Tracker: University Responses to Chinese Censorship

University Responses to Chinese Censorship

The national security law recently imposed on Hong Kong offers severe penalties for violations of vague bans on “separatism and subversion” and applies even to non-residents, making it a threat to anyone who violates the law and later enters Hong Kong or mainland China. This law is particularly troublesome to students and faculty members discussing issues sensitive to China in college classes, especially students based in China or Hong Kong.

Between teaching online to students behind the Great Firewall and navigating the national security law, 2020 has brought new challenges to all faculty members, especially those who teach about topics that may be considered sensitive or controversial in China. (For an in-depth discussion of these challenges, see the amicus curiae brief FIRE filed in a lawsuit, brought by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, against a now-rescinded U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy requiring international students who were already in the U.S. to leave the country if their classes were online-only.)

It is vital to document how universities respond to these challenges that present threats to academic freedom and freedom of expression at universities around the world. This page serves as a resource to track these responses, by country and institution.

Have there been similar developments at your university? Let us know at targetedadvocacy@thefire.org.

United States ▼

George Washington University: In August, George Washington University posted on its website a notice specifically for Chinese students on its data privacy page. The language appears to suggest that GW will hand over student data, including online course contributions, to satisfy law enforcement or government requests — presumably from Chinese authorities. GW shortly took down the notice from its page, but did not replace it with more information about what data protections Chinese students can expect. In response, the George Washington University Student Association Senate passed a resolution demanding GW retract its data privacy rules for Chinese students and “institute safety precautions that [other] universities have installed such as codifying names, providing VPNs, and Institutional Support for International Students.”

Princeton University: Assistant professor Rory Truex, who teaches Chinese politics, told the Wall Street Journal in August regarding the national security law in Hong Kong: “If we, as a Chinese teaching community, out of fear stop teaching things like Tiananmen or Xinjiang or whatever sensitive topic the Chinese government doesn’t want us talking about, if we cave, then we’ve lost.” Truex stated he will not remove class material but will warn students that it could be considered sensitive to China’s government. He will also utilize blind grading and assign codes to student work so that it will not be associated with their names. In January 2021, Truex announced to students in his class, POL 362: Chinese Politics, that “the course contains material that the Chinese government would find sensitive.” For that reason, he warned that he “recommend[s] that students who are currently residing in China should not take the course this year.”

Amherst College: Assistant professor of political science Kerry Ratigan said in August that she has concerns about online teaching and would warn students ahead of time about the material covered in class. She also suggested offering students the ability to anonymously chat in class.

Harvard University: According to The Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s Information Technology department released a faculty web manual in August in light of concerns about internet teaching, and that “University spokesperson Jason A. Newton and HUIT spokesperson Tim Bailey declined to comment beyond the HUIT document.” Professors Peter K. Bol and William C. Kirby told the Crimson that they had not experienced issues in their “Power and Civilization: China” course, despite teaching students located in China. David E. Sanger, who is teaching “Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press,” said that he warned students to let him know if they had security concerns, but that he “would never censor his class material due to political pressure.”

In Harvard Business School, associate professor in political science Meg Rithmire said “[i]t’s more about harm mitigation” this academic year. She told the Wall Street Journal in August that she plans to discuss Uighur Muslims, Hong Kong, and Taiwan in her business administration course. Rithmire says Harvard Business School will offer “amnesty” to all students so class participation, perhaps on sensitive topics, will not be part of final grades.

Yale University: Yale faculty Denise Ho and Daniel Mattingly’s fall courses will include some measures meant to protect students from experiencing legal repercussions for class content but they will not remove content from their syllabi. Mattingly, who teaches about the Tiananmen Square massacre and China’s Uighurs, is including a warning in his syllabus for students who are “residing in mainland China or Hong Kong, or are a PRC citizen.” Ho, a history professor teaching about Hong Kong, will allow students to submit work anonymously and intends to create a “circle of trust” by not recording the seminar sessions or sharing what is said by students in class. In August, Yale Daily News reported that Faculty of Arts and Sciences guidelines direct instructors to keep online contributions confidential and to avoid recording classes. However, Vice Provost for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis wrote that “[w]e are all very concerned to protect the freedom of discussion and academic inquiry for students participating in our classes,” but believes it’s “highly unlikely that anything a student says in a Yale classroom (even a virtual one) would become an issue in China.”

