from the small audience: “Yes, I think the Party still comes first in that respect.”

Fan then summarized his three objections to Xiong’s talk as follows: “First, the subject is unclear. Second, there’s no logical quality to it. Third, the entire speech has no thinking in it.”

The lecture, its cancellation, and the itchy session that followed it became a hot spot of internet discussion in China late last week, and it quickly became for many a textbook case of the sharp divisions between more liberal thinking scholars like Xiong and conservative Party loyals like Fan.

This, in fact, was not the only tense exchange of the week. We also refer readers to the editorial spat between Wang Wen (王文) — “What China’s Liberal Camp is Most Lacking” and “There Aren’t So Many Bad People on This Earth: Another Discussion with Mr. Ye” — and Ye Fu (野夫), whose contributions to the back-and-forth included, “What China’s Authoritarians Are Most Lacking: A Response to Wang Wen” and “The World Always Has a Few Bad Guys: A Response to Wang Wen.”

A video of Fan’s rebuttal, in which Xiong can be seen smiling uncomfortably in the background, is still available at Youku. Chatter about Fan Zemin’s remarks, however, were quickly scrubbed from the internal BBS at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE).

One open letter by a UIBE student addressed to Fan Zemin expressed strong objection to his words and actions, and called on all to preserve the integrity of the school and get rid of “this stinky fish that has spoiled the academic climate of UIBE.” In clear defiance of Fan’s own characterization of himself as a “teacher,” the student addressed him as “Mr.”

Respectable Mr. Fan Zemin:

Hello! Why do I address you as ‘mister’ and not as teacher? Because I am a student the University of International Business and Economics. I have just seen a number of images and reports about your criticism on April 18 of Mr. Xiong Peiyun’s lecture at UIBE, and I would like to discuss with you your viewpoints and thought logic, which are at many points unsuitable.

Owing to reasons you and I both know, but that I can say that you cannot say, you changed the location of the lecture, this with the hope that you would have complete power in your own hands to control the whole process of the talk and minimize the scope and impact of the lecture’s content. I can understand that the thought, logic and conduct of that group of people you represent has been like this for the past century. And we can also say that your basic objective was achieved even before you delivered your speech. But all that has happened after tells us that often times when someone of middling abilities shoots for a lofty goal that goes against common sense and basic principles, the result runs sharply counter to what this person originally intended.

Among the student‘s several criticisms of Fan’s remarks was the following:

You said in your remarks that the points Mr. Xiong made “did not represent the mainstream and basic essence” or are “certainly not the standpoint of mainstream values.” Must an individuals views represent the mainstream and basic essence? Personal viewpoints have a right to be in line with the mainstream, and of course they have a right to not be in line with the mainstream. Moreover, from the history of the rule of our dear Party one can see that the non-mainstream views at any given time tend to become the mainstream views in the space of one or two decades . . . I don’t oppose the fact that you represent those people who seek to use public institutions [such as media] to advance their own mainstream values, but I firmly believe under the principle of substantiating [arguments] with facts that every viewpoint should have a channel for expression within the framework of our laws and regulations.

I won’t go into detail about the arguments made by Xiong Peiyun in the lecture in question. But here are a few rough strokes.

Xiong speaks particularly about the recent Yao Jiaxin (药家鑫) case and the problem of violence and justice in Chinese society. One of his central concerns is how, as he understands the case, Yao, the son of a military official, has “become a symbol” and is being dealt with on this basis rather than through an impartial legal system. In other words, he is little more than a political pawn.

Here is one portion of Xiong’s remarks on the case:

I certainly believe that our society needs to progress, that a number of bad people do need to be punished. But in this process, there is no need to take a person, a very humble life, and he is a life, and elevate him to a higher political plane, and then carry out a political trial movement against him. What am I trying to say?

In this process, he has not only been turned into a symbol, but the entire so-called trial has been transformed into a kind of ritual. And what other problems are there as well? I’m saying that as we’ve paid such great attention to this case, as we’ve focused so much on whether or not he should die, we’ve actually forgotten a great many things behind the scenes. For example, no deeper questions have been asked about why was he involved in a traffic accident at the time, or what the media’s position has been. On the night I took part in the Phoenix TV segment [I spoke about earlier], for example, one of the participants was the elderly gentleman Lu Tianming (陆天明), who was quite worked up. He said that Yao Jiaxin must certainly be sentenced to death. I hadn’t gone that night to talk about whether or not he should be sentenced to death, and only after I went did I see that Phoenix TV’s headline at the time read, “Should Yao Jiaxin Be Sentenced to Death?” This was the topic everyone was to discuss. They never notified me of that, and had I known this was what would be discussed I would have refused to go. When I saw that the topic was about whether the sentence should be death, I said I was not a judge and that anything I had to say on the matter was without significance.

More generally, Xiong also voices his concern about what might be called the violent fabric of Chinese society today. He suggests, essentially, that there is an absence of basic respect for individual rights and dignity that creates an atmosphere of escalating violence with no working mores or mechanisms for mediation and arbitration. Here are Xiong’s own words:

“Speaking of the negative aspects of this society. The entire twentieth century [in China] has, as we all know, a foul reputation. During that century too many violent episodes occurred. Now too we see many violent things occurring, like the way today’s lecture was suddenly cancelled, partly cancelled, and they say someone made trouble. This sort of riot [against the lecture itself] is a kind of violence. I’ve discovered over the past few days that a number of extreme websites have dubbed myself, old [economist] Mr. Mao Yushi (茅于轼) and others as “slaves of the West” (西奴) and said we must be hung. They even used head shots of us and stuck red triangles over them. I have no idea what I could have done to make them bear such a deep grudge. I don’t know what Mao Yushi could have done to deserve such enmity. But this sort of violence is really awful . . .

I think this is an awful phenomenon. This sort of violence, this omnipresent violence, there is so much of this violence. It is online too, and from our major boulevards to our villages you can witness violence at any time. Aside from the cases of violent demolition and removal led by the government, there are many other cases arising from our society. I’m talking not just about government violence but about social violence. Social violence always has a profound impact on us. Some suffers a personal collapse, for example, everything goes wrong in their life, and they drive out on the streets and mow down life after life. In case after case, men brandish knives and murder children. Look at the recent case of Zhou Yuxin (周宇新), whose life they say took a turn for the worse, so he murdered his wife, his children, and his parents, and who even had to drive back in the midst of his escape to murder his elderly father-in-law . . . Cases like this one, I think, if we ask whether this society of ours is healthy, give us the first part of the answer, that this society is a mess and that we constantly see these heinous acts of depriving others of their lives, or what we could call torture. This is the dark side of our society. But of course I acknowledge that there are bright things [about our society] as well. What we are talking about today are the bad things in this society. And I hope we can gain some ground in this respect.

The other thing is that our whole society has an air of oppressiveness about it. I remember the time when I was living overseas [in France]. I’m not saying things overseas are necessarily great. But I believe the people are extremely courteous and mild in attitude. Let’s say, for example, that you’re walking through a building and come to a [glass] door and someone else is coming through the other way. Perhaps five or ten meters before the door, they will wait for you to pass. When people meet they often embrace. But I think that the distance between people in China is extremely vast . . . If you’re on a bus and someone steps on your foot, according to your understanding this person should apologize, but this person won’t apologize. I’ve seen it happen before where the first person will confront the second person about not apologizing and the other will say, look, why don’t I just inflict more harm on you? In the end, they’ll bring each other down fighting. We should recognize how this society [of ours] is brimming with this sort of air of oppressiveness, this unexplainable hatred. There is no shortage of things like this.