Cornell Suspends Exchanges After Protest Crackdown

Two weeks ago, CDT translated a deleted essay by Renmin University student Xiang Junwei describing university authorities’ “blacklisting” of Marxist students who had traveled to Shenzhen to support a workers’ strike, and claiming that he had been publicly smeared and that his parents and grandparents had been pressured and manipulated. “Do these actions,” Xiang asked “possibly live up to the “People” (人民 renmin) in the university’s name?” Other students, including #MeToo activist and recent Peking University graduate Yue Xin, have been detained alongside some of the workers, some now for many weeks. The New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández now reports on the suspension of exchange and research programs with a leading U.S. university in response to these reprisals:

Scholars at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School said they were suspending a 6-year-old research and exchange program with in Beijing after the school punished at least a dozen students who joined a nationwide call for better protections for low-income workers in China.

[…] The governing Communist Party, which sees mass movements as a threat, has detained dozens of activists and ordered universities, including Renmin, to help suppress what has become one of the most tenacious student protests in China in years.

Eli Friedman, an associate professor at Cornell who oversees the program, said Renmin’s actions — including compiling a blacklist of student activists and allowing protesters to be sent home and monitored by national security officials — represented a “major violation of ” that Cornell could not tolerate.

“Their complicity in detaining students against their will is a serious red line for us,” he added.

[…] Human rights activists applauded Cornell’s decision to halt the program. “I’m sure Cornell’s decision can have a positive effect on other universities, encouraging them to put principle above making money,” said Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. [Source]

Inside Higher Ed’s Elizabeth Redden relayed more from Friedman:

[…] “I got in contact with the dean of our partner school, the School of Labor and Human Resources at Renmin, to ask for their side of the story. I said, ‘I’ve been seeing these reports; I’m concerned about them, can you clarify? Do you have any additional information?’ I had a few back-and-forths with their administration. It became clear that this was an issue that was to some extent above their pay grade — that this was being directed at a national level by the [Chinese] Communist Party — so there were certain questions that they cannot answer, things they cannot say. I recognized that and was sympathetic to their position, but at the end of the day information that could convince me that the evidence I had seen was wrong or not complete was not forthcoming.”

[…] “Things are changing, and it is more repressive than it used to be in all sorts of spheres, and academics are feeling that as well. I think we have to think seriously, what does it mean to engage with an institution that does not have necessarily the same safeguards for academic freedom, to engage in a system where the Communist Party can intervene in university activities without any kind of legal justification, and think about what it means most importantly for academic research,” Friedman said.

[…] “There are some debates I had with colleagues from outside Cornell about whether this was the appropriate thing,” he said. “Some people pointed out that the people in the labor school were not the ones responsible, that this was a national security issue so we should be figuring out a way to target the Communist Party. But saying that in my view was tantamount to admitting that you’re going to do nothing because we don’t have the capacity to directly apply pressure to the Communist Party. There was a recognition in some ways that there was going to be — collateral damage is maybe too strong a word — but that students were going to be missing out on opportunities that they should otherwise have. There are going to be losses there in terms of opportunities for academic exchanges, and I see that as a real shame. But for me this is contextualized in a broader trend nationwide in declining possibilities for academic freedom and academic exchange.” [Source]

The decision comes as foreign academics debate how best to handle censorship and political repression in partnering Chinese institutions, and follows an epilogue to last year’s controversy over academic publisher Springer Nature’s acquiescence to Chinese censorship demands. Redden reported early this month that the editors of Transcultural Research had found a new publisher for the book series following Springer’s removal of “politically sensitive” content from the series from its Chinese website. From Inside Higher Ed:

“For a scholarly publisher, this is an unacceptable breach of trust both with the authors and the international scholarly community,” a group of six former and current editors of the Transcultural Research series wrote in a press release announcing their decision to switch publishers. “There is no ‘law’ in China that bans treatment of these topics but only an informal unpublished directive from the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department that discussions of the topics mentioned should be ‘managed’ in the sense of being kept from the public. The Springer argument that ‘only 1 percent’ of Springer Nature articles offered were affected disregards the fact that once this door of accepting censorship orders is opened, nothing stands in the way of China (or any other state) expanding its list of banned subjects. There are enough states in the world who will see the Springer Nature behavior as a guarantee that they, too, may randomly and without disadvantages ban the scholarly discussion of topics they find objectionable for religious, ideological, political, race or other reasons.”

Rudolf G. Wagner, a senior professor of Chinese studies at Heidelberg University’s Asia and Europe cluster and an associate at Harvard University’s John K. Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, said he is concerned about the threats to independent scholarship everywhere.

“Our concern is that once you get this idea, that you just have to tell these guys to take down this or that you don’t like, what does Mr. Erdoğan [the president of Turkey] do the next morning? Any reference that refers to Ataturk that we don’t like, out of it. Anything that refers to Gülen, out of it,” Wagner said.

[…] Springer Nature’s move to restrict certain content in order to preserve access to the whole run counters to general recommendations from the Association of University Presses, whose board issued a statement in March on just this question. [Source]

At Chinoiresie, Made In China journal editors Nicholas Loubere and Ivan Franceschini wrote that Springer Nature’s “craven willingness to submit to censorship once again highlights the fact that academic freedom and integrity are simply incompatible with the current structure of the commercial academic publishing industry.”

We have been here before, and not that long ago. In August 2017 the academic community was scandalised by the revelation that Cambridge University Press (CUP) had capitulated to the Chinese censors, blocking access to 315 articles in the prestigious journal The China Quarterly (Phillips 2017). At that time, this act of censorship was met with widespread protest and threats of a boycott, with CUP eventually reversing its decision (Kennedy and Phillips 2017). [Read more on the episode via CDT.] The CUP incident was a dramatic demonstration of both China’s increasing assertiveness and confidence, and the lengths that academic publishers are willing to go to in order to maintain access to the Chinese market. Unsurprisingly, it was later discovered that CUP was not alone, as anonymous interviews with commercial publishers revealed widespread practices of self-censorship in China (SCMP 2017).

[…] Unlike with CUP, there has not been the same level of outrage or a concerted global campaign targeting Springer Nature. The editors of Transcultural Research hope to change that. They have discontinued their agreement with the publisher and have called for the academic community ‘to take all the steps necessary’ to make it clear that this behaviour is unacceptable. However, up until now the story has failed to gain much traction in the media, and it seems that a full-scale boycott of publishers that engage in such practices is not forthcoming.

[…] In this context, where academic subjugation to profit-oriented publishers is the normal state of affairs, we should not be so surprised at the indifference with which Springer Nature’s candid admission of profit-driven self-censorship was met. After all, in a market system that prizes profits above all else, this decision makes perfect sense. Even the challenges to CUP and now Springer Nature fail to address the fundamental reasons that academic publishers are casually jettisoning the supposedly sacred value of academic freedom in the search for higher profits. Calls to boycott publishers in order to threaten their bottom line might work if their commercial interests are actually threatened by the boycott, but it only does so by feeding into the same profit-seeking mechanisms that prompted the bad behaviour in the first place. It does not deal with the fundamental crisis in academic publishing—that profit-oriented publishers will prioritise profit at the expense of core academic values. [Source]