University of Pennsylvania: Political science professor Avery Goldstein will warn prospective students that his class will include sensitive discussions, so they can decide for themselves if they want to take the risk. Avery says they should “leave it up to the students whether they enroll, because it is ultimately their lives that are going to be affected” and that he “will make it clear that there is nothing [he] can do to protect them.”

Georgetown University: James Millward, a professor of Chinese and Central Asian history, explained to The Hoya in August: “If you read the text of the National Security Law, it is very broad and virtually any US-taught class dealing with contemporary China will have material that the CCP could, if it wished, call subversive or separatist—which could have very severe consequences for a student found with such things on their laptop, or downloading a video of a class with such content from a Canvas or Panopto server.” Millward also warned GU to consider the privacy and safety measures associated with using Zoom and other online learning software.

Kristen Looney, assistant professor of Asian studies and government, said she would ban recording of her classes or distribution of class content and had “decided to omit some of the more extreme risks from her syllabi.” “I don’t want it to have a chilling effect on the class and really compromise academic freedom or free speech, and I do think that the probability of somebody being targeted by the Chinese government is low,” Looney told The Hoya. “But the problem is we have no idea how these new policies are going to be enforced because they were just implemented. So, I have to err on the side of caution and try to protect everybody’s safety, while at the same time maintaining academic freedom, and it’s a really difficult balance.” On the administrative side, Chief Information Officer Judd Nicholson said GU is requiring students to use a password authentication system and has offered suggestions for Zoom security.

Dartmouth College: Dartmouth released a memo to faculty about the threats posed to students by the national security law in Hong Kong. According to student newspaper The Dartmouth, the memo “recommends that professors ‘alert and inform’ students about the potential legal liabilities” of the law, offers “a number of technical measures, including removing identifying information and metadata from submitted assignments, disabling video on Zoom and turning off recording and transcription,” and suggests “students be excused from participation grades in assignments where anonymity is ‘not possible.’” In regards to concerns about safety on Zoom, Information, Technology and Consulting chief information officer Mitchel Davis said Zoom is “as focused as any other company on making sure that it is secure” and that security is “not a problem anymore.” But Davis told The Dartmouth that “one of the technical changes suggested in the memo — allowing students to join Zoom calls from ‘throwaway’ email accounts — may also be illegal in China upon further consideration.”

International students at Dartmouth also spoke to the paper in September about the risks they may face by engaging in sensitive conversations about China. One student from Hong Kong said that there is “no clear way of knowing” what will violate the law, which “induces citizens to self-censor.” “The fact that college faculties are worried that they might put students in trouble, it’s akin to the Chinese government holding overseas students hostage,” he told The Dartmouth. “They’re using those overseas students for putting pressure on U.S. campuses to silence them or to tone them down.” Another student from China said that she values the academic freedom offered in the United States: “Those kinds of freedoms, or liberties, should not be taken as granted.”

University of California, Irvine: Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote on Twitter in October that he has been teaching his modern Chinese history fall course “sans the Zoom meetings UCI recommends, due to the engagement w/topics considered sensitive by Beijing & having students all over taking it” and is emphasizing papers and one-on-one discussion. Wasserstrom added that he is “not avoiding sensitive subjects” and is “doing what [he] can to make the class meaningful w/no self censoring, no avoiding touchy topics.”

