China's Xi calls for universities' allegiance to the Communist Party

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s President Xi Jinping has called for allegiance to the ruling Communist Party from the country’s colleges and universities, the latest effort by Beijing to tighten its hold on education.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks to Gabon's President Ali Bongo Ondimba (not pictured) during a meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China December 7, 2016. REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool

The government has campaigned against the spread of “Western values” at universities, and in January officials said the party’s discipline and anti-graft agency had sent inspectors to monitor teachers for “improper” remarks in class.

Beijing has cracked down on free expression since Xi became party boss in 2012, detaining and jailing activists and lawyers, muzzling internet critics and strengthening restrictions on journalists.

China’s colleges and universities must “serve the Communist Party in its management of the country”, Xi told a meeting on ideology within higher education, according to a report published by the official Xinhua news agency late on Thursday.

“Adherence to the Party’s leadership is essential to the development of higher education in the country”, Xinhua cited Xi as saying. He said China must “build universities into strongholds that adhere to Party leadership”.

“The party’s policies in education must be fully carried out” and the party must raise the ability of its grassroots organizations at schools to do “ideological and political work”, Xi said.

Crackdowns on what academics and students can say 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.

A year later, the university, once a bastion of free speech in China, established a 24-hour system to monitor public opinion on the internet and take early measures to control and reduce negative speech, according to a party journal at the time.

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 Michael Martina; Editing by Paul Tait