Cases of students ratting out their teachers seem to be on the rise in China in recent years. Almost invariably, the teachers have done nothing wrong. Rather, they have said something wrong, something the right people believe to be politically unacceptable. It’s no longer very exceptional to see a teacher’s career impacted by accusations from their students, and nearly every university has had its cases. In less severe instances, a teacher’s course may be suspended. In more severe instances, the teacher may be tossed right out of the school or university.
So much more welcome would it be if students focussed their accusations on real and serious abuses. China’s universities play host to all sorts of unethical conduct by teachers and professors, including bribe taking and harassment of female students. Unfortunately, in the rare cases where students do report other real abuses, these are generally brushed aside by university bureaucrats, and the ugly fact is that in the vast majority of cases in which teachers are targeted, this has to do with something the teacher dared to say.
And this culture of political tattling has unfortunate consequences for education in our country.
In ancient times, the relationship between teacher and student was one of the five cardinal relationships (五伦), and it could be regarded as a statutory relationship. Just as a son couldn’t be encouraged to raise accusations against his father, society looked with contempt on accusations made by a student against his teacher. If real abuse did take place, procedures permitted a student to accuse a teacher. But in such cases, the identity of the student had to be carefully concealed, otherwise they would ever afterwards be a social pariah, such was the disgust people generally felt for perceived breaches of Confucian obligation.
Fortunately, few teachers or students were ever embroiled in disputes, and these social relationships were governed by the maxim “like son to father, like father to son” (子为父隐，父为子隐). In the past, even the government would do its utmost to recuse itself of such matters.
In the olden days, there were cases of in the past of teachers raising accusations against students, but it rarely happened the other way around. For a teacher to accuse a student was like a father accusing a child, and the act could be construed and understood as the sacrificing of blood ties to uphold righteousness (大义灭亲). This was something done on occasion to demonstrate allegiance to the emperor.
Ethical relationships (伦理关系) were the keystone of the nation and of society back then, and the sum product of these ethical relationships, the so-called three cardinal guides and five constant virtues (三纲五常), were the orthodoxy in China. Even the emperor used the imperial examination system to establish his own teacher-student relationships with advisers and ministers, thereby solidifying his rule. Obviously, accusations by students against their teachers could not be encouraged lest the same game rules apply when important political matters were at stake.
Simply speaking, it was Westernization that destroyed this social status quo. Foreign students and teachers were not restricted by the same set of ethical rules as their Chinese counterparts. There were few mental or other obstacles for Western students inclined to make an accusation against a teacher in cases of wrongdoing.
Even so, as new schools opened up in China from the late Qing up to the Beiyang Period of the Republican Era, the traditional set of relationships remained dominant. As Mr. Ma Yifu (马一浮) once said, the relationship between teacher and student was already then like a market exchange, opening with a bell and closing with a bell, but there were few cases of students accusing teachers. Chen Duxiu (陈独秀), who was called the “commander” of the May Fourth Movement, was not detained because someone raised accusations against him, but because he went out into public himself and distributed fliers.
What really prompted the trend of students accusing their teachers was the culture of revolution. The Kuomintang had all along referred to itself as a revolutionary party, and after undergoing a Leninist remake [in 1926], the flavor of revolution in the party became much more pure.
For the sake of revolution, traditional ethical relationships could be disregarded. Therefore, under the leadership of the Kuomintang, student spies (特务学生) appeared in China’s universities. In principle, student spies existed to preserve the revolution, but the teachers and students they accused were working toward a different revolution. Under this situation it happened that in many cases students and teachers in secondary schools and universities who were accused by others had no choice but the leave their schools. This was actually the best-case scenario. In some instances they were packed off to prison, or taken to the chopping block.
Of course, in those days these so-called student spies weren’t actually students. They were students with a special mission. They had no interest in seeking degrees. They were really ne’er-do-wells hired by various organizations and placed in the schools. These spies were readily recognizable when they were placed in academic environments, and they were universally despised. The upshot was that they weren’t really all that useful. Aside from serving as muscle and wreaking havoc on student activities they were basically a huge pain. In other words, the KMT found it impossible to really infiltrate the academic environment with loyal students, and these sore-thumb spies were their only recourse.
During the 22 years that the Kuomintang ruled mainland China, it was only during the second decade, as KMT rule was in crisis, that student spies become more and more prevalent. In the end, thought, student spies were of no avail in saving the Party or the country.
For honest-to-goodness cases of actual students informing on their teachers we have to look further on to a time when revolution deepened. In the cultural and educational spheres after 1949, political movements came one after the other — thought reform (思想改造), the three-anti five-anti campaigns (三反五反), the elimination of counterrevolutionaries (肃反), the anti-rightist movement (反右), the Cultural Revolution (文革). One key distinguishing feature of these movements was the informing on teachers by students. Teachers were a favored target of revolutionary activity, seen as bourgeois intellectuals that had to be dealt with sternly.
As the Cultural Revolution neared its end, student accusations against teachers became a virtual addiction. In middle schools, primary schools and universities, students rushed to raise accusations. It was as though everyone feared falling behind the craze, and even professors in fields like engineering couldn’t escape censure.
Thankfully, that era of unrestrained accusations against teachers has long ago passed. But acts of student squealing today remain divisive and destructive. In most cases, students make accusations on behalf of certain players and interests in the background, and few if any do so out of a consciousness of their own rights in cases of real abuse.
What we need to realize, however, is that while teachers seem to be the ones losing out when such political accusations are made, the ones who are ultimately suffering are our students.
A version of this editorial originally appeared in Chinese at Southern Metropolis Daily.