Human Rights Watch appreciates the opportunity to join this timely hearing to Chinese government threats to academic freedom in democracies. Those threats, harassment, and surveillance can result in students and scholars of and from China enjoying a lesser degree of freedom of expression than others on college campuses. We have urged universities and governments to adopt policies and practices that protect this community’s free speech rights since 2014.
The Chinese government’s and Chinese Communist Party’s impulses to control academia domestically are longstanding, and evidenced over the past year by announcements at the National People’s Congress of increasing funding to education—but with a focus at the tertiary level on political loyalty. Those actors’ efforts to monitor students and scholars from the mainland, and those with views critical of the Chinese government, at academic institutions overseas is also not new.
But over the past two decades, larger numbers of students and scholars from China have sought a freer academic environment and now study or work at colleges and universities abroad.
Under President Xi Jinping, who assumed power in 2012, Chinese government authorities have become increasingly aggressive in trying to shape global perceptions of China, including at academic institutions outside China. These authorities have sought to influence academic discussions and institutions; monitor students and scholars of and from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan; and censor scholarly inquiry. They have financially supported academic programs that paint the Chinese government in a wholly positive light, and they have tried to influence who is—and is not—permitted to speak on campuses. The very openness of universities in democracies make them particularly vulnerable to the kinds of threats we have now documented.
How Chinese state actors influence institutions of higher education
Human Rights Watch has examined Chinese government, Chinese Communist Party, and proxy actors’ activities on campuses in Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States for several years. We have also noted that frequently no direct threat from Beijing is necessary to chill free speech—that campus actors will discourage critical speech, believing it is necessary to protect a relationship with Chinese counterparts or institutions, or to defend the Chinese government out of a sense of patriotism.
We have documented four particular threats to the freedom of expression:
- Censorship: In some cases materials, discussions, and research topics seen by some as critical of the Chinese government were changed, removed, or cancelled, sometimes by administrators, campus groups, and/or mainland students. For example, we documented a university leader asking a China scholar critical of that government to refuse media interviews about President Xi, academics asking other scholars to remove material they saw as controversial from syllabi, and scholars being asked for their views about Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes in job interviews.
- Self-censorship: Particularly students from China and some China-focused scholars told us they refrain from making comments, participating in events, or engaging in debates they saw as critical of the Chinese government. Students told us they did this to prevent being harassed on their campuses and to avoid problems for family members in China; scholars most often cited the need to obtain visas to be able to continue research in country.
- Surveillance: We have documented instances in which on-campus discussions or activities—from public events and to small classroom debates assumed to be private—have been relayed to Chinese authorities, including officials at embassies or consulates, but also directly to authorities in China. In some cases this has prompted authorities in China to threaten the family members in China of individuals on campuses in democracies.
- Harassment and threats: Scholars, particularly ones from China, but also students have described to us being threatened by Chinese government officials or others who seek to silence criticism. This conduct includes threats of reporting family members in China to authorities there, and grave threats of physical harm.
Human Rights Watch continues to track increasing threats to academic freedom of students and scholars from Hong Kong who are working outside China. We examined universities’ responses to those sympathizing with the November-December 2022 protests in China against the “zero-Covid” policies; some of those responses, underscoring the right to free speech, have been helpful. We are tracking new rules adopted by the Australian government in 2021-2022 designed to better explain academic freedom to all new international students, and adopted partly in response to our research, that are having positive effects.
It’s important to acknowledge other important dynamics around this issue in the US in recent years: the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on scholarly exchanges; the Trump administration’s fanning of anti-Chinese racism; the problematic “China Initiative”; the growing government and university focus on problematic research partnerships—typically in the hard sciences—and financial relationships with problematic Chinese state actors and state-affiliated companies.
Impact of these threats on free speech
Human Rights Watch started this work in part after a university student from the mainland, who had come to a university here in Washington, DC, described their experience: “This isn’t a free space.” Chinese and Hong Kong students across Australia told us about their experiences refraining from participating in classroom debates and activities, fearful of what might be reported back to authorities in China. We will likely never know the full, true cost of these dynamics on campuses across the US—the research not done, the discussions not held, the experience of enrolling at a school guaranteeing free speech in a democracy and yet facing constraints like those inside China.
Many university leaders still do not recognize that these threats exist on their campuses, so they do not go looking for evidence. When they do acknowledge these problems, they often assert to us and others that their existing rules and practices are adequate. Some are clearly uneasy about a focus on threats emanating from the Chinese government and its proxies, fearing that challenging those will be construed as racial profiling. And some fear losing money from or access to various Chinese sources.
Policy solutions to address the problem
Academic institutions should ensure that students and scholars of and from China feel welcomed, integrated, and protected. Human Rights Watch’s 2019 code of conduct for universities, appended in full below, and subsequent recommendations, are designed to address these problems and close the gaps in existing rules and practices. Broadly, colleges and universities should:
- Educate themselves about the problem, and about what campus life is like for these students—too many college and university leaders do not understand the ways members of this community feel constrained, assuming that by virtue of their being on campuses in democracies they are and feel free.
- Speak up in defense of academic freedom, particularly in the wake of incidents raising questions about the Chinese government’s or proxy actors’ efforts to silence free speech.
- Ensure that students and scholars understand threats to academic freedom and have a mechanism to report them. Students tell us they are reluctant to report threats because universities appear unaware or unconcerned.
- Gather, share, and publish information about threats, including gathering information about organizations on campus receiving support from Chinese authorities.
- Be flexible in the face of such threats—for example, letting students work on topics directly with faculty, and pausing tenure clocks in the face of visa denials.
