Over the last several months, opponents of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong have clashed with protest supporters at universities across the world. In Australia and New Zealand, pro-Beijing students have occasionally shoveddoxed, and threatened peaceful protesters. In some cases, these activities seem to have been directed by Chinese embassies and consulates, while others appear to have been spontaneous actions, undertaken by students from mainland China.

Meanwhile, in mid-October, the London School of Economics suspended a plan to launch a China program funded by Eric X. Li, a Shanghai businessman known for his pro-Chinese Communist Party views. In Belgium, the former head of a Confucius Institute was recently accused of spying and banned from entering Europe’s 26-country Schengen area.

Such events have prompted larger concerns that as China’s power grows, so too has its ability to shape, suppress, and censor speech around the world. This has raised alarm at the prospect that various forms of pressure emanating from China’s government could erode the foundations of liberal education and democratic debate.

How should universities encourage respectful dialogue on contentious issues involving China, while at the same time fostering an environment free of intimidation, harassment, and violence? And how should university administrators and governments involve themselves in this process? —Charles Edel

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Frances Hui, a student at Emerson College in Boston, joined on-campus demonstrations in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. As a result, Hui said, other students harassed her. A social media post linked to one of her own essays, for example, and suggested that those who “oppose” China should be “executed.” As a security measure, the college contacted the students involved. Hui asked the school to publish a statement rebuking those threats, but as of November 1 it had not.

As the Chinese government and the Communist Party—and, occasionally, nationalist students—threaten academic freedom around the world, universities are struggling to adequately respond. That schools with experience in grappling openly with other threats to campus speech won’t treat these issues as seriously is disturbing. It deprives some members of a university community of their free speech rights. In this environment, perfunctory appeals to respect freedom of expression are inadequate.

What should universities do? In March, Human Rights Watch published a code of conduct to help schools combat these kinds of pressures. Universities need to publicly and repeatedly teach, and be seen as teaching, what freedom of expression means on campuses. They should say clearly that disagreement is fine. But that it is unacceptable to threaten those with whom one disagrees, including by reporting their conduct to a foreign government representative who could bring harm to the families of the students or faculty involved.

Universities also need to publicly reject threats leveled by foreign governments, and establish ways for students to report any and all encroachments on academic freedom to the school. They also need to be transparent about their relationships, both academic and financial, with any Chinese state agency. And schools should gather and report annually on encroachments on academic freedom.

Absent such steps, universities leave students and faculty members with the impression that an institutional response to these kinds of problems will always be weighed against a school’s relationship with Chinese authorities, rather than encouraged by the school’s standards and commitments to academic freedom. A failure to vigorously defend academic freedom from Chinese government influence will only invite more interference, and will erode the reputation of universities in democracies as places of open debate. 

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