In celebration of its 120th anniversary, Peking University, one of China’s most prestigious universities, held a ceremony (in Chinese) at the school’s Khoo Teck Puat Gymnasium on May 4. It was attended by senior politicians, notable alumni, and current school faculty and students.
Guests included the former chief executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa 董建华, Thailand’s crown princess, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Baidu’s CEO, Li Yanhong 李彦宏, and a 99-year-old alumnus from the National Southwest Associated University, a wartime union of universities that included Peking University.
To no one’s surprise, the two-hour-long event comprised lengthy speeches, flattering videos, and unnecessary amounts of applause.
Before this year’s celebration, rumors spread that Li Chenjian 李沉简, vice dean of the school’s Yuanpei College 元培学院, had resigned (from that position, not his teaching duties) after circulating an essay that rebuked his colleagues and Chinese intellectuals in general for rampant “shamelessness and cynicism,” as well as spinelessness for fear of suppression from the establishment.
Soon after the resignation, the university was caught in a Me Too scandal when current student Yue Xin 岳昕 accused school officials of silencing her activism about a two-decades-old sexual harassment case, which possibly caused a former PKU student’s suicide.
At the ceremony, there was no mention of these scandals at all. Instead, the event was self-congratulatory. Ironically, in a compilation video of presidents from other universities singing praises of PKU, Wei Shyy 史維, acting president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, lauded PKU as “an indicator of the social conscience of Chinese intellectuals.” The remark was greeted with a loud round of applause.
The PKU authorities’ lack of self-awareness did not generate much discussion on Chinese social media, but a speech by the university’s president, Lin Jianhua 林建华, drew internet users’ attention: Lin mispronounced the word 鸿鹄之志 (hónghúzhīzhì; literally “swan” but used to mean a person with noble aspirations). “This is so embarrassing. Can he step down?” an internet user commented (in Chinese).