University of Chicago: Tom Ginsburg, Leo Spitz Professor of International Law and Professor of Political Science, told Chicago Maroon student journalist Devin Haas: “I do think that, in our era of remote attendance, those of us who teach relevant subjects should be aware if we have students who are physically located in Chinese territory, including Hong Kong, that might be at risk.” Ginsburg added that he has not received guidance from the university on precautionary measures he should take, but supports blind grading and opt-out discussions. Haas argued that, given its “long, proud commitment to freedom of speech,” UChicago should adopt measures to protect students from Hong Kong against legal repercussions.

Syracuse University: Political science professor Dimitar Gueorguiev, who teaches Chinese politics, told The Daily Orange that SU has not instituted official guidelines or protections for international students. Gueorguiev, one of the authors of a piece titled “How To Teach China This Fall,” added that he does not permit recordings of his class. The Daily Orange reported in October that “Gueorguiev emphasized the importance of academic freedom and resistance toward any form of self-censorship, while also maintaining awareness of political dangers, especially as they pertain to SU’s international students.”

University of California, Davis: The Davis Enterprise reported in December that UC Davis professor Eddy U would allow students in his class about inequality in China to join Zoom discussions and submit papers anonymously. U committed to not “watering down or changing the content” of his class, acknowledging that his teaching could violate the national security law. U said, “I’ll put it this way: I don’t have plans to go to China.” Additionally, UC Davis East Asian Languages and Cultures Chair Michael Dylan Foster created a syllabus disclaimer his department could use so prospective students are notified if a class “might be deemed sensitive or illegal by certain governments.” A former UC Davis student from Hong Kong, who is now a student at UC Berkeley, said she had written a paper about China’s human rights abuses in the spring, but “would hesitate to write that kind of essay now.” According to The Enterprise, University of California Office of the President communications strategist Stett Holbrook said a university-wide response had not been initiated yet: “In consultation with UC’s International Students and Scholars directors, faculty members have been deciding how to best and most appropriately address the matter in the classroom.”

United Kingdom ▼

University of Southampton, King’s College London, Queen Mary University of London, and the University of York are part of a pilot project, announced in July, using a free service provided by Chinese internet firm Alibaba Cloud that allows students in China to access specific resources offered by their universities. The service will give students access only to the material their universities provide, and all of the material will have to be on an “allow” list. JISC (formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee), which provides digital services for UK universities, averred on the question of academic freedom, saying “all course materials have been within regulations. Nothing was altered or blocked.”

Oxford University: In response to the national security law, Oxford is asking students studying China to submit papers anonymously and will charge students with disciplinary offenses if they record classes or share them with non-members. Associate professor of Chinese politics Patricia Thornton told The Guardian that she will not change class content, but will ensure anonymity to protect students. “The entire spirit of the tutorial, which rests on collective critical inquiry, rises or falls on the ability of the institution to guarantee free speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom for all,” Thornton said. “But how to do this in the wake of China’s new national security law for Hong Kong, which invites self-censorship with its lack of red lines and generous extraterritorial provision? How does one protect academic freedom when China claims the right to intervene everywhere?”

Warwick University: Professor of politics and international studies Shaun Breslin said that he initially considered steering Hong Kong students away from sensitive courses, but “you can’t do that because that’s denying them an opportunity that every other student from every other part of the world is allowed to do.” In November he told BBC, “It would be falling into the trap of not self-censorship, but of censoring other people.” Instead, Warwick will work on developing guidelines, like advising that faculty preserve student anonymity, to protect international students.

University of Leeds: In February 2021, editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press Tom Grundy tweeted that he had withdrawn from an invitation to give a class lecture over Zoom at the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. According to Grundy, he withdrew after the lecturer asked him “to not focus on HK protests per se” out of “safety concerns” because over half of the students in the class are from China. He added, “I sympathise w/the pressure mainland students-studying-abroad may be under, but don’t think western institutions should bend to it. I’ve often done talks w/mainland students – they ask great Q’s, never a problem.”

