Academic Freedom and China

Every instructor walks on thin ice.
By Jennifer Ruth and Yu Xiao

It is a tricky time for faculty in the United States who work on China. The American president initiated a trade war with the People’s Republic of China that, whatever its merits, creates a fertile climate for China-bashing. Many of us hesitate to appear to contribute to this climate or to seem to side with a president hostile to values most faculty hold paramount, such as the rule of law or the importance of independent science. The enemy of my enemy is only occasionally my friend, though. We cannot lose sight of those trends, unrelated to trade, that point to the increasingly repressive impact of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on both its institutions of higher education and our own. This article sketches some of the major issues involving China and academic freedom.

Restrictions under Xi Jinping

Pundits point out that the current attitude toward China’s ascendancy among many in the United States resembles the attitude held in the 1980s toward Japan and that, as with Japan, we are beginning to scapegoat China for a myriad of problems. For scholars and teachers, one crucial difference stands out between Japan and China: Japan is a democratic country and China is not. Real doubts exist about whether academic freedom, as understood by many intellectuals throughout the world, is possible in a one-party state. Certainly, the February 2018 change in the Chinese constitution allowing unlimited presidential terms resulted in a tightening of restrictions on academic freedom at all universities and colleges in China, including overseas campuses of American universities. Stability (both of the country and of its ruling regime) remains the Communist Party’s first concern, and ideas or movements that might jeopardize party authority are subject to crackdown. Xi Jinping has consolidated and centralized power and reasserted the party’s control over information, education, and the media.

Censorship is a fact of life in China, but its nature changes with different party leadership. East Asia scholar Perry Link famously called the party the “anaconda in the chandelier” in 2002. No longer the fire-breathing dragon of the Mao years but rather an ominous presence always overhead, the party of Zhang and then Hu deployed relatively subtle means of control. After Xi Jinping became chair of the party in 2014, the situation shifted again. “In the era of Xi Jinping,” Link writes, “repression is often stated baldly, even proudly.” For example, scholars who advocated for the implementation of the Chinese constitution or criticized the change in the constitution quickly suffered negative consequences. In February 2019, a book by Peking University law professor Zhang Qianfan that advocated constitutionalism and judicial reform was withdrawn from bookstores. In March 2019, Tsinghua University suspended Professor Xu Zhangrun from all teaching duties after he published an essay criticizing Xi Jinping and calling for the reintroduction of presidential term limits. Xu told the New York Times that he did not know what would happen to him next but that he was prepared to go to jail.

Peking University recently cracked down on its Marxism Society when students studying the mistreatment of campus workers supported the establishment of an independent worker trade union at Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub in south China. On the way to an event to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birthday, the student president of Peking University’s Marxism Society was taken away by police from the Ministry of Public Security. Students from other elite universities in China involved in the same workers’ rights movement suffered similar treatment. In October 2018, Cornell University cut ties with Renmin University when Renmin delivered a list of student activists to the CCP and allowed them to be sent home to be monitored by national security officials.

At universities, select Chinese students monitor faculty speech and report deviations from the official party line to the authorities. Tang Yun, a professor at Chongqing Normal University, was suspended from teaching when one of his students reported him to the authorities. What Tang said in his class allegedly “caused damage to the reputation of China, violated political discipline, severely deviated from teachers’ professional ethics, and caused bad influence among teachers and students.” Tang wrote a poem in response to his suspension: “Farewell—this is my lecture podium, the first time I parted from it in thirty-three years. This is my student. They are not all Judas[es].” Similar punishments for “inappropriate” faculty speech in class or on the internet have been meted out to faculty members at a number of other universities in China, including Guizhou Normal University, Beijing Normal University, Xiamen  University, Beijing University of Civil Engineering and Architecture, and Shandong Institute of Business and Technology.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has intensified its electronic surveillance of Chinese faculty. In a personal conversation with an associate professor at a C9 League (China’s Ivy League) university in July 2018, a professor disclosed to one of us (Yu) that her classroom is constantly recorded and monitored by five or six cameras. On one occasion she lectured from her laptop. A guard called her out of the room a few minutes later, questioning why she did not use the university computer for her lecture. Anything that might interfere with the ability to surveil is immediately corrected, it seems. A lecturer on political reform in China, she reports that she had to present the recent change in the Chinese constitution that allowed for unlimited presidential terms as a step forward, despite her own views to the contrary. To do otherwise would be to lose her job, she said. According to her, the instructors in her department believe that they walk on thin ice every day, never knowing whether what they say in class might be used against them.

