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For the right to read

by CSSGJ on February 4, 2018

Members of a student reading group in the People’s Republic of China are in detention for reading and discussing

As progressive reading and working groups we of the Marxism Reading Group in the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham and others, listed below, strongly condemn the recent upsurge in repression against freedom of speech in the People’s Republic of China. We are calling for the simple human freedom to read, publish and discuss questions of social justice and urge all institutions, groups and organisations to hold up academic freedom and freedom of speech!

Six participants of a student reading group in the South of China, in Guangzhou were arrested on 15th November, 2017 for reading and “discussing sensitive topics” at Guangdong University of Technology. Two of them were released the following day, but four have now been held by state security forces for five to six weeks, some of them under conditions of torture and without any medical assistance. Four other participants of the group are still in hiding at this moment. These eight participants of the reading group who have been arrested or are in hiding have written letters to the public since January 15, of which three have been translated to English. The four students who have been under arrest are only released on bail and will face a trial.

These are links to the three letters available in English HERE and HERE.

Over 400 people, among them famous intellectuals that live in the People’s Republic of China, have signed a petition for the release of the students, that petition has now been blocked by the censorship of the authorities. Zhang Yunfan, who wrote the first letter comes from a poor family and identifies himself as a Marxist and Left Maoist. He participated in a Marxist student group at Peking University before he came to South China. He tells us the following about the reading group at Guangdong University of Technology: “During the reading session when we were arrested, we were discussing historical change and social problems from the last few decades, including major historical events, workers’ rights and so on. We discussed how young people should solve these problems. I admit that we also talked about the movement 29 years ago that university students were involved in.” (He refers here to the student movement in 1989.)

He also underlines that freedom of speech, publication, assembly and association are guaranteed in the Constitution of the PRC.

Zhang Yunfan and Sun Tingting report that they volunteered to help underprivileged people, like organising charity events for migrant workers and participating in dances of middle-aged women workers in public squares. Sun Tingting says: “In serving the underprivileged, I came to realize that public interest work is the best way to help underprivileged workers and peasants at the bottom of society to live with dignity.”

While organised political activities that build connections between groups in different regions have been continually under attack by state security forces in China in recent years, reading groups and social service activities did not cross the threshold that demarcates what the Chinese state grants its citizens as freedom of speech and assembly. While this definition has been already quite restricted in comparison with other authoritarian regimes, the crackdown on the progressive reading group in Guangzhou establishes a new threshold that is so low that any social activity can be met with legal consequences, including unlawful detention under harsh conditions.

This upsurge in repression is accompanied by academic institutions in Western core capitalist countries facilitating the censorship drive of the Chinese authorities. Springer Nature (that owns publishing house Palgrave) decided in late 2017 to withdraw thousands of academic articles from its journals in China, randomly based on keyword search. Prestigious universities from various countries build campuses in China without pushing for the provision of basic standards of academic freedom.

The authoritarian wave across the world will continue to meet with resistance and counter-efforts everywhere, in the People’s Republic of China and in any other country. So-called liberal institutions in Western core capitalist countries have a long track record of not defending liberal principles when these come into conflict with their economic interest. As such, it is for progressives and the Left, to defend the values of critical thought and politically engaged research, and we will not back down in doing so, and will continue to express solidarity with all those involved in these struggles around the world.

We demand that all charges against the formerly arrested students and activists and the students and activists in hiding are dropped immediately.

Claim the right to read for everyone !

January 31, 2018

Marxism Reading Group of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom

The Socialist Party, Nottingham Branch Reading Group, United Kingdom

Working Group on Labour Struggles of the Association of Critical Social Research (AKG, Assoziation fuer kritische Gesellschaftsforschung), Goettingen and Kassel, Germany

Past & Present Reading Group, University of Sydney, Australia

Additional signatories please send their endorsement to:

The signatories will then be displayed on this webpage.

  1. Andreas Bieler, Professor of Political Economy, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham
  2. Adam David Morton, Professor of Political Economy, Department of Political Economy, University of Sydney, Australia
  3. Robert Austin, Honorary Associate, Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies, University of Sydney, Australia
  4. Adam Fishwick, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies and Public Policy, De Montfort University
  5. China Study Group Europe, Vienna, Austria
The Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) was created to provide a focus for research and teaching in relation to the most fundamental question facing us as citizens: how should we live? Based in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, CSSGJ offers a space for reflection, education and research in many different facets of social and global justice.

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