Canada ▼

University of Toronto: University of Toronto faculty have been warned about issues of “privacy, surveillance and free inquiry” arising “among students who reside in countries with different laws, cultural norms and monitoring by law enforcement.” Like a number of UK universities, U of T is using Alibaba Cloud to provide students in China with access to course materials. The Globe and Mail reported in September that a U of T teaching assistant “said he was warned that when moderating online group discussions there will be ethical concerns around teaching students in China” and that “he was advised to steer discussions away from controversial topics that could run students into trouble.”

University of Waterloo: The University of Waterloo is also using Alibaba Cloud for Chinese students. Political science professor Emmet Macfarlane, who said he would not alter class content, said in September that “Waterloo warned staff that [Alibaba Cloud] is subject to Chinese law and surveillance by authorities.” Associate Vice-President David DeVidi stated that the university “will not give our faculty guidance to alter their course content.”

Australia and New Zealand ▼

The University of Sydney, University of South Australia, The University of Adelaide, University of Canberra, and The University of Melbourne are among 30 universities also working with Alibaba Cloud to provide communications between students in China and their universities in Australia and New Zealand.

University of Technology Sydney: In February, a University of Technology Sydney internal working group produced a report on the challenges the university may face while teaching students in China. The report warned of the “risk that the Chinese Government will see” the university’s content as “unapproved teaching” and “turn off our ‘uts.edu.au’ domain and other related systems.” The report also declared, “While there are no UTS guidelines on this the general advice to avoid topics that could be seen as critical or politically inaccurate eg. regarding territories in China.” UTS Deputy Vice-Chancellor Shirley Alexander stated that staff were only given information on technology use in China, not the memo’s suggestions regarding censorship of content. “That memo was not made public. There was never any direction to staff to self censor,” Alexander told The Sydney Morning Herald. “Students are learning the content that all students learn. We wouldn’t change the content just to suit the students who are in China. We would not do that.”

La Trobe University: In August, vice-chancellor John Dewar emailed senior La Trobe officials to discuss which courses offered at the university could prompt concerns for students from Hong Kong afraid of being reported to China for their academic contributions. A faculty member told South China Morning Post, “I think universities need to take some actions to ensure they are not putting these students in harm’s way. For my university, at least we’re starting that and that’s positive.” SCMP also reports that “the audit had only found one course in which Hongkonger and mainland students were enrolled together, and no further action had been taken as the course had already ended” but that “the process would be repeated in the upcoming semester.” Nick Bisley, dean of humanities and social sciences at La Trobe, affirmed that many universities are “developing plans to protect students” but that “[t]here’s no question of this affecting what or how we teach, it’s a matter of helping protect our students.”

University of Sydney: South China Morning Post reported in November that a humanities lecturer “said that when he asked a senior colleague for advice on how to broach sensitive topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and Taiwan during video classes on Zoom, he was advised to self-censor.” The lecturer said “[t]heir advice was ‘you already know what to do. You should cut any materials that could endanger students’” and while he “had not really” listened to the colleague’s recommendations, there were “limits and uncertainties.”

Australian National University: Chinese history and language lecturer Esther Klein warned in November that “[a]s long as authoritarian governments exist, there is no true protection from them.” She told South China Morning Post: “The best thing we can do as teachers is to show how good it is to be able to freely and fearlessly discuss any issue whatsoever. We need to show that the benefits of this outweigh its dangers and disadvantages, and that, in a free marketplace of ideas, good ideas can and generally do win out over bad ones.” However, Klein still intends to take precautionary measures, including anonymous presentation of student work, and will not be recording online classes. 

University of Melbourne: A spokesperson said regarding the national security law, “Wherever concerns or issues arise regarding the exercise of free speech, the university seeks to take all steps to safeguard this freedom within its capacity to do so.” 

Monash University in Melbourne: Lecturer in Chinese studies Jonathan Benney said in November, “I can say that some students from the People’s Republic of China are indeed concerned about whether the work they submit can be observed by people other than academics – for example, when essays are to be submitted online, some students have checked with me who can see their work.” Benney added that this “particular situation is covered by what we already do,” and that Monash University had not made any plans to alter teaching at this time.