World News

Chinese academic who called Mao a 'devil' says he was sacked

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese professor who called the founder of modern China Mao Zedong a “devil” on social media said on Friday he had been sacked by a prominent Beijing university.

FILE PHOTO: Souvenirs featuring portraits of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong and China's President Xi Jinping are seen at a shop near the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, September 9, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

Mao, who died in 1976, is still officially venerated by the ruling Communist Party as the founder of modern China and his face appears on every yuan banknote.

Shi Jiepeng, a classical Chinese assistant professor at Beijing Normal University, said he was fired last month.

Shi “had for a long time made mistaken comments online, which cause a negative impact in society”, according to his dismissal note which has been circulated online, the authenticity of which Shi confirmed to Reuters.

The university declined to comment.

Shi had been attacked on leftist websites as unpatriotic for comments on his Weibo microblog in which he not only referred to Mao as a devil but also said China should cast aside Chinese culture and fully accept Western civilisation.

“Actually what I said was very moderate, like what Lu Xun wrote but far from as deep,” Shi told Reuters, referring to a man revered as a founder of modern Chinese literature who often wrote scathingly of traditional Chinese culture.

Mao is particularly respected by leftists who believe the country has become too capitalist and unequal over three decades of market-based reforms.

While the party has acknowledged Mao made mistakes, there has yet to be an official accounting for the chaos of the Cultural Revolution when Mao declared class war, or the millions of deaths from starvation during the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward, a failed attempt at rapid industrialisation.

Crackdowns on what academics and students can say and should think are nothing new in China.

Curriculums and speech at universities, in particular, are tightly controlled by the government, fearful of a repeat of the pro-democracy protests in 1989 that were led by students.

In 2013, a liberal Chinese economist who had been an outspoken critic of the party was expelled from the elite Peking University.

Asked what he thought of the current state of freedom of expression in China, Shi said: “From the treatment I have received - haha”.

China aims to build world-class universities and some of its top schools fair well in international rankings by various standards. However, critics argue constraints on academic freedom could inhibit those ambitions.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Michael Perry