It’s Time to Get Loud About Academic Freedom in China

(Foreign Policy illustration)

American schools should pull out of partnerships with schools that persecute students.

Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), where I am an associate professor and director of international programs, recently suspended two student exchange programs with Renmin University in Beijing over concerns about infringements on academic freedom. I helped launch these programs in 2013 with the intention of creating opportunities for our students at one of China’s top universities. Renmin is home to the School of Labor and Human Resources—a close analogue of ILR in several respects, and widely seen as the country’s premier place to study labor issues.

But after an investigation of Renmin’s treatment of students who spoke up on labor issues, we decided that this partnership was no longer sustainable. While our final decision rested on specific violations of academic freedom, it is critically important to view this event in the context of worsening political trends in China. The erosion of academic freedom on campuses is directly linked with the increasingly repressive political environment outside universities.

The strategy of quiet diplomacy, adopted by foreign universities and governments alike over the past generation, has failed to generate greater space for academic freedom or political expression.

I saw this quite clearly in my private exchanges with Renmin, which produced no results whatsoever in terms of loosening restrictions on students. The lesson the Communist Party has learned is that there are no “red lines”; seemingly no matter how grave the violations, foreign institutions have thus far been unwilling to pass up the real or imagined benefits of engagement.

It was student participation in a labor conflict at Jasic Technologies in Shenzhen this past summer, and Renmin’s subsequent behavior, that spurred our decision. In addition to taking steps to prevent students from traveling to Shenzhen, university officials harassed and threatened students who had spoken up on the issue, and then deployed extensive surveillance to keep watch over those deemed as troublemakers. Most disturbingly, Renmin University was complicit in the forcible detention of a student who had traveled to Shenzhen, after which school officials threatened her with a yearlong suspension unless she promised to refrain from speaking out.

After weeks of privately expressing our concern and attempting to gain further information from Renmin, it became clear that internal channels had exhausted themselves. With no other method to register our fundamental differences, and following extensive internal deliberation and consultation, ILR resorted to suspending the programs.

The erosion of academic freedom on China’s campuses is directly linked with the increasingly repressive political environment outside the universities. This dynamic is quite clear with respect to labor issues. As I argued in my 2014 book Insurgency Trap, the Chinese state’s unwillingness to allow independent unions has resulted in workplaces where employers are generally free to flout the law. The workers at Jasic Technologies initially demanded that they be allowed to form a union under the auspices of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, as is their legal right. They did so with the hopes of addressing common workplace problems, including underpayment of social insurance and excessive workplace fines.

This simple rights-violation conflict could have been peacefully resolved, and the workers were seemingly committed to proceeding along the legal path of unionization within the official system. But, reversing earlier indications of support, the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions deemed their unionization requests illegal in July and the company fired six workers in retaliation.

The nature of the conflict changed dramatically when leftist university students from around the country began showing up in Shenzhen to support the Jasic workers. A first police crackdown on July 27 failed to deter the student supporters, and it was not until violent arrests of more than 50 people in late August that the movement was finally crushed.

This conflict quickly became a national security issue, as the state sees alliances between intellectuals and workers as particularly threatening. This is in part due to the student-worker alliance that emerged during the 1989 democracy movement. While the Jasic workers were dealt with in the courts, a number of recent university graduates, including prominent feminist activist Yue Xin, were disappeared. Responsibility for snuffing out further activism among current students was turned over to their universities. Thus, the state’s national security response morphed into a question of academic freedom.

The shocking ferocity of this round of repression is in line with recent trends. The state’s targeting of labor activists has accelerated in the past three years, and the impact has then been felt by labor scholars. In a notable instance from 2015, Sun Yat-sen University officials shuttered a prominent center for labor research operated jointly with the University of California, Berkeley, falsely claiming that the U.S. government was somehow behind the collaboration.

I personally experienced academic research space closing in December 2015. The night before a private research meeting in Guangzhou I had organized with my mother (a former American lecturer at Sun Yat-sen) and several Chinese scholars, the police showed up at my mother’s hotel room. They detained and interrogated her for hours, revealing that they had been reading our emails, and demanding that she cancel the event.

By Eli Friedman
Foreign Policy


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