A few years ago, I met a student from rural China who had come to a university in Washington, DC, and fallen in love with political science. But he was too afraid of being reported to the Chinese embassy to pursue the subject. While Americans take freedom at universities for granted, for some students from China the feeling is very different. “This isn’t a free space,” he concluded.
There are now approximately 350,000 students from China at American universities. While many have great experiences, some have to deal with the surveillance and censorship that follows them to campus. Over the past several years, Human Rights Watch has documented the unique threats these students face. Our research has revealed Chinese government and Communist Party intimidation ranging from harassment of family members in China over what someone had said in a closed seminar to censorship by US academic institutions that did not want to irk potential Chinese government partners. One scholar said a senior administrator had asked him “as a personal favor” to decline media requests during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, fearing that any criticism could have negative consequences for the university’s profile in China.
Even when campus debates take an ugly turn—such as when students from the mainland tried to shout down speakers at a March 2019 event at University of California, Berkeley, addressing the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, or in September when unidentified individuals threatened Hong Kong democracy activist Nathan Law as he arrived for graduate studies at Yale—schools appear reluctant to publicly respond to these threats against free speech. In mid-October, students at the University of California, Davis, tore down other students’ materials supporting Hong Kong protesters, yet in the ensuing days searching the school’s website for “Hong Kong” yields only information about summer internships—not unequivocal support for peaceful expression.
Few schools leverage their broader relationships with Chinese institutions to help faculty members who are denied visas by China when they try to advance research on topics considered sensitive by the Chinese government; equally few institutions make provisions for students from China who want to study sensitive topics to do so without it being known to Chinese authorities. We are unaware of any university that systematically tracks the impact of Chinese government interference in academic freedom—a step that could serve as a deterrent to such encroachments.
At a recent meeting I attended, some of the world’s foremost experts on vectors of Chinese government and Communist Party influence detailed for American university officials precisely the ways Chinese students and scholars in the United States are the focus of control and manipulation, including through on-campus surveillance of classroom speech and activities, which is then reported back to embassies or consulates. Yet those university officials appeared skeptical about the urgency or consequences for students or scholars, and the discussion quickly reverted to focusing on the technicalities of schools’ compliance with various regulations or their interactions with agencies like the FBI.
In private, some university officials will admit their discomfort in dealing with the issue of Chinese government influence on their campuses, and say they’re afraid that they may be labeled xenophobes. That fear needs urgently to be overcome to protect a community that is demonstrably vulnerable. A recent effort to do just that was initiated students themselves: In September, the student union at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, stripped the campus chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association of its accreditation, on the grounds that the group’s reporting of a talk on Xinjiang to the local Chinese consulate violated school rules.
But there are also crass reasons for their reticence. Many academic institutions around the world now have opaque academic or financial relationships with Chinese government entities or government-linked companies. Some are increasingly dependent on international students for tuition revenue, and fear alienating students from China. Others, including MIT, find themselves in the awkward position of accepting money for research partnerships with Chinese companies like iFlytek, which has now been placed on a list of companies sanctioned by the US Department of Commerce for their involvement in human rights abuses in China.
Our research formed the basis of a 12-step code of conduct that is designed to help schools combat Chinese government efforts to undermine academic freedom around the world. Those steps start with acknowledging the problem, and include publicizing policies that classroom discussions are meant to stay on campus—not reported to foreign missions. Schools could also appoint an ombudsperson to whom threats could be reported and thus tracked, join forces to share experiences and take common positions, and commit to disclosing all links to the Chinese government—steps that could deter Chinese government overreach.
The code has been sent to about 150 schools in Australia, Canada, and the United States, and about a dozen have replied. So far none have signed on, convinced that their existing rules are sufficient to mitigate any threat, but we have seen no evidence that those rules and procedures have succeeded.
In April the Association of American Universities published an update of “actions taken by universities to address growing concerns about…undue foreign influence on campus”—but most of this document deals with issues like protection of data and export control compliance. A half-dozen universities—including UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and Yale University—published statements last spring expressing solidarity with international students and scholars on their campuses, and more than 60 colleges and universities have signed on to the University of Chicago’s well-known principles on free expression.
But if schools are going to fulfill their “solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it,” as the University of Chicago principles insist, they are going to have to tackle these threats head-on. That means providing the most precious asset a university should ensure that all of its students enjoy equally: freedom of thought.