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Gadfly Taiwan Lawmaker Calls for More Academic Freedom


A gadfly Taiwanese lawmaker on Wednesday told students at China’s most prestigious university that more academic freedom should be allowed, and rejected official calls to limit its teaching staff to proponents of orthodox communism.

Li Ao, 70, made his comments in a packed auditorium at Peking University, which since its founding more than a 100 years ago has played a leading role in calls for Chinese political reform, including during the ill-fated Tiananmen democracy movement in 1989.

He arrived in China earlier this week for a 12-day visit, the first time he has left Taiwan since he fled the mainland with his parents at the time of the communist takeover in 1949.

In his speech in Beijing on Wednesday, Li made no secret of his unhappiness with the direction China’s leading university is taking.

“Peking University is not what it used to be,” he said, recalling that his father had graduated from the institution in 1926. “It is reluctant to take on challenges.”

Fielding a question from a student, Li pointedly rejected a university administrator’s contention that professors who refuse to accept the dominance of China’s Communist Party shouldn’t be allowed to teach.

“The goal of the university should be finding solutions to problems, whether a cure for cancer in the medical school, or another problem somewhere else,” Li said. “Nothing should be forbidden.”

Li has won favor from Chinese leaders for his strong opposition to the independence-leaning policies of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who seeks to strengthen the democratic island’s status as a self-governing entity, with a political culture distinct from that of China.

In a long-running television talk show broadcast in both Taiwan and the mainland, he has made it clear that he favors unification as a long-term solution to the 56-year split.

However, in his address to the students, he shied away from commenting on the Taiwan issue, offering little more than platitudes on the prospects for an eventual accommodation across the Taiwan Strait.

“Here on the mainland I’m afraid to talk about Taiwan subjects,” he said.

Still, inviting Li to speak constituted something of a risk for Chinese authorities, who in the 16 years since the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, have been extremely cautious about exposing students to unorthodox political viewpoints.

Li is an inveterate political gadfly, speaking out when the spirit moves him, often to the chagrin of the powerful.

While Taiwan was under martial law in 1951-1987, he wrote nearly 100 books in praise of freedom and democracy. Most were banned, although they circulated widely via the underground, winning the plaudits of intellectuals.

He also spent five and a half years in prison for helping a political dissident sneak abroad during the “White Terror” — a period of political repression overseen by former Taiwanese strongman Chiang Kai-shek.

Associated Press

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