China’s Challenges to Independent Intellectual Inquiry, at Home and Abroad

A recent National Endowment for Democracy report by the Hoover Institute’s Glenn Tiffert, titled “Compromising the Knowledge Economy: Authoritarian Challenges to Independent Intellectual Inquiry,” examines the various ways that “authoritarian regimes—primarily China, but also Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others—are exploiting unanticipated vulnerabilities in open knowledge economies to challenge free intellectual inquiry from the inside.” The report focuses on China to look at how intensified government control over academia and intellectual freedom domestically is being expanded outward in an effort to influence and control research and perceptions of China globally. Tiffert writes:

In the PRC, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping has unleashed the most sweeping intensification of ideological discipline in more than forty years.10 His intentions were laid bare in a 2013 internal circular that leaked to the international media. Known popularly as Document 9, this circular demanded vigilance and intense struggle against various “false ideological trends” and the domestic activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and “Western anti-China forces” that promote them. The enumerated trends included Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, economic neoliberalism, and freedom of the press.11 Ever since, the climate for free inquiry and expression in the PRC has progressively deteriorated. Official pronouncements intended for international audiences may speak invitingly of building “a community of common destiny” and “shared global governance,” but documents for the CCP rank and file read like throwbacks to an earlier age, replete with the language of warfare, such as strident exhortations “to seize the initiative on the ideological battlefield.”

The PRC party-state is vigorously executing Xi’s mandate.12 In a 2016 guiding opinion on the evaluation of academic personnel, the Ministry of Education promised that “the spread of illegal and harmful ideas and speech in the classroom will be dealt with severely according to (administrative) discipline and law.”13 Some university faculty now endure video surveillance of their teaching, and others have been punished after student informants covertly reported them to campus authorities.14 The pressure is greatest in the humanities and social sciences, where use of foreign materials in the classroom is now discouraged, censorship of publications has intensified, and research programs and paeans devoted to the official ideology of Xi Jinping Thought are proliferating. In 2019, several prominent universities, including Fudan, removed references to “freedom of thought” and academic independence from their charters, and inserted new references to Xi Jinping Thought and party leadership.15 These and related measures have had a chilling and regressive effect on academic life.16

[…] Driven by Xi’s exhortations, the PRC is pressing its ideological offensive abroad, impacting foreign academia, publishers, and NGOs.18 For instance, on the eve of the 2014 annual meeting in Portugal of the European Association of Chinese Studies, PRC personnel, acting on instructions from a visiting vice minister, seized the conference program and tore out pages that referred to sponsorship from Taiwan.19 In 2017, the PRC government began requiring foreign joint-venture universities in China to establish internal CCP committees and to appoint party secretaries to their management boards. The University of California, Berkeley; New York University; Duke University; the University of Michigan; and the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom are among the nine foreign universities that operate such ventures in the PRC, typically as minority partners.20 The CCP is steadily tightening oversight of their operations and squeezing local faculty, staff, and students.

[…] The PRC Ministry of Education promotes an ethnonationalist curriculum of “patriotic education” that seeks to “teach the essential commonality of love for the country, love for the Party, and love for socialism.”55 This mandate has been pursued to devastating effect in the far western region of Xinjiang, where the state forced more than a million people into indoctrination camps in a bid to crush the distinct cultural identities of Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.

A 2019 supplement to the Ministry of Education’s plan globalizes the mandate by calling for patriotic struggle to inculcate support for the CCP’s unyielding brand of national and ethnic unity (guojia tongyi he minzu tuanjie) throughout the Chinese diaspora.56 While most PRC students abroad approach contentious issues of territory and identity with an open mind, their forbearance is plainly in spite of this policy rather than because of it. State policy and the diplomats who amplify it are inciting some students to vehemently rebuke those who hold opposing views, and creating psychic stress and a climate of fear among others who opt to self-censor so as not to appear disloyal.57 Their reach can be found in the menacing counterdemonstrations around the world that support Beijing’s position on Hong Kong, and in the threats leveled against PRC students who express independent positions—and their families. As one masked man from Hong Kong declared at the University of Queensland in 2019, “even in Australia now we cannot be seen here at a protest. We are not out of sight of China’s government. They have made that clear.”58 This campaign, part of a multidimensional strategy “to seize the right to speak” on behalf of the PRC state, is fundamentally incompatible with the tolerance that lies at the heart of genuine intellectual freedom. It aims to censor and dominate rather than to debate and persuade. [Source]

Both Chinese and non-Chinese students who speak up in support of human rights in China have been targeted on some college campuses. The University of Queensland will hold hearings this Wednesday on the possible expulsion and conviction of a 20-year-old student, Drew Pavlou, who has held protests on campus against human rights abuses in China. Rachel Pannett reports for The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Pavlou, who will be defended at the hearing by a top Australian free-speech advocate, has drawn the university’s ire over his campus activities and online posts, some of which have mocked and ridiculed China. His lawyer declined to comment on the case while it was under way.