The CCP under Xi has extended some of its repressive practices over media and education to areas outside its direct jurisdiction. (The most startling demonstration of this is the 2015 abductions of Hong Kong booksellers and their subsequent detentions on the mainland.) One consequence of the proliferating incidents in which the CCP has reached into other states to enforce its ideology is that some media and education professionals—both PRC and non-PRC— who once felt safe to speak their minds outside China now think twice before speaking freely, wherever they are in the world.

US Scholars of China

How do these restrictions affect the academic freedom of US-based scholars? Scholars of China have long been accustomed to some degree of self-censorship or, put differently, to some level of awareness of potential repercussions for work they do on sensitive subjects. If your career depends on having access to the mainland, then you have always considered whether certain topics might make it difficult to obtain a visa. You have always thought about whether you might be inadvertently endangering your Chinese contacts when you published your research. Recent articles and studies suggest, however, that the situation has significantly worsened in the last five years.

In a lengthy piece published in the New Republic in September 2018, journalist Isaac Stone Fish declared “an epidemic of self-censorship at U.S. universities on the subject of China, one that limits debate and funnels students and academics away from topics likely to offend the Chinese Communist Party.” Some academics objected. “I am tired of journalists accusing China scholars of caving to the CCP,” Rory Truex, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at Princeton University, tweeted. Citing Margaret Roberts (author of Censored: Distraction and Diversion Inside China’s Great Firewall) and a few others, Truex dared, “Tell me the field is craven.” And yet, as the discussion unfolded on Twitter and then during a panel a month later at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, it became clear that American universities and colleges do have a problem with self-censorship. The problem, however, lies less with academics than with administrators and university officials who either explicitly cater to the CCP (for funding and student recruitment reasons) or preemptively discourage events and projects out of broad fear of offense or ignorance.

In an October 2018 panel convened to discuss a survey of more than five hundred US-based China scholars, Truex and Sheena Greitens, a political scientist from the University of Missouri, reported that “repressive experiences” ranging from denial of visas to being questioned by police are a “rare but real phenomenon and collectively represent a barrier to doing research in China.” Seventy percent of the survey respondents agreed with the statement “Self-censorship is a problem in the China field,” confirming that the “increasingly challenging research environment” has a chilling effect on American academics. Perhaps most important, respondents reported that they do not count on, or receive, support from their home institutions when navigating work on China. One respondent was quoted as saying that Western institutions are likely to minimize the repression and danger resulting from the “worsening of research conditions in China . . . so that they can plow on with their prestigious and lucrative exchange programs.”

Toward the end of the panel, Sophie Richardson, speaking for the China division of Human Rights Watch, asked Truex and Greitens, “Where do you think support should come from? Is it from your departments? From your universities? From something like the AAUP? From the US government?” Implicit in her question is another one: Given that the panel identified US university administrations as the weak link imperiling academic freedom, who has the authority to hold administrations accountable?

Discussants expressed concern about the idea of US government involvement but had no satisfying answer to this question. Half a year later, Human Rights Watch has offered guidelines to help administrators defend academic freedom. “China: Government Threats to Academic Freedom Abroad” is a twelve-point code of conduct advising higher education institutions on how to respond to the various issues involved in working with China. (The full text of the code of conduct is available at https://www -academic-freedom-abroad.)

Confucius Institutes

Point 7 of Human Rights Watch’s twelve-point code is “Reject Confucius Institutes.” Confucius Institutes on campuses “are fundamentally incompatible with a robust commitment to academic freedom,” the code states, as they “are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration.” Since 2004, the Chinese government has established Confucius Institutes globally in the name of Chinese-language education and cultural exchange. Hanban, the Confucius Institute headquarters under the Education Ministry of China, signs contracts with universities outside of China to set up these institutes. In addition to the incalculable value of papering over for Western audiences the fact that the Chinese state does not support the principles of academic freedom as most Western institutions do, these partnerships give Confucius Institutes easy access to K–12 educational systems outside of China. Many K–12 schools established Confucius Classrooms with volunteer teachers from Confucius Institutes. At the end of 2018, there were 548 Confucius Institutes and 1,193 Confucius Classrooms in 147 countries and regions. According to a report by the US Government Accountability Office, as of January 2019, ninety-six Confucius Institutes operate on US college and university campuses, nearly half of which signed contracts secretly and promised confidentiality.

