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How the Chinese Communist Party Moves Against Academic Freedom—in Western Countries

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RUTH INGRAM | BITTER WINTER

Beijing’s stranglehold on free speech, not only at home, but increasingly across the globe, is alarming academics in the free world.

The CCP has tightened its noose around critics of the regime, not only within its own borders. In a move which threatens academic freedoms everywhere, any student or educator who criticizes China is now in jeopardy.

Draconian penalties, including life imprisonment, have  been devised for violators of Article 38 of the Hong Kong National Security Law, a clause which, according to Chief Executive Carrie Lam was intended to restore stability to the restive province, but whose far reaching implications put every dissenter, including non-Hong Kong nationals, at risk of prosecution, if they dare to malign Beijing.

Speaking this week in a webinar to address this issue in the UK, political scientist Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the China Institute at the SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) University of London, is dismayed at the compromises that academic institutions are now having to make to protect their students, and also the self-censorship now required by academics hoping to keep their China visas.

The clause in effect grants Beijing jurisdiction over every critic of its governance of Hong Kong, whoever they are and wherever they live, regardless of nationality, passport, or country of residence. Any supporter of Hong Kong independence, or advocate of sanctions on Chinese government rule can be arrested as soon as they set foot on the territory.

“Interference by foreign governments is not entirely new,” commented Professor Tsang, detailing past efforts by states to gag controversial academics with threats of withdrawing students and the vast amounts of much needed cash they bring with them. Universities that had twin campuses in China, for example, were appointed a CCP Secretary to keep a watchful eye on dissenters, necessitating a great deal of second-guessing on what might or might not get past the censors.

The main issue, he said, was the degree of leverage the Chinese government has over a particular institution, which increases incrementally according to the number of Chinese students, and the amount of income they are generating. Whilst welcoming Chinese students, he said, and hoping they would take part fully in and be enriched by western academic life, he regretted that Beijing could at any moment turn off the supply of students at a whim.

Whereas these pitfalls have always been par for the course in the past, he said, the passing of Article 38 had put the dangers for their students and staff in a different league. With the potential criminalization of outspoken rhetoric that dares to criticize the CCP, and the real likelihood of arrest and trial on return to Hong Kong or China, Professor Tsang said that their duty of care towards students has forced their hand. “We simply can’t put our students in danger,” he said, explaining the necessity of changing classroom behavior and leaving little room for the best practices of debating sensitive subjects that they would normally use.

“I myself am involved in Chinese politics. We have students going to Hong Kong and China for placements and we have to protect them,” he said, adding that usual practices of encouraging students to ask awkward, politically incorrect questions and to think outside the box are now off limits if China objects.

He urged a joint approach in dealing with what was becoming a serious problem. “When what we normally do is being affected by the actions and legislation of a foreign government, our domestic affairs are being directly interfered with,” he said. “I think we really must address and find better ways to deal with it than by forcing universities individually to deal with it.”

The problem is compounded by academics around the UK (and beyond) who are sympathetic with the Chinese government, and by students who, despite confidentiality built in to online discussions and tutorials, for one reason or another cave into pressure by their government when told to inform on fellow students, he said.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, speaking to address Beijing’s encroachment on world academic freedoms, advocated universities and colleges standing together to “resist Chinese government harassment and surveillance on campuses, visa denials, and pressures to censor or self-censor.”

“President Xi’s moves to strangle academic freedom inside China makes it all the more urgent to ensure that students and scholars of and from China can enjoy academic freedom abroad,” Richardson said. “Institutions can demonstrate their commitment to peaceful, critical expression by adopting smart, robust protections, and keeping their gates open to all who seek academic freedom.”

Whether President Xi in his latest clampdowns will have taken the wind out of these sails of optimism is yet to be seen.

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