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Academic freedom and authoritarianism

By August 30, 2017

Earlier this year, it came to light that arms of the Chinese government in Los Angeles and the UK made efforts to discourage the University of California, San Diego’s welcoming of the Dalai Lama as commencement speaker, and to convince Durham University’s debate group, Durham Union Society, to disinvite invited speaker Anastasia Lin, a former Miss World Canada and human rights advocate. The incidents raised questions about the role authoritarian governments play on campuses, presumably believed to be bastions of academic freedom outside their reach. Now, a recent failure by Cambridge University Press in the face of censorship demands from China suggests those are still worthwhile questions to ask.

Earlier this month, news broke that Cambridge University Press, publishing house of the University of Cambridge, acquiesced to demands from the General Administration of Press and Publication, a Chinese censorship body, that over 300 articles dating as far back as the 1960s from journal The China Quarterly be removed from Cambridge University Press’s website in China. The articles related to sensitive topics in China — like Tiananmen Square, the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Dr. Tim Pringle, editor-in-chief of The China Quarterly, offered the following statement about the decision to take down the material targeted by Chinese censors:

The China Quarterly wishes to express its deep concern and disappointment that over 300 articles and reviews published in the journal have been censored by a Chinese import agency. We note too that this restriction of academic freedom is not an isolated move but an extension of policies that have narrowed the space for public engagement and discussion across Chinese society.

Fortunately, Cambridge University Press chose to restore the censored articles after facing criticism for its willingness to aid censorship. But Pringle’s fears about the state of academic freedom in China and abroad are well-founded — this is hardly an isolated incident.

At Foreign Policy, Christopher Balding discussed the Cambridge University Press controversy in the broader context of China’s relationship with western universities and free expression. He notes that “[l]ittle effort is made to hide the restrictions at Chinese universities, which openly publish censorship guidelines for faculty that forbid criticizing the Chinese constitution, party leaders, and discussing religion.” Additionally, students and faculty at Chinese universities face “informal prohibitions” on discussion of Tibet and Tiananmen Square, and often self-censor, understanding that discussion or public adoption of taboo viewpoints could inspire peers to report them to authorities.

Balding then points out that universities flouting academic freedom face an institutional crisis when partnering with governments opposed to free expression:

Western universities’ traditional response to criticisms on China’s restrictions on free inquiry was to claim that they could help liberalize their Chinese counterparts by establishing contact with them. What has happened instead is that they’ve ended up importing Chinese academic censorship into their own institutions. Cambridge University Press censoring on behalf of Beijing is not the first time elite British universities have opted for the bottom line over principle in accepting Chinese censorship contributions.

A recent study by the U.S. National Association of Scholars found widespread evidence that the Confucius Institutes, Beijing-funded centers for “Chinese culture and language” in foreign campuses, limit what can be taught and discussed not just in their courses but throughout universities. Confucius teachers are paid by the Chinese Ministry of Education and are required to adhere to Chinese laws on speech even when teaching overseas. As the report noted, “Some reported an outright ban on discussing subjects that are censored in China.… [U]niversities have made improper concessions that jeopardize academic freedom and institutional autonomy.” Western universities are not just accepting censorship; they are signing up for it.

In closing, Balding rightly suggests that, when facing censorship demands from China, “Western universities face an actual test of their commitment to free speech, rather than the cheap rhetoric they’re keen to offer at home.” His discussion of the uneasy partnership between China and foreign institutions is worth reading in full.

Similarly, FIRE has raised concerns for years about the effects of repressive governments on academic freedom. In 2012, we noted that satellite campuses of American universities, like New York University’s Abu Dhabi and Shanghai campuses and Yale University’s Singapore campus, deserved close scrutiny and asked, “When an American university opens a satellite campus overseas, to what extent should it protect freedom of expression, as defined and understood in American jurisprudence, on that campus?” Later that year, the American Association of University Professors voiced similar fears in an open letter to Yale University “express[ing] the AAUP’s growing concern about the character and impact of the university’s collaboration with the Singaporean government in establishing Yale-National University of Singapore College.”

In 2015, FIRE again expressed concerns after NYU professor Andrew Ross was denied entry to the United Arab Emirates to conduct research. Authorities justified Ross’ denial by claiming there were “security reasons,” but Ross believed his criticism of the use of migrant workers to build NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus to be the true reason. Stories like these will inevitably continue to occur.

There’s much to be gained from universities making efforts to reach students and scholars across borders, but the risks cooperation with repressive governments poses to academic freedom cannot be ignored. There’s hardly a more important time for universities to uphold their commitments to free expression than when powerful authoritarians demand their abandonment.