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When U.S. universities clash with China’s ‘sensitive content’

In the midst of increased attention on the Chinese government’s involvement in higher education outside its borders, fueled by controversies in Australia and calls for campus disinvitations of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in the United States, a new report addresses how U.S. universities have handled demands that they censor content deemed “sensitive” by China.

The report, “A Preliminary Study of PRC [People’s Republic of China] Political Influence and Interference Activities in American Higher Education,” was released by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars last month. Its author, Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic, sought to answer the question: “Is there evidence that PRC diplomats and PRC students have made politically-motivated attempts to infringe on the academic freedom and personal safety of university persons at American universities?”

A number of faculty members report attempted infringements

Importantly, Lloyd-Damnjanovic notes that “[a]ny suggestion that all or most PRC students are CCP [Communist Party of China] agents is appallingly broad and dangerously inaccurate.” She adds that “[w]hile some PRC students attempt to infringe on others’ academic freedom and personal safety for political reasons, it is probable that the vast majority are engaged in legitimate activities falling within the scope of ordinary university life.”

In interviews with over 100 faculty members, as well as students, administrators, and staff, Lloyd-Damnjanovic found that a small number of Chinese diplomats and students have attempted to limit discussion of “sensitive content,” topics considered controversial within China, like Tibet, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and pro-democracy activism. Lloyd-Damnjanovic cites a number of often unsuccessful but nonetheless alarming attempts to quell debate at American campuses.

In the past two decades, Chinese consulate officials have attempted to lobby faculty and administrators at institutions like George Washington University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California, Berkeley, and Smith College to cancel university- or faculty-hosted events about Taiwan or the Dalai Lama. According to Lloyd-Damnjanovic, some PRC students have also attempted to censor Tibetan flags, campus events, and classroom discussion at a number of universities. (Though, as FIRE’s case history shows, China is far from the only controversial topic to lead to censorship on campuses.)

Lloyd-Damnjanovic also spoke to faculty members who alleged threats from Chinese diplomats over their research or activism. City University of New York professor Ming Xia reported receiving a call from a New York consulate official who demanded that Xia withdraw from working on a film about schoolchildren killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Xia refused, and says he has been blacklisted by the Chinese government for it.

Retaliation, self-censorship, and “the other political correctness”

Xia’s story is similar to those reported this month by Isaac Stone Fish in The New Republic. Stone Fish addressed what he calls “the other political correctness,” and the difficult decisions faculty members are often forced to make when writing or researching issues that could upset China’s leadership.

Stone Fish posited that academics may believe it necessary to self-censor to preserve access to China, attain visa approval, or protect vulnerable sources within the country. One of the academics he spoke to, University of California, Riverside scholar Perry Link, explained that he has been blacklisted and banned from China since 1995, and was never given a real justification (though he suspects his work on the Tiananmen Square massacre played a role).

Like Lloyd-Damnjanovic, Stone Fish also addressed the pressure universities, and not just their faculty, face when entering the debate:

Sometimes the censorship is blatant, like at Columbia, or when North Carolina State University canceled a visit from the Dalai Lama in 2009. “I don’t want to say we didn’t think about whether there were implications,” said the university’s provost, Warwick Arden. “Of course you do. China is a major trading partner for North Carolina.” Or, more recently, in September 2016, when the provost of New York’s Alfred University, Rick Stephens, personally ejected the researcher Rachelle Peterson from campus for investigating Chinese government influence at the school. (Stephens, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.)

Demands for the Dalai Lama’s disinvitation are a common theme in these reports. You might recall last year’s controversy at the University of California, San Diego, which invited the Dalai Lama as commencement speaker, inspiring outrage from students offended by the choice. This speaker controversy was different from others in that the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at UCSD actually sought the involvement of the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles to add further pressure on the university. UCSD chose to stand by its invitation, but Lloyd-Damnjanovic says that wasn’t the end of the story.

In September 2017, a leaked notice from the China Scholarship Council announced that it would no longer provide funding to scholars hoping to study at UCSD, ending the plans of several scholars. Lloyd-Damnjanovic reports that, around the same time as the leak of the notice, UCSD faculty were informed by colleagues at partner institutions in China that the Ministry of Education or another government agent demanded that Chinese universities end all cooperation with UCSD.

China’s Ministry of Education has also allegedly banned the transfer of funding to UCSD’s Fudan-UC Center, which “promotes deeper, mutual understanding between the U.S. and China through both nations’ leading academic institutions.” According to Lloyd-Damnjanovic, all efforts by the university to learn more about the justifications for China’s “retaliatory measures” have been ignored.

Read the full report for a detailed account of the incidents discussed by Lloyd-Damnjanovic, many of which are not discussed here.

Universities faced with difficult choices

The reporting by Lloyd-Damnjanovic and Stone Fish raises serious questions about how universities and their community members should handle demands that they censor, or self-censor, debates on politically sensitive material. As both authors point out, U.S. universities’ reliance on funding from China complicates the issue, and may encourage universities to tread lightly around controversial topics rather than risk the loss of a potentially important source of funds.

As FIRE has discussed before, universities opening or operating satellite campuses in countries with significantly weaker civil liberties protections are faced with a similar and serious challenge: Will they, intentionally or not, limit campus discussion to ensure that important partnerships in authoritarian regimes are not harmed? Collaboration between universities across borders offers benefits like increased international understanding and access to more resources, but expressive rights on campus will suffer if repressive regimes do what they’re known to do: repress.

There is no simple solution for universities facing censorship demands from authoritarian governments, but their commitments to free speech and academic freedom and, at public universities, the First Amendment, cannot be abandoned.

U.S. universities often have a legal or contractual obligation to respect the speech rights of their students and faculty, but there is a moral obligation as well: Universities do a disservice to their communities when they allow pressure or outrage, regardless of its source, to dictate what research, debate, or expression can occur on their campuses — especially when that expression centers on human rights abuses.

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