Mr. Pavlou has become a lightning rod in a larger debate about Chinese influence in Australia, including in higher education. Australian universities have become increasingly reliant on revenue from foreign students, many of whom are Chinese. Critics say that reliance has made them especially vulnerable to China’s attempts at soft-power influence, as administrators seek to curry favor with Beijing and attract Chinese students.

[…] Among the claims made by university officials against Mr. Pavlou in a confidential 186-page document, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, are that he damaged the university’s reputation when he posed in a hazmat suit outside the college’s Confucius Institute in mid-March and later posted a photo on Facebook calling the institute a “biohazard risk.” He has also criticized China’s treatment of ethnic Uighurs. The university said it received a staff complaint about his activities and that his conduct and online behavior “might reasonably be perceived as discrimination, harassment or bullying.” [Source]

Confucius Institutes have become a focus amid rising concern about Chinese government influence on college campuses worldwide, and several schools have shut theirs down in response to public pressure. A new organization, Athenai Institute, is “dedicated to limiting the influence of the Chinese Communist Party on U.S. college campuses,” and their first public action was a call for the removal of Confucius Institutes from all U.S. college campuses. The group also explicitly condemned “all anti-Asian sentiment, violence, and hateful acts,” which have been on the rise in the U.S. and elsewhere as many erroneously place blame on all people of Chinese and Asian descent for Chinese government influence campaigns as well as for the spread of COVID-19.

Chinese government influence in the form of funding of academic and scientific research which is not properly disclosed has also become a focus of the U.S. Department of Justice in recent months. Most recently, a professor from Arkansas was arrested after keeping funding from a Chinese government source secret, Matt Farwell and Katie Benner report for The New York Times:

One of the professors, Simon Ang of the University of Arkansas, was arrested on Friday and charged on Monday with wire fraud. He worked for and received funding from Chinese companies and from the Thousand Talents program, which awards grants to scientists to encourage relationships with the Chinese government, and he warned an associate to keep his affiliation with the program quiet, court papers said.

He kept the financial arrangements secret, allowing him to secure other grants from American government agencies, including NASA, that the Chinese funding made him ineligible for, according to court documents.

The other professor, Dr. Xiao-Jiang Li, a former professor at Emory University in Atlanta, pleaded guilty on Friday to a felony charge of filing a false tax return that omitted about $500,000 that he received from the Thousand Talents program. He was sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay $35,089 in restitution. [Source]

The shifting balance in the relationship between the Chinese government and foreign educational institutions can be seen in the centuries-old ties between China and Harvard University. Human rights lawyer Teng Biao was a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School when he was asked to postpone an event featuring human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. In a lengthy Harvard Crimson article last month looking at the shifting ties between the school and the Chinese government, Matteo N. Wong wrote about the incident:

“He told me to cancel the talk,” Teng says. “He told me the time we were supposed to give our talk, that day was when the Harvard president would fly back from Beijing. And a few weeks before that, the Harvard president was meeting Xi Jinping.” The administrator told him hosting an event with two Chinese dissidents only days after a historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then University President Drew G. Faust would “embarrass” Harvard, Teng recalls.

[…] Harvard has for years maintained a unique and symbiotic relationship with China, born out of a thick network of decades-old, grassroots connections. From its inception, the relationship has been inherently political, but Harvard has not refrained from criticizing the Chinese Communist Party. During his visit to Beijing last March, for instance, University President Lawrence S. Bacow read a Uighur poem in defense of academic freedom in his speech at Peking University; the same day, he had an audience with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Though the Harvard-China relationship always entailed mutual benefit, it was for decades asymmetrical — China needed Harvard more than Harvard needed China, which perhaps gave the University more leeway to be critical of the Chinese government.

But over the past decade, China’s global influence has grown dramatically. In 2010, China became the world’s second-largest economy; in 2018, it surpassed the U.S. in terms of scientific papers published. Escalating tensions have accompanied this shift in global power, threatening to compromise Harvard and China’s special relationship: Xi has cracked down on dissent both within and outside of China’s borders, and the FBI has launched numerous investigations into alleged Chinese industrial and academic “espionage,” including one into undisclosed Chinese funding sent to the University’s former Chemistry Department Chair, Charles M. Lieber. As the geopolitical and academic balance shifts in China’s favor, the Teng Biao incident may indicate that, at least in some instances, Harvard depends on China more than the other way around. [Source]


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