Chinese Scholars Are Calling For Freedom And Autonomy – How Should Western Universities Respond?

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 8, No. 1, January 2020

By John Fitzgerald, Swinburne University of Technology [1]

Red Guard political slogan on Fudan University campus, Shanghai, China, toward the close of the Cultural Revolution (Spring 1976). ‘Defend party central with blood and life! Defend Chairman Mao with blood and life!’ Source: Wikimedia

In stifling free and open inquiry, China’s universities are being faithful to the party’s Marxist values and authoritarian principles. Universities in the West could display similar backbone by standing up for the values and principles of their own communities, including academic freedom and institutional autonomy, when they deal with education authorities in China. People in China who value freedom and critical inquiry expect nothing less of us.

On December 18, 2019, China’s Ministry of Education announced the latest in a series of revisions of national university constitutions to ensure that the party takes pride of place in their management, curriculum, and international engagements. Public attention was drawn to changes in the charter of Fudan University when footage went viral of students singing their school anthem in protest at the damage done to their school constitution. The Ministry of Education had deleted two phrases from the Fudan charter still preserved in the old school anthem: ‘academic independence and freedom of thought.’[2]

Clearly students in China think academic independence and freedom of thought are worth preserving.  Do scholars in the West agree? If so, how can they help to  defend the fundamental principles and values under assault in Xi Jinping’s China?

To be sure, the communist party’s assault on universities is hardly new. The great liberal colleges founded in the old Republic were converted into party-run academies under the People’s Government back in the 1950s before being torn apart in the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s and 1970s. For a moment in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening program appeared to offer hope of expanded intellectual freedoms and institutional autonomy, but the promise proved elusive. By the time Xi Jinping came to power, university independence and freedom of thought had largely vanished from China’s higher education system. Secretary-General  Xi is basically delivering the coup de grâce in eliminating the words themselves from institutional memory.

Today, the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook for controlling higher education draws more heavily on Maoist strategies for waging political warfare than on the civic values of scientific discovery and intellectual inquiry underpinning universities in the West. The party has a battle strategy for higher education that has been set out in formal state documents issued under Xi’s authority. The 2015 State Council guidelines for universities state that ‘higher education is a forward battlefield in ideological work and shoulders the important tasks of studying, researching and propagating Marxism… Doing higher education propaganda and ideology work well and strengthening the construction of the higher education ideological battlefields are strategic projects…’[3]

Professors are held accountable to this battle strategy through university performance appraisal systems imposed by the Ministry of Education to measure faculty contributions to the Communist Party’s confrontation with ‘harmful ideas.’ The Ministry guidelines on faculty appraisal issued in August 2016 require ‘adherence to the basic line of the Party as a basic requirement for teaching, and adhering to a correct educational orientation and strict discipline in University classroom teaching… The illegal spread of harmful ideas and expressions in the classroom will be dealt with severely according to regulation and law.’[4]

Some sense of the ‘harmful ideas and expressions’ banished from university classrooms can be gleaned from an earlier Party communiqué issued in April 2013 that banned seven social science topics from all classrooms, research seminars and publications. The banned topics include constitutional democracy, civil society, economic liberalisation, freedom of the press, historical critiques of the Communist Party, challenges to socialism with Chinese characteristics, and discussion of ‘universal values’ (local code for human rights and freedoms).[5] All banned completely.

In December 2016 Xi Jinping placed his presidential seal of approval on tightened political controls over higher education in a widely-publicised speech on the importance of placing ‘ideological work’ and ‘political work’ at the heart of university education and management. In this case he extended the party’s censorious remit beyond the humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences, proclaiming that all science was based on Marx’s scientific socialism and that the duty of university managers and academics was to ensure that students appreciate ‘that the intellectual foundation of science is the scientific theory of Marxism…. All teachers and students must become firm believers in the core values of socialism.’ [6]

It follows that what Xi Jinping calls the ‘sacred mission of engineering human souls’ can only be entrusted to teachers who comply with party instructions.[7]  Under Xi’s guiding hand, students are widely employed as snitches to report on their teachers, professors are intimidated into silence or sidelined if they speak their minds, publishers turn down evidence-based academic books and articles for fear of running afoul of party authorities (while publishing paeans to the thought of General Secretary Xi Jinping), and party officials instruct the Ministry of Education to rewrite university charters to ensure that the party’s habit of interfering in everyday teaching and research is enshrined not just in party ideology but in the governing constitutions of China’s once-great universities and colleges.

Foreigners don’t need to visit China to appreciate the impact of this assault on free inquiry and genuine scholarship. It affects them directly as party officials turn back foreign experts and scholars who were once welcome to speak on China’s campuses. One prominent Australian public intellectual who has worked for many years in China was formally invited to present classes and talks at two different Chinese universities in 2019 only to be informed after preparing his classes and buying his airline tickets that the presiding party secretary at each institution had overruled the local academic program director and withdrawn his invitation.[8]

The party boldly defends these academic interventions at home and abroad in the name of Marxist principles and authoritarian values. It’s time liberal universities in the West showed similar regard for their own principles and values including freedom of thought and inquiry and institutional autonomy in their dealings with China. Here’s how.

They could start by clearing out the Augean Stables.  A number of universities in China are signatories to the international Magna Charta Universitatum or Great Charter of Universities which commits all signatories to uphold freedom of inquiry and institutional autonomy. Chinese signatories could be invited to reaffirm their commitment or withdraw from the international Charta community.

