Opinion

US educators: Engage China, but defend freedom

While some US universities with Chinese partnerships have spoken out in the wake of ill-treatment of Chinese academics, too many have been silent. Foreign universities underestimate their leverage in supporting academic freedom in China even as they hurt their own reputations.

By , Commentary contributor

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    At his home in Beijing Oct. 21, Xia Yeliang, a pro-democracy economist, points at a dismissal notice from Peking University, where he taught for more than a decade.
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Despite their proud assertion of the "great renaissance of the Chinese nation" in a time of unprecedented prosperity, China's leaders are facing some existential crises.

Among these is fear of a rising tide of dissent across a wide swath of social and institutional life. This includes China's institutions of higher learning, many of which have partnerships with American universities.

President Xi Jinping's response has been to clamp down more firmly – dictating what cannot be discussed in college classrooms, reschooling teachers in the state ideology of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought, and punishing teachers for expressing political views that do not conform.

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Whether this repression is a fool's errand remains to be seen. By some accounts the strictures are ignored and even scorned. Yet some thought leaders are being punished as examples to others, and the power of self-censorship remains effective, especially in a nation where education is expected to serve the ambitions of the state. China's educated classes know well that ignoring the Chinese Communist Party is a calculated risk, even as they feel the urgency of debating such forbidden topics as constitutional rule and the virtues of an active civil society.

But what of their American colleagues? While some faculty members have spoken out in the wake of ill-treatment of Chinese academics, too many have maintained a timid silence. They, too, are calculating the risk of losing valuable connections to Chinese students, money, and exchange programs. The problem with their calculations is that foreign universities are underestimating the leverage they have in supporting academic freedom in China even as they discount their own reputations.

A voice of dissent, silenced by his colleagues

In the past year, the careers of some outspoken scholars have been cut short and their lives brutally disrupted. Such is the case of Xia Yeliang, a prominent economist at Peking University who had become a rare voice in China's academic life – a dissenting public intellectual.

Mr. Xia was dismissed from his teaching post in October by a vote of his colleagues. Chinese observers say that Xia's is only one of possibly hundreds of similar cases at China's institutions of higher learning. His dismissal brings the issue of academic freedom to uncomfortable focus, especially for many American and European universities that have partnerships in China and face a responsibility for defending the principles of free inquiry and expression that are the foundations of modern education. Sadly, his story is mostly shrugged off.

Xia began teaching at Peking University in 2000. Yet his advocacy of constitutional democracy and criticism of China's political system eventually landed him in trouble. He's endured police harassment, house arrest, censure, and temporary self-exile to the United States. Five years ago, he also helped draft Charter 08, a manifesto of democracy and human rights signed by several hundred Chinese writers and scholars. The charter's principal author, Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion.

In Xia's case, his verbal assaults on the party-state were especially provocative in enlisting the support of foreign scholars. Some outsiders came promptly to his side, notably the faculty at Wellesley College, but also faculty members at National Taiwan University and the London School of Economics and Political Science, all educational partners with Peking University. But mostly there's been silence from the growing network of foreign institutions of higher learning with ties to China.

High stakes for US colleges

One reason is the high stakes: access to a large pool of Chinese students able to afford tuition at foreign universities, and opportunities for exchanges and research programs in the world's second largest economy. China's schools are also learning how to leverage their resources to gain the prestige and intellectual vitality of their foreign partners. At least 18 foreign universities have degree programs in China, and more are planned, including a campus for Duke University in a joint venture with Wuhan University to open next year.

Clouding the picture, many Chinese universities proclaim the principles of liberal education and academic freedom, as advocated by China's revolutionary movement of nearly a century ago. Yet these same schools remain under the influence of internal party committees, making them focal points of conflict and agents of indoctrination.

Collaborations with foreign institutions are one way Chinese universities have of remedying these liabilities, raising their profile, and polishing their image. As Xia told The Wall Street Journal recently, they seek the prestigious affiliations and "need famous foreign brand names to protect their very vulnerable capabilities for research and teaching."

This search for greater legitimacy gives international educators opportunities to stand their ground, even as they collaborate. And advocates of greater academic freedom within China are looking for moral support from their foