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Wellesley College partnership with China university tested by threats to outspoken professor Xia Yeliang

BEIJING Xia Yeliang is a professor of economics at China's Peking University. Through his classroom lectures and online blogs he has become one of China's most outspoken advocates of political change.

China professor on why he's not afraid to speak out

"I can't bear it anymore," he told CBSNews.com. "I think the regression is so shameless. China should have fundamental institutional change to establish constitutional democracy and rule of law. And I believe in the future, all citizens should have independent rights and should have individual freedom."

His views may cost him his job. In the coming weeks, Peking University -- the most prestigious institution of higher learning in China -- will hold a vote on whether to fire him. Xia said that if that happens, he will become the latest victim of a crackdown on freedom of speech under China's new president, Xi Jinping.

"There are much more severe measures towards intellectuals, even businessmen, for anyone who speaks out," he said. "They have conducted a concentrated campaign over the last few months; they have arrested so many people."

The announcement of a vote on Xia's tenure comes just months after Wellesley College in the United States, announced an academic partnership with Peking University at a June conference in Beijing, where celebrated alums including Madeleine Albright spoke. Now that partnership is under fire from almost 40 percent of the Wellesley's faculty.

A letter signed by 130 Wellesley professors urges the college's administration to reconsider its partnership with Peking University if Xia is fired.

"We believe that dismissing Professor Xia for political reasons is such a fundamental violation of academic freedom that we, as individuals, would find it very difficult to engage in scholarly exchanges with Peking University," the letter states.

Wellesley College professor William Joseph
Wellesley College professor William Joseph, seen in an undated personal photo taken in Beijing, China. William Joseph

William Joseph is a Professor of Political Science with a focus on Chinese politics and ideology at Wellesley and one of the authors of the letter about Xia, who is known by his Western colleagues as David.

"I have been engaging with this regime for more than 40 years, and I am willing to live within limits, generally. But when it becomes so specific as in David's case, where I believe it is so blatantly a violation of academic freedom rather than just self-censorship, that is the major tool of the dictatorship in China, I felt I had no choice other than to take a stand," explained Joseph.

Peking University has not responded to CBSNews.com's requests for comment about Xia's fate and the implications for the college's relationship with Wellesley.

In a statement, Wellesley College president H. Kim Bottomly wrote, "The Wellesley/PKU partnership, like most things we do, can only exist with faculty support. If Professor Xia loses his job, the faculty will have a discussion about the best way to go forward. However, I believe it is important not to close doors, especially when it involves the exchange of ideas with other universities and with other countries -- an exchange that is more important than ever... I am optimistic that our partnership with Peking University can continue to develop."

Wellesley has heralded the partnership as an opportunity for faculty and student exchanges and joint research.

Other prominent U.S. universities have struck similar deals; Duke University broke ground for its China campus in Kunshan in 2010, and classes have begun at New York University's new "portal" campus in Shanghai. The universities' expansion into the world's fastest growing economy brings new students and dollars to American university campuses at a time of financial strain.

But the academic partnerships also come as Chinese officials have heightened their scrutiny of prominent intellectuals, activists, business people and others who have developed a reputation for outspoken views. Mainland universities have reportedly been ordered not to include seven topics in their teaching, including universal freedoms, freedom of the press and civil rights.

Earlier this year, China unveiled harsh new penalties -- including possible three-year jail sentences -- for internet users who post information considered "defamatory" if the comments attract more than 5,000 users, or are reposted more than 500 times. Human Rights Watch says more than 55 activists have been arbitrarily detained in China since February of this year.

Wellesley's William Joseph sees Xia's situation as part of this growing trend.

"There has obviously been a crackdown in some ways, particularly among intellectuals and universities, faculty, dissidents in general, over the last couple of months, and I think that was a reality check for people who thought that Xi Jinping might be different," he told CBSNew.com.

Xia's political activism began more than a decade ago when he wrote "anti-corruption" articles for newspapers, magazines and academic journals focusing on China's leadership.

He gave policy recommendations to government leaders, and says he was frustrated by the lack of action in response. "They don't listen to you," he complained.

Xia gained prominence in 2008 when he became an early signer of Charter 08, a citizens' manifesto calling for political change and an end to one-party rule.

"I am not a revolutionary," Xia explained, however, "I am just a promoter of democracy and rule of law."

Xia said the fallout from his political views began soon after. Once a regular television commentator, China's state-run CCTV stopped asking him to appear on their shows. Two planned lectures at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou were suddenly cancelled.

"The reason, they told me, was they received telephone calls from Beijing," he recalled.

Xia said Peking University took away two of his professional titles. Undercover police in civilian clothes began to follow and question Xia. Sometimes several sat overnight in a car outside his home. He said his phone was tapped, and he had to take his computer in for repairs after "hacking attacks."

By 2011, Xia was so frustrated with the constant surveillance that he decided to seek teaching opportunities abroad, first at UCLA and then Stanford. He said an online blog post in March 2012, calling for "freedom of speech, publication, assembly" and "voting rights" brought a phone call from Peking University. Xia said the Party Secretary of Peking University's School of Economics accused him of making "big, big trouble," and ordered him to write a letter of self-criticism. A month later Peking University ordered Xia to return home to China or face dismissal from his job.

After learning about his case, Wellesley College professors rose to Xia's defense. "Why someone of that rank and stature should be dismissed, by peer review? It just doesn't make sense in a lot of ways," said Joseph.

Following the Wellesley faculty letter in support of Xia, China's state-run Global Times published an editorial questioning his job performance. Headlined, "Pass the evaluation first if you want to be a Peking University professor," the editorial labeled Xia an "extremist liberal" who advocated for "freedom and democracy."

"Peking University," the editorial said, "should not give in to outside pressure."

Xia is the second Chinese college professor this year to claim punishment for political beliefs.

Zhang Xuezhong, a lecturer at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, said he was suspended from his teaching responsibilities following an article he wrote earlier in the year calling on members of the Communist Party to operate within China's constitution. Zhang said university officials told him the article was "unconstitutional" and in violation of university rules.

Xia worries that his outspoken nature will lead to jail time.

"Why do you have to be on the first (front) line," his wife asked him, concerned for their family's safety. "Why can't you just follow others?"

"I said if there is no one to be on the first line, then there is no one to follow other people. I'd like to be on the first line. There should always be someone to stand up and to call on other people. Of course everyone has a wife, has a family. Everybody has. So what is the excuse? If we want to change the institution, there must be someone who would like to make the sacrifice and give some contribution to that," he said.

Joseph said Xia is one of a growing chorus of intellectuals and activists demanding change in China.

"I think he is very much a character in a play that is unfolding. Intellectuals, artists and many others are starting to speak out much more forcefully," the American professor said. "Going back to the English and French and American revolutions, it builds up as more groups gain access to freedom in whatever sphere they are involved in, then they want to translate it into political freedom. Because that's the only way they can guarantee that the freedoms they have -- economic, or social, or intellectual -- might be preserved, and I think that is very much what is going on in China now, in a very speeded-up fashion."

Peking University was supposed to have voted on Xia's tenure in September. Xia said he hasn't been notified as to when the vote will actually take place, but he thinks it's likely been postponed until later this fall.

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