China’s “new era” of increased global power poses a threat to academic freedom across the world and could result in global university leaders seeking to appease the country’s Communist Party, experts have warned.
China’s president Xi Jinping heralded the dawn of a “new era” of Chinese power during a recent speech at the Communist Party congress and said that it was time for his nation to transform itself into “a mighty force” that could lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues.
Academic experts on China said that there are already signs that the balance of power in Sino-Western university partnerships is shifting towards China, while recent reports show that China is exerting increased ideological control over foreign institutions based both inside and outside the country.
Cambridge University Press came under fire in August for removing hundreds of papers and book reviews from the online version of one of its journals in China after a government agency threatened to block access to the website. It later announced that it would reinstate the articles after admitting that it had received a “justifiably intense reaction from the global academic community”.
Meanwhile, an investigation by the Financial Times last month revealed that Springer Nature had censored some of its content in response to demands from Chinese export agencies.
Further reports reveal that the Chinese Communist Party had ordered foreign-funded universities in the country to install party units and grant decision-making powers to a party official.
William Callahan, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said that the “scope of civil society has been shrinking” in China since Mr Xi assumed office in 2012, but the country’s increased power means that the debate has now “shifted from Westerners being concerned about censorship in China to all of us being concerned about how China is censoring what we’re doing all around the world”.
“What China has been doing for the past 10 years or so is learning how to export its censorship,” he said.
Professor Callahan said that China’s strategy for bringing Western expertise into China was to get “big institutions like [the University of] Nottingham and New York University to invest a lot of money and time to…hire people and to build campuses. And then once they had committed an enormous amount of time and money and effort, [China] starts to pull back some of the freedom that people had on those campuses and tighten up the ideological control on those campuses.”
He suggested that China might implement a similar strategy when working with institutions outside the country.
When Western institutions first started working with China “there was a lot of leeway given to the Chinese side…because Western academics figured that China would learn how to have academic freedom and learn how to be good social scientists,” Professor Callahan said.
But he added that this development has not occurred and it is now “too late” for it to happen because “China is very powerful” and is no longer incentivised by overseas research funding.
Vice-chancellors of Western universities needed to show “leadership”, Professor Callahan argued, by asserting that “academic freedom is paramount and that research with Chinese colleagues and colleagues from other countries has to meet the same ethical standards and academic freedom standards as research” in their home countries.
But his experience has suggested that leaders of Western universities “either don’t understand how things work in China” or are not primarily concerned with academic freedom, he added.
Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute, said that there have already been cases in which Western universities have pandered to China’s demands. He cited the fact that several Australian universities issued apologies this year, and in one case suspended a lecturer, following complaints from Chinese students about teaching materials being incorrect or insulting to China.
He said that such a response was “very problematic”.
“Until now the top Western universities are institutions that the elite Chinese universities want to partner with and collaborate with because they see real benefits going to the Chinese side in particular,” continued Professor Tsang.
“If we get to a point where the Chinese elite universities feel that they are actually better than their opposite numbers in the West, we will have to ask the question, will they ask for their pound of flesh from us?…In the future, will collaborations require approval by party secretaries?”
Ye Liu, lecturer in international development at King’s College London, added that international research collaborations between Chinese and overseas academics would be “most vulnerable” to these sorts of policies.
Simon Marginson, director of UCL’s Centre for Global Higher Education, said that the higher education sector is “watching China to see if more direct party-state controls in the universities will be introduced, and if introduced will lead to greater political control over research and scholarly work or new limitations on the international relations of universities”.
However, he said that he “cannot see the larger assertion of China’s role in the world in itself as a bad thing”.
“There are things that the Chinese system can do that Western systems cannot, such as getting serious about tackling ecological problems: just like there are things the best Western systems can do that China cannot, like the harmonious Nordic balance between broad social responsibility and individual rights,” he added.
Jeffrey Lehman, vice-chancellor of NYU Shanghai, rejected the notion that China’s relationship with foreign universities in the country had changed.
“We have received no instructions to change the way we operate, and I would be astonished if the government were to renege on a promise of academic freedom that is a cornerstone within the foundation of our university,” he said.
Chris Rudd, provost of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, also downplayed the government’s influence, stating that his campus chose to establish a party office (PO) when it was first launched in 2004 to “support communication with government”.
“We take a pragmatic view and have to accept that some topics that would be debated openly at our other campuses would result in embarrassment for the local government were the same subjects to be debated here,” he said.
“In this regard we maintain an open dialogue with our PO colleagues and work collaboratively to make sure that we maintain the best educational value while minimising any political risk to the university.”