In its latest report on China, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the communist government of being a danger to academic freedom, not just domestically, but all across the world. The report comes on the back of a global crackdown on China-funded Confucius Institutes that many intelligence agencies believe to be a security threat.
A threat to academic freedom
HRW stated that most universities and institutions that have entered into partnerships with organizations backed by the Chinese government are unprepared to counter the academic restrictions such associations will eventually bring. Though several such institutions have experienced some sort of academic censorship in their campuses, only a few have actually taken proper steps to address the issue.
“Colleges and universities that stand together are better equipped to resist Chinese government harassment and surveillance on campuses, visa denials, and pressures to censor or self-censor… Most important, they will be better prepared to ensure academic freedom on their campuses for all students and scholars, particularly those from China,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement (HRW).
The organization also released a 12 point code of conduct on how universities can respond to academic threats from China. The code of conduct was prepared after interviewing more than 100 academicians, students, and administrators from all over the world. Chinese students studying abroad described that their families back in China were physically threatened as a result of the opinions they had stated in classrooms. Several Chinese scholars also reported being asked by government officials to never criticize the Chinese regime.
HRW has advised universities to strengthen academic freedom on campuses while encouraging students and scholars to report any attempt at academic suppression in colleges. Institutions have been asked to record all incidents on Chinese government interference in their campuses and report such cases on an annual basis. The organization warned universities to reject any expression of interest from Confucius Institutes. And in case they already have such institutes or partnerships with China-backed groups, universities are encouraged to report such funding to the public.
Harvard for academic freedom
The importance of freedom in academic institutions was also highlighted by the president of Harvard, Lawrence S. Bacow, during his recent week-long trip to Asia. During his speech at the Peking University, he seemed to have upset Chinese nationalists when he expressed support for the May Fourth movement, which was a youth campaign in the early 20th century against the Chinese regime.
“I have been president of Harvard for less than a year. In that short span of time, no less than half a dozen controversial issues have arisen on our campus, generating impassioned discussions — and even some spirited arguments and public protests — among students, faculty, and staff, as well as alumni and friends of the University. Such arguments can cause discomfort. But they are signs of a healthy community and of active and engaged citizenship. In fact, it would be unusual and, frankly, unsettling if a semester went by without any episode of disagreement,” he said in a statement to Harvard Magazine.
Bacow’s speeches were well received by pro-democracy activists. In fact, several Harvard alumni who attended the events termed the current president’s speech as excellent, stating that it highlighted the importance of intellectual freedom in university campuses.