It has been well documented that Confucius Institutes serve as a propaganda arm of the Chinese communist regime to suppress academic freedom, advance China’s agenda, and influence public opinion on critical issues, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Taiwan, Tibet, and Falun Gong. In 2013, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) called on Canadian universities and colleges to cut ties with Confucius Institutes. The AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, in its 2014 report On Partnerships with Foreign Governments: The Case of Confucius Institutes, reiterated that “allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities.” The Association joined CAUT in recommending that US colleges and universities cease their involvement with the institutes unless “the university has unilateral control, consistent with principles articulated in the AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, over all academic matters, including recruitment of teachers, determination of curriculum, and choice of texts; the university affords Confucius Institute teachers the same academic freedom rights, as defined in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, that it affords all other faculty in the university; and the university- Hanban agreement is made available to all members of the university community.” These conditions are difficult to implement, however, because they require US colleges and universities to take measures to ensure fairness in a hiring process that occurs overseas and according to the laws of a country that subscribes to practices that constitute discrimination under American law. Moreover, Confucius Institute teachers are exceedingly likely to continue to self-censor, regardless of contractual reform, because they know that they will eventually return to China.

As of May 2019, at least thirty-four universities and one school board in seven countries had severed ties with Confucius Institutes. McMaster University in Canada was the first to shut down its Confucius Institute, in response to Hanban’s discrimination against Falun Gong practitioners in the teacher-hiring process. The University of Chicago became the first in the United States to shut down its Confucius Institute after receiving a petition from more than one hundred faculty members in 2014. Since then, nineteen more American universities have cut ties with their Confucius Institutes, with nine closures in 2018 and seven closures so far in 2019. The reasons for these closures have varied. The University of Oregon, San Francisco State University, and Western Kentucky University, for instance, decided to end their partnerships with Confucius Institute because continuing them would have jeopardized funding for language programs from the US Department of Defense. The University of Massachusetts Boston did not give a specific reason for the closure of its Confucius Institute, but concerns raised by UMass students, professors, and alumni over issues of academic censorship and self-censorship were considered in the closure decision.


“Academic freedom relies on democratic public institutions committed to the principle of nonintervention by states, religious authorities, and corporate powers in the production and dissemination of knowledge,” Judith Butler said at an event for Scholars at Risk in 2018. “Thus the struggle for academic freedom belongs to the struggle for democracy.” The question is, how do faculty and administrators within democratic countries safely engage nondemocratic states when the differing political frameworks carry profound implications for the values and practices of their institutions? Anastaya Lloyd-Damnjanovic’s 2018 article “A Preliminary Study of PRC Political Influence and Interference Activities in American Higher Education” reports various attempts by China to interfere with activities on US campuses, suggesting that “the covert, coercive, and corrupt nature of PRC influence and interference activities arguably stems from fundamental political differences between authoritarian and democratic societies.” She adds that “if the infringements associated with PRC actors become widespread, faculty, students, administrators, and staff in the United States may find themselves acclimatizing to the [censorship standards] of [the] PRC.” It is the drip-drip of accommodation that threatens what makes American institutions most valuable—the pursuit and transmission of knowledge independent of state and market forces.

One small but telling incident may exemplify what Lloyd-Damnjanovic has in mind when she states at one point in her study that “the domestic defunding of higher education makes universities more vulnerable to PRC influence.” Oregon has divested heavily from our institution (Portland State University) over the years. As a result, the tuition of international students is increasingly critical to our operations. In 2014, one of us (Ruth) published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a “2 + 2” program (Chinese nationals in these programs spend their first two years in China and their last two in the States, graduating from an American university) that I had evaluated. I explained in my piece that the program claimed to develop “critical thinking” but seemed in some ways designed to suppress it. What I didn’t mention was the surreal experience I had with my own Portland State administrators about the piece itself.

Before the piece ran but after the Chronicle accepted it, I sent it to the vice provost for international affairs, having casually discussed with him on an earlier occasion the trip that was the topic of the essay. An hour later, he asked me to meet with him and the provost. They explained their dilemma: the article was running the same week the vice provost expected to sign two high-figure contracts with Chinese organizations to facilitate enrollment of Chinese students at Portland State. One of the contracts was with a governmental agency I mention in the article. They felt the publication might jeopardize a delicate process the vice provost had been working on for more than a year. While I also feel responsible for the overall health of my university, I told them that I didn’t see this as a legitimate reason to pull the article.

