No Academic Freedom for China

As more American universities open campuses in China, they’re bending to the country’s censorship rules. Isaac Stone Fish reports from Beijing.

China Photos / Getty Images

New York University announced in March that it will be opening a
 degree-granting undergraduate university in Shanghai in 2013, which it calls “another major step in the evolution of NYU as the 
first global network university.” Duke University plans to build a 
degree-granting campus of public health and management studies in 
the nearby city of Kunshan in 2012, pending Chinese and board 
approval. In interviews and press releases, NYU and Duke both
 emphasized their commitment to academic freedom, and promised to
 maintain an openness comparable to their operations in America. Yet 
China remains an authoritarian state known to stifle discussion and
 publication of ideas it deems destabilizing. Despite their proclamations of freedom, Duke and NYU
 will likely have to compromise on their values in order to operate in

The Johns Hopkins University–Nanjing University Center for Chinese and
 American Studies, the best-known joint-venture program currently in 
existence in China, labors under this political reality. “In our 
country we fortunately have academic freedom, and our classes are very
 open. And we know that in China that is not true,” says Carolyn
 Townsley, who directs the Hopkins–Nanjing Center Washington, D.C.,
 support office. In a response to a question about teaching classes on
 sensitive subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989,
 Townsley responds that “anything is pretty much fair game,” but then 
adds that “we are not trying to be instigators in sensitive areas. The
 mission of the center is to build better relations with the Chinese, so we’re not going to stir that up.”

The sensitive subjects are the ones that touch upon the legitimacy of the Communist Party. Jonathan Tsentas, who graduated from
 Hopkins-Nanjing in 2007 and currently works in finance in Shanghai, thinks the center was more open than he expected during his time there. On issues 
surrounding the mainland’s control of Taiwan, he says, “You just had 
to be careful not to offend anyone”—noting that the subject was not 
off-limits for discussion. Jim Nolt, the founding dean of the New York
 Institute of Technology’s university in Nanjing and now an assistant 
dean of management at the school, says that when a Chinese torchbearer
 was attacked in Paris before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, “we got a 
notice saying that we should not bring up that issue in class, and we
 shouldn’t encourage the students to talk about it, as they might get
 excited or agitated.”

When asked about inviting people like the Dalai 
Lama, who spoke at Johns Hopkins in the U.S. in 2001, or if she would be
 willing to invite dissident artist Ai Weiwei to speak to her campus in
 Nanjing, Townsley responds, “We are not going to be deliberately 
insensitive to our partners by trying to be provocative in whatever we 
do at the center.”

Other professors feel stifled by China’s nebulous censorship rules.Rowena He left China in the 1990s and is currently teaching 
courses at Harvard University about the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement
 and its aftermath—a course that she could not teach in China. “The 
problem is, we don’t know where the line is and what the punishment
 would be. That’s where fear and self-censorship comes from,” she says.

Many prominent American universities are expanding their relationship
 with China. UC Berkeley announced on Nov. 11 
that it plans to open a teaching and research facility in Shanghai;
 the Stanford Center in Peking University will open in 2012. Funded
 mostly by the Chinese, the branches are expected to be very lucrative for the universities. “Many of our American institutions are
 being seduced by the promise of an infusion of much-needed wealth from
 China,” says Orville Schell, director of the Center for U.S.-China 
relations at the Asia Society. “But one has to pay a price: one has to play by the rules of China’s game, and a university committed to academic freedom is bound to run into problems,” adding that they have to “either make accommodations or do without” the campus.

NYU’s president, John Sexton, promised that “students at NYU Shanghai
 will have unrestricted Internet access.
 While foreign businesses and journalists often use virtual private 
networks in China, no one outside the government claims to have unrestricted Internet access; content, ranging 
from Facebook, Twitter, and some Western newspapers to basic scholarly
 sources are regularly unavailable, even for those with the ability to
 skirt the Great Firewall, China’s censorship network.

NYU, Duke, and other foreign universities planning to operate in China realize that respecting Chinese laws also means respecting limitations on their academic and intellectual freedom
. Cheng Li, a
 China expert at the Brookings Institution, says that the idea that 
Duke and NYU could maintain comparable academic freedom in China is
 self-deceiving. “It’s completely out of touch with China’s political 
reality,” he says. “They’re universities, not islands.”