A second institution slated for removal is the  Shanghai Jiaotong University global ranking of universities, now managed by Shanghai Ranking Consultancy under the title Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). Universities that value institutional autonomy and freedom of inquiry  should no longer reference the ARWU rankings or participate in the Shanghai Jiaotong rankings process which risks spreading the Chinese Communist Party’s university model globally. Universities that continue to participate or to reference the Shanghai rankings should be tasked by their faculty and alumni to explain why they are failing to uphold the principles of free inquiry and institutional autonomy as fiercely as Xi Jinping is undermining them.

Third, Fudan University currently ranks number 40 among universities of the world in the alternative QS global university rankings. Fudan’s recent charter revisions suggest that it lacks two of the fundamental attributes of a university, institutional autonomy and freedom of inquiry. Universities such as Fudan could be invited to affirm their commitments to these principles or eliminated from international ranking frameworks altogether.

A number of pro-active measures can also be taken. Liberal universities should pay attention to a new  Academic Freedom Index that will be published in the second quarter of 2020. It is being pioneered by Germany’s Global Public Policy Institute in consultation with the Scholars at Risk Network based in the United States. Universities that engage in international collaborations should consult this new dataset and consider how violations of academic freedom and institutional autonomy abroad may affect their own research and teaching programmes. Only by measuring what is at stake can we start to manage the risk of losing the things we value most.

Further, all interested parties could work to ensure that international bodies claiming to set and uphold international standards for academic freedom and institutional autonomy, including UNESCO, establish clear and unequivocal reporting guidelines requiring member states to report on legal and other measures taken to respect and uphold freedom of inquiry and institutional autonomy in their national jurisdictions. They should also routinely report on infringements and remedies, including available legal remedies.

Finally, universities in the liberal west should commission independent audits of their own engagements with universities and university departments in China, and their relations with China’s national Ministry of Education and its provincial and city arms along with Chinese consular officials in their school vicinities,  to test whether these relations are eroding their commitments to free thought, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy.

Authorities in Beijing would like to think that they can stifle criticism abroad just as they do at home, and they are working hard to achieve this. Academics and students in China, on the other hand, look on with anger at the havoc the party has wrought in their home institutions. They have few outlets to express their frustration and no avenues of appeal now that all online and offline forums have been closed or censored. Some who can recall better times in the 1980s saw it all coming. Esteemed National Academician Zi Zhongyun for example wrote in April 2019 that university authorities have stooped to ‘carrying out orders from above’ without regard to the consequences of their actions. ‘One can only wonder,’ she asked, ‘what other depths they might be willing to plumb as they continue to debase higher education in China?’[9]

Students at Fudan are now fathoming those depths. It’s time universities in the West threw them a line.

John Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, and Past President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. His books include Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia (UNSW 2007), awarded the Ernest Scott Prize of the Australian Historical Association, and  Awakening China (Stanford 1997), awarded the Joseph Levenson Prize of the U.S. Association for Asian Studies.  


[1] The author wishes to thank Prof. Dr. Katrin Kinzelbach and Prof. Clive Hamilton for assistance in preparing this commentary. He alone is responsible for errors and omissions.

[2] While deleting freedom of thought and institutional autonomy from the head clauses of the revised Fudan charter, authorities inserted a claim in clause 18 to protect ‘scholarly freedom’ [学术自由].  See Mimi Lau, ‘China’s Fudan University students in flash mob for freedom of thought,’ South China Morning Post, 18 December 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3042681/chinas-fudan-university-students-flash-mob-freedom-thought

This Chinese term refers to the pursuit of party-approved scholarship, in effect excluding all themes and topics banned by the party. See below. On the meaning of academic freedom in the West see John Fitzgerald, ‘Academic Freedom and the Contemporary University: Lessons from China.’ Humanities Australia, No.8, 2017: 8-22. https://www.humanities.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/AAH-Hums-Aust-08-2017-Fitzgerald.pdf

[3] State Council, ‘Opinions Concerning Further Strengthening and Improving Propaganda and Ideology Work in Higher Education Under New Circumstances,’ China Copyright and Media, 19 January 2015, updated 16 February 2015. <https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/opinions-concerning-further-strengthening-and-improving-propaganda-and-ideology-work-in-higher-education-under-new-circumstances/ >  For Chinese original see:   <http://news.xinhuanet.com/2015-01/19/c_1114051345.htm > [accessed 31 October 2016].

[4]  My translation of Ministry of Education guidelines issued in August 2016, paragraph 10. Chinese original here: <http://www.moe.gov.cn/srcsite/A10/s3735/201609/t20160920_281586.html > [accessed 31 October 2016]. I wish to thank Carl Minzner for drawing these documents to my attention.

[5] General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, ‘Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere.’ April 2013. <http://www.chinafile.com/document-9-chinafile-translation> [accessed 31 October 2016].

[6] My translation of Xi Jinping speech of December 2016. Xi Jinping, ‘Ensure Ideological and Political Work Penetrate the Entire Process of Teaching and Learning ‘ ([习近平:把思想政治工作贯穿教育教学全过程]. Xinhua, 8 December 2016: <http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2016-12/08/c_1120082577.htm > [accessed 31 December 2016].

[7] Xi Jinping, ‘Ensure Ideological and Political Work Penetrate the Entire Process of Teaching and Learning.’

[8] Personal communication with the author.

[9] Zi Zhongyun [資中筠], ‘Mourning Tsinghua’ [哀清華], March 2019. Translated by Geremie R. Barmé, China Heritage, April 2019  http://chinaheritage.net/journal/my-tsinghua-lament/.