The two administrators then raised questions about my work. I was asked if I thought it ungracious to write something negative about a program that had paid my ticket to fly to China. I hadn’t accepted a favor, I said. I was not there to sightsee but to do a job. I was asked if I could publish the piece as an “independent scholar” rather than identifying my position with Portland State. I was asked whether I shouldn’t be more worried about a man whom I had called “Professor X” to protect his identity. Perhaps I was endangering this Professor X with the article? They had already made clear what their fear was with regard to the article, and that they would try to exploit this angle surprised me. Finally, I addressed this and subsequent innuendos directly: “Do you think that I’m doing something unethical with or in this piece?” After a long pause, and a deep sigh from one of them, they admitted, “No, there is nothing unethical about it.”

Thank god for tenure, I thought, as I left the building. How would I have experienced that meeting were I an adjunct or a junior faculty member? Would I have risked denying these administrators what they wanted? Lloyd-Damnjanovic reports that she found that “faculty without tenure appeared more prone to self-censor than faculty already tenured.” The divestment of state funds rendering our public universities more vulnerable to outside interference has also resulted in the gutting of tenure-eligible positions. Administrators have a financial incentive to weaken academic freedom, and there are fewer and fewer faculty members positioned to challenge them.

A few months later, I wrote the vice provost to ask whether his fear had come true, whether the Chronicle of Higher Education piece had affected the contracts. No reply. I emailed him again. No reply. A few weeks later, I spotted him on campus and asked in person. “Who knows?” he answered. “Probably not. We do have fewer students this year, but probably not.” I said, “I emailed you twice.” He responded, “Do you think I’m stupid enough to put anything in email?”     

Jennifer Ruth is professor of film studies at Portland State University; her email address is [email protected]. Yu Xiao is associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University. 

Attacks on the Academic Freedom of China’s Uighurs

China’s government has engaged in a pattern of attacks on the country’s Uighur minority. These include ordering students studying abroad to return to the region (in some cases reportedly holding students’ family members hostage to force their compliance with the order) and detaining thousands, including many scholars, in reeducation camps and other detention centers. Scholars at Risk reports the following examples:

• In January 2014, police raided the home of Ilham Tohti, a scholar of economics at the Central Minzu University in Beijing and an advocate for the rights of China’s Uighurs. They seized computers, cell phones, passports, and student essays and arrested him. In July, after being held in detention for months, Tohti was formally charged with separatism, on the basis of his teaching at the university and his writing on his website, Uighur Online, which served as a platform to engage Uighurs and Han Chinese in dialogue. In September 2014, after a closed two-day trial, the Urumqi Intermediate People’s Court found Tohti guilty of separatism and sentenced him to life in prison. In December 2014, seven of Tohti’s students were sentenced to three to eight years in prison after having been found guilty of separatism.

• In December 2017, Rahile Dawut, a professor at Xinjiang University in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and an internationally recognized expert in Uighur folklore and traditions, disappeared in China. She reportedly told a relative of her plans to travel from Urumqi to Beijing, but since then her family and friends have lost contact with her. State authorities have not publicly disclosed Dawut’s whereabouts or details of her well-being, access to legal counsel, or any charges against her.

• In January 2018, police raided the home of Abdulqadir Jalaleddin, a literature professor at Xinjiang Pedagogical University and prominent Uighur academic. They placed a black hood over his head and took him into custody. According to a local official, authorities brought him to a “political reeducation camp.” No charges against Jalaleddin have been made public.

• In June 2019, it was reported that Nurmuhammad Tohti, a professor at Hotan Teachers College and renowned Uighur writer, died following his detention at a reeducation camp. Tohti was a scholar of mathematics and a writer affiliated with the Writers Association of that region. No public information is available to suggest that he had been charged with a crime. Family members reported that Tohti suffered from a heart condition and diabetes. One source alleged that Tohti suffered a heart attack shortly after being taken to the “reeducation camp” and that prison authorities neglected to provide him with proper medical treatment.

• In September 2019, Amnesty International published an “urgent action” appeal on behalf of the jailed former head of Xinjiang University, Tashpolat Teyip. Teyip vanished in 2017, but last year students and teachers were informed that he had been given a suspended death sentence, along with five other members of the Xinjiang Education Supervision Bureau, for attempting to split the country. Amnesty International reported that his execution could be imminent. 

For more on the attacks on Uighur scholars and other threats to academic freedom in China, see Obstacles to Excellence, a new report from Scholars at Risk.