Academic Censorship, At Home and Abroad

A comprehensive new report from Scholars at Risk looks at various facets of academic censorship and control in China, and around the world at the Chinese government’s behest. The report examines threats to scholars and students in mainland China; academic freedom in minority regions including Xinjiang and Tibet; pressures on Hong Kong and Macau; foreign higher education in China; and efforts by the Party-State to influence universities abroad. From the report’s introduction:

Drawing on academic literature, legislative and regulatory texts, media, human rights reports, interviews with Chinese and foreign experts, and data from SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, Obstacles to Excellence identifies pressures and threats to academic freedom in China and where China has extraterritorial academic connections, including:

  • Systematic and targeted tactics employed by state and university authorities in mainland China to constrict academic activity and to intimidate, silence, and punish outspoken academics and students;
  • Heightened pressures on scholars and students in the Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regions including language policies that limit equitable access to higher education, heightened surveillance, and the imprisonment of a growing number of minority scholars and students at so-called “re-education camps;”
  • Erosion of university autonomy in Hong Kong and Macau under Beijing’s growing influence over China’s Special Administrative Regions;
  • Academic freedom and autonomy challenges facing foreign higher education institutions operating joint ventures with Chinese universities on the mainland;
  • Extra-territorial pressures by the Chinese Party-state and supporters, through Confucius Institutes and other activities, to restrict academic inquiry and expression at universities outside China; and
  • Vague, unsubstantiated, and overbroad foreign government rhetoric and policies that impede academic inquiry and risk stigmatizing innocent overseas Chinese academics and students.

As noted in the report, a small but growing number of international universities have responded to academic freedom concerns by scaling back or terminating partnerships with institutions in mainland China and with China-supported institutes on their own campuses. Others have stayed out of the public dialogue. [Source]

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Karin Fischer looks at how Xi Jinping’s emphasis on ideological and political indoctrination on China’s campuses has had a lasting impact on the quality of scholarship, even as Chinese universities are beginning to climb in international rankings:

However, many China experts see the period covered by Scholars at Risk — from late 2012, when President Xi Jinping took office, through the present day — as different, a new normal. “I don’t see this as part of a cycle,” said Andrew J. Nathan, a professor of Chinese politics at Columbia University. “This feels long term, and we’re at risk of it undermining Chinese scholarship.”

Just months after Xi came to power, a government directive barred the discussion of seven controversial subjects from college classrooms, including press freedom, judicial independence, and the historic mistakes of the Communist Party. To ensure that professors and students toed the line, authorities increased classroom surveillance through high-tech methods like closed-circuit cameras and low-tech means like student informants. The Scholars at Risk report quotes a professor who was about to make a sensitive comment and stopped short. “I have to be careful because I don’t want to cause trouble,” he said, and pointed at a classroom camera.

[…] Because higher education is seen as furthering nationalistic aims, even Chinese academics who don’t engage in sensitive research can feel caught in the middle, said Yangyang Cheng, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University and a frequent writer on science and her native China. “Scientists as a profession are not supposed to pledge allegiance to the state,” Cheng said. “We are not soldiers. Our work is not dictated by our ethnicity or our citizenship.”

The government actions don’t just affect Chinese students and scholars, the report notes. Travel and visa restrictions have prevented Chinese academics from leaving the country and foreign researchers from visiting. (The U.S. government has also tightened visa rules for students and researchers from China.) Chinese universities have become less willing to sponsor international scholars doing research in areas deemed sensitive, and so those who want to do on-the-ground work may avoid such subjects. [Source]

Read more about the “Seven Don’t Mentions” issued by the Xi administration in 2013. The SAR report also details the cases of several Chinese professors who were dismissed from their positions or even imprisoned for their political views, including Xia Yeliang, Ilham Tohti, Qiao Mu, Teng Biao, and others. Tsinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun’s suspension this past year, apparently for writings which criticize the political environment under Xi, was a stark example of this trend. On China Heritage, Geremie Barmé translated several pieces related to the dismissal, including an essay by former Peking University Law School professor Gong Renren, who argued: “History has repeatedly demonstrated that in an environment lacking free speech or one in which true academic independence is absent, even though certain fields in the sciences may advance rapidly, the humanities and social sciences will remain seriously constrained. […] They will also hold back our society as a whole and the very civilisation that it professes to support.”

Meanwhile, concerns over China’s reach into universities abroad grow, as colleges in the U.S. continue to close Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes. The Australian government has launched an investigation into Confucius Institutes’ influence over universities there, some of which have been accused of censoring anti-China views. In Germany, under the United Front, several associations and groups attempt to influence political activities and views of Chinese students and scholars in the country, according to a report by Didi Kirsten Tatlow in The Atlantic. She reports on a Lunar New Year Gala in Berlin attended by Chinese students:

On the face of it, the event was unremarkable, a party to usher in the Year of the Pig. Yet it had deeper meaning: In addition to organizing parties and cultural events, the 80 Chinese student associations in Germany, which represent 60,000 students from the People’s Republic of China, are pieces of a Europe-wide puzzle of organizations. Perhaps numbering in the thousands, and meticulously fit together by Beijing, these associations support the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology and goals—and its narrative about China—among both Chinese and Europeans, and try to ensure that its overseas citizens, and others of ethnic Chinese descent, are loyal.

Like mushroom tendrils spreading unseen for miles beneath the forest floor, this network remains largely invisible to Europeans and their leaders, who broadly lack the necessary Chinese-language skills and familiarity with Communist Party politics. It seeks not simply to shape the conversation about China in Europe, but also to bring back technology and expertise. While the effort is driven by the party, crucial to its implementation is an opaque and little-known Beijing-based agency known as the United Front Work Department. [Source]

Universities are beginning to take a closer look at Chinese student groups, some of which receive funding and instruction from Beijing. At McMaster University in Canada, the disruption of a talk by a Uyghur activist has led to the disbandment of the local Chinese Students and Scholars Association branch:

The number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. has declined in recent years, partly due to increased trade tensions between the two countries and rising anti-Chinese sentiment on American campuses. A recent decision by Monash University in Australia disallows foreign students from running in campus elections.


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