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It’s Time to Get Loud About Academic Freedom in China
American schools should pull out of partnerships with schools that persecute students.
Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), where I am an associate professor and director of international programs, recently suspended two student exchange programs with Renmin University in Beijing over concerns about infringements on academic freedom. I helped launch these programs in 2013 with the intention of creating opportunities for our students at one of China’s top universities. Renmin is home to the School of Labor and Human Resources—a close analogue of ILR in several respects, and widely seen as the country’s premier place to study labor issues.
But after an investigation of Renmin’s treatment of students who spoke up on labor issues, we decided that this partnership was no longer sustainable. While our final decision rested on specific violations of academic freedom, it is critically important to view this event in the context of worsening political trends in China. The erosion of academic freedom on campuses is directly linked with the increasingly repressive political environment outside universities.
The strategy of quiet diplomacy, adopted by foreign universities and governments alike over the past generation, has failed to generate greater space for academic freedom or political expression. I saw this quite clearly in my private exchanges with Renmin, which produced no results whatsoever in terms of loosening restrictions on students. The lesson the Communist Party has learned is that there are no “red lines”; seemingly no matter how grave the violations, foreign institutions have thus far been unwilling to pass up the real or imagined benefits of engagement.
It was student participation in a labor conflict at Jasic Technologies in Shenzhen this past summer, and Renmin’s subsequent behavior, that spurred our decision. In addition to taking steps to prevent students from traveling to Shenzhen, university officials harassed and threatened students who had spoken up on the issue, and then deployed extensive surveillance to keep watch over those deemed as troublemakers. Most disturbingly, Renmin University was complicit in the forcible detention of a student who had traveled to Shenzhen, after which school officials threatened her with a yearlong suspension unless she promised to refrain from speaking out.
After weeks of privately expressing our concern and attempting to gain further information from Renmin, it became clear that internal channels had exhausted themselves. With no other method to register our fundamental differences, and following extensive internal deliberation and consultation, ILR resorted to suspending the programs.
The erosion of academic freedom on China’s campuses is directly linked with the increasingly repressive political environment outside the universities. This dynamic is quite clear with respect to labor issues. As I argued in my 2014 book Insurgency Trap, the Chinese state’s unwillingness to allow independent unions has resulted in workplaces where employers are generally free to flout the law. The workers at Jasic Technologies initially demanded that they be allowed to form a union under the auspices of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, as is their legal right. They did so with the hopes of addressing common workplace problems, including underpayment of social insurance and excessive workplace fines.
This simple rights-violation conflict could have been peacefully resolved, and the workers were seemingly committed to proceeding along the legal path of unionization within the official system. But, reversing earlier indications of support, the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions deemed their unionization requests illegal in July and the company fired six workers in retaliation.
The nature of the conflict changed dramatically when leftist university students from around the country began showing up in Shenzhen to support the Jasic workers. A first police crackdown on July 27 failed to deter the student supporters, and it was not until violent arrests of more than 50 people in late August that the movement was finally crushed.
This conflict quickly became a national security issue, as the state sees alliances between intellectuals and workers as particularly threatening. This is in part due to the student-worker alliance that emerged during the 1989 democracy movement. While the Jasic workers were dealt with in the courts, a number of recent university graduates, including prominent feminist activist Yue Xin, were disappeared. Responsibility for snuffing out further activism among current students was turned over to their universities. Thus, the state’s national security response morphed into a question of academic freedom.
The shocking ferocity of this round of repression is in line with recent trends. The state’s targeting of labor activists has accelerated in the past three years, and the impact has then been felt by labor scholars. In a notable instance from 2015, Sun Yat-sen University officials shuttered a prominent center for labor research operated jointly with the University of California, Berkeley, falsely claiming that the U.S. government was somehow behind the collaboration.
I personally experienced academic research space closing in December 2015. The night before a private research meeting in Guangzhou I had organized with my mother (a former American lecturer at Sun Yat-sen) and several Chinese scholars, the police showed up at my mother’s hotel room. They detained and interrogated her for hours, revealing that they had been reading our emails, and demanding that she cancel the event.
I have heard too many stories from my China-based colleagues about rights infringements to list. Common problems include: universities and publishers demanding that research questions and conclusions are in line with the current political orthodoxy, restrictions on traveling abroad for professional conferences, and incessant invitations to “have tea” with security agents.
Political repression is shutting down many more areas of academic inquiry than just labor scholarship. As the Chinese state cracks down on an increasing array of social actors, including rights lawyers, feminists, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities—both Muslim and Christian—the related topics become off-limits to academic researchers.
By undermining the autonomy of the academy, the state is similarly debasing the hard work of faculty. Academic freedom has been enshrined as a core principle precisely because it is necessary to ensure excellence in the twin missions of the university, namely research and education. The Chinese state’s security concerns increasingly appear to conflict with its stated aim of establishing world-class universities.
How should foreign universities respond? There is little we can do to directly counter the source of the problem, growing state repression under President Xi Jinping. But academics worldwide should think carefully about reassessing our points of contact with Chinese universities.
The first step is to squarely face the reality that things on Chinese campuses have become markedly worse in the past five years. As well as the political crackdowns on domestic scholars, foreign researchers are frequently denied visas and have their research projects derailed; they are also subject to intense scrutiny and surveillance. Restrictions on academic freedom are not new, but they have intensified.
This has a direct impact on the value of academic engagement. My school’s situation was perhaps at the extreme end of things, given its labor-specific focus and how sensitive labor issues have become. But many other disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, and even natural sciences are likely to experience diminishing returns if scholars cannot freely engage in academic exchange in China.
I am not advocating across-the-board disengagement. Many partnerships between Chinese and foreign universities continue to yield important mutual benefits, including at Cornell. Particularly at a time of rising xenophobia and nationalism in China, the United States, and elsewhere, it is critically important to remain open to free flows of students, scholars, and ideas. Foreign institutions and governments must not try to mimic the Chinese state’s increasingly onerous restrictions on who can study what, and where.
Nonetheless, substantive, mutually beneficial exchanges must be built on a foundation of shared values. When those values are repeatedly and egregiously violated, as has been the case at a growing number of Chinese universities, scholars and politicians must think seriously about moving beyond the quiet diplomacy model. This is a matter not just of principle, but of ensuring academic quality and therefore the reputations of our universities.
Whether or not foreign universities will act in defense of principles they espouse is another question. Many institutions have a huge portfolio of engagements in China, including major financial interests. Faculty governance in the United States and elsewhere has been badly eroded in recent decades, and university administrators are often more concerned with appeasing wealthy donors than with upholding the principle of academic freedom. With threats to such freedoms apparent in the United States and other liberal democracies, it is more critical than ever for academics to act on principle and resist such incursions wherever they may appear.