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FIRE filed in a lawsuit, brought by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, against a now-rescinded U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy requiring international students who were already in the U.S. to leave the country if their classes were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.

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 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.”

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?”

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.”