China and Global Academic Freedom

China and Global Academic Freedom

Yesterday, Human Rights Watch published a 12-point Code of Conduct for institutes of higher learning to adopt to aid in responding to Beijing’s threats to academic freedom abroad. In a press release, the rights organization describes the proposed code of conduct–based on over 100 interviews with academics and students from Australia, Europe, and North America between 2015 and 2018–and the many threats that it attempts to mitigate:

Human Rights Watch found various threats to academic freedom resulting from Chinese government pressure. Chinese authorities have long monitored and conducted surveillance on students and academics from China and those studying China on campuses around the world. Chinese diplomats have also complained to university officials about hosting speakers – such as the Dalai Lama – whom the Chinese government considers “sensitive.”

Academics told Human Rights Watch that students from China have described threats to their families in China in response to what those students had said in the classroom. Scholars from China detailed being directly threatened outside the country by Chinese officials to refrain from criticizing the Chinese government in classroom lectures or other talks. Others described students from China remaining silent in their classrooms, fearful that their speech was being monitored and reported to Chinese authorities by other students from China. One student from China at a university in the United States summed up his concerns about classroom surveillance, noting: “This isn’t a free space.”

Many of the academics interviewed identified censorship and self-censorship as serious concerns. One said a senior administrator has asked them “as a personal favor” to decline media requests during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, fearing that it could have ramifications for their university.

[…] Many expressed discomfort with the presence of Confucius Institutes on their campuses. They said the presence of such institutions fundamentally compromised their institution’s commitment to academic freedom, especially when Confucius Institutes had been invited to their campuses without broad faculty consultation. In 2019, Victoria University cancelled the screening of a documentary critical of Confucius Institutes after the university’s Confucius Institute complained. […] [Source]

China’s Confucius Institutes, the long controversial government-funded centers offering Mandarin-language and cultural courses at partner universities worldwide, have been rapidly closing at host universities in the U.S. Last month, a bipartisan Senate subcommittee recommended a mass termination of Confucius Institute programs. At Mother Jones, Dan Spinelli reports on the increasing U.S. government scrutiny of the institutes:

In June, the [University of Minnesota] will cut ties with Hanban, and Minnesota’s Confucius Institute will close. University officials cited a desire to refocus “our China-related activities through a strengthened and enhanced China Center,” spokesperson Katrinna Dodge said in an email to Mother Jones. In doing this, Minnesota joins the ranks of roughly a dozen other American colleges that have abandoned their partnerships with Hanban amid increasing criticism of Beijing’s growing authoritarianism and hostility to free speech. “Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China,” the American Association of University Professors concluded ina 2014 report, whichsaid the centers  “function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom.”

[…] Beijing first imported Confucius Institutes to American universities in 2004, offering generous subsidies and even staff, but the centers have attracted controversy from the start. As retired Communist Party bigwig Li Changchun once said, these institutes are “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” Marshall Sahlins, a University of Chicago anthropologist, called them “academic malware” with propaganda objectives “as old as the imperial era.” Many scholars and lawmakers wanted nothing to do with the institutes, which use an authoritarian government’s money to bankroll hundredsof classes and programs at colleges, high schools, and elementary schools. Now, as tensions between the US and China have increased, the White Houselawmakers from both parties, and the intelligence community have singled out Confucius Institutes as a nefarious symbol of China’s creeping influence.

In a January Senate hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray said China posed a threat “more deep, more diverse, more vexing, more challenging, more comprehensive, and more concerning than any counterintelligence threat I can think of.” He acknowledged last year that federal agents had targeted some Confucius Institutes with “appropriate investigative steps” over concerns of improper Chinese influence. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill last month that would require Confucius Institutes to register with the Justice Department as foreign agents, which quickly gained bipartisan support, and the most recent defense appropriations bill restricts schools with Confucius Institutes from receiving Pentagon language grants. […] [Source]

The first of 12 points on Human Rights Watch’s code of conduct is “speak out for academic freedom.” While delivering an address at Peking University on March 20, Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow did just that. Harvard Magazine delivers highlights from Bacow’s address, in which he emphasized the need for free thought and independence in the academy, and made several highly sensitive references, including one to the May 4 Incident and another veiled nod to the human rights crisis currently unfolding in Xinjiang:

It is a special honor for me to visit you as you approach…the centennial of the May Fourth Movement, a proud moment in your history that demonstrated to the world a deep commitment on the part of young Chinese to the pursuit of truth—and a deep understanding of the power of truth to shape the future. Even now, President Cai Yuanpei speaks to us. “Universities are places for grand learning,” he said. “They are grand because they follow the general principle of free thought.” Under his visionary leadership, tremendous intellectual exploration and dramatic social change were unleashed.

[…] In many circumstances, my role as president is not to define the “correct” position of the University but to keep the channels of discussion open. From a distance, Harvard can appear to be a place that speaks in one voice. It is, in fact, a place of many voices. And one of the most important—and most difficult—of our tasks is to ensure that all members of the community feel empowered to speak their minds. [Source]

The magazine’s coverage also includes mention of Bacow’s chosen closing: “a resonant invocation of the spirit of intellectual exploration in a verse by the late Abdurehim Ötkür,” a renowned Uyghur poet who passed away in 1995. Ötkür’s fellow Uyghurs are currently facing an unprecedented ethnic crackdown in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1.5 million are currently being held in internment camps.

See also a recent episode of the Sinica podcast featuring the University of Missouri’s Sheena Greitens, Princeton University’s Rory Truex, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Neysun Mahboubi. The hosts and guest scholars examine the topic of self-censorship among China-focused scholars, and dig into the findings of a recent study by Greitens and Truex on the various types of “repressive experiences” facing China researchers.


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