- Track and share annually information about all Chinese government sources of funding.
- Adopt common policies with other universities to minimize the threats.
- Monitor the impact of Chinese government interference on academic freedom.
Progress in getting universities to adopt these recommendations is slow going—it lags behind the steps we see universities take with respect to what they or the US government see as national security threats or problematic funding from the Chinese government.
But if Human Rights Watch is still able to present schools with evidence of ongoing problems, it means institutions are failing to close these gaps. Too many students and scholars of and from China attend universities here enjoying a lesser degree of academic freedom than most of their peers.
And the failure to challenge these threats—thoroughly, definitively, and publicly—gives Chinese state actors a sense of impunity. At a time when Xi and his allies increasingly use universities to engender political loyalty, never has it mattered so much to keep academia in democracies a truly free space—for everyone.
Resisting Chinese Government Efforts to Undermine Academic Freedom Abroad
A Code of Conduct for Colleges, Universities, and Academic Institutions Worldwide
Large numbers of students, scholars, scientists, and professors from China now study or work at colleges and universities abroad. In recent years, Chinese government authorities have grown bolder in trying to shape global perceptions of China on campuses and in academic institutions outside China. These authorities have sought to influence academic discussions, monitor overseas students from China, censor scholarly inquiry, or otherwise interfere with academic freedom.
Human Rights Watch investigations found that the Chinese government attempts to restrict academic freedom beyond its borders. To counter such pressures, ensure the integrity of academic institutions, and protect the academic freedom and free expression rights of students, scholars, and administrators, particularly those who work on China or are from China, Human Rights Watch proposes the following Code of Conduct. While the impetus for and focus of the provisions that follow is pressure emanating from China, academic institutions should apply the same principles to interactions with all governments that threaten academic freedom on their campuses.
All institutions of higher education should:
- Speak out for academic freedom. Publicly commit to supporting academic freedom and freedom of expression through public statements at the highest institutional levels, institutional policies, and internal guidelines. Explicitly recognize threats posed to academic freedom and freedom of expression by the Chinese government seeking to shape discussions, teaching, and scholarship on campus. Reaffirm a commitment to freedom of inquiry, enabling scholars and students to freely conduct research, and make clear that opposing direct and indirect censorship pressures or retaliation by third parties, including national and foreign governments, is integral to academic freedom.
- Strengthen academic freedom on campus. Emphasize the commitments and policies in support of academic freedom in student orientation, faculty hiring, handbooks and honor codes, and public gatherings. To avoid self-censorship or retaliation for stating opinions, academic institutions should publicize a policy that classroom discussions are meant to stay on campus, and never to be reported to foreign missions.
- Counter threats to academic freedom. Encourage students and faculty members to recognize that direct and indirect censorship pressures, threats, or acts of retaliation by Chinese government authorities or their agents against students or scholars for what they write or say threaten academic freedom. Develop and implement effective mechanisms, such as an ombudsperson, to whom such pressures, threats, or acts of retaliation can be privately or anonymously reported.
- Record incidents of Chinese government infringement of academic freedom. Actively track instances of direct or indirect Chinese government harassment, surveillance, or threats on campuses. Where warranted, they should be reported to law enforcement. Report annually the number and nature of these kinds of incidents.
- Join with other academic institutions to promote research in China. Academic institutions should work in concert, including by making public statements and complaints where appropriate, in the event of unwarranted visa denials or prolonged delays for research in China. Academic institutions should consider joint actions against Chinese government entities in response to visa denials or other obstacles to academic research.
- Offer flexibility for scholars and students working on China. Ensure that a scholar’s career advancement or a student’s progress will not be compromised if their research has to change direction due to Chinese government restrictions on research or access to source material in China. Institutions should consider steps, such as granting the scholar or student extra time to finish their research, supporting alternative research strategies, or publishing using pseudonyms, in the face of Chinese government obstacles, harassment, or reprisals. Academic institutions should be open to alternative research strategies when funding or receiving funds for academic work that has been rejected by a Chinese entity. Funders and review boards should provide comparable flexibility.
- Reject Confucius Institutes. Refrain from having Confucius Institutes on campuses, as they are fundamentally incompatible with a robust commitment to academic freedom. Confucius Institutes are extensions of the Chinese government that censor certain topics and perspectives in course materials on political grounds, and use hiring practices that take political loyalty into consideration.
- Monitor Chinese government-linked organizations. Require that all campus organizations, including the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), that receive funding or support from Chinese diplomatic missions and other Chinese government-linked entities, report such information.
- Promote academic freedom of students and scholars from China. Inform students and scholars from China that they are not required to join any organizations, and help mentor and support them to ensure they can enjoy full academic freedom.
- Disclose all Chinese government funding. Publicly disclose, on an annual basis, all sources and amounts of funding that come directly or indirectly from the Chinese government. Publish lists of all projects and exchanges with Chinese government counterparts.
- Ensure academic freedom in exchange programs and on satellite campuses. Exchange programs and satellite campuses in China should only be undertaken after the completion of a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese counterpart that has been transparently discussed by relevant faculty members and ensures the protection of academic freedom, including control over hiring and firing, and the curriculum.
- Monitor impact of Chinese government interference in academic freedom. Work with academic institutions, professional associations, and funders to systematically study and regularly publicly report on: a) areas of research that have received less attention because of fears about access; b) decline of on-campus discussions of topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre; c) efforts by academic institutions to curtail Chinese government threats to academic freedom; and 4) strategies collectively pursued by institutions to defend and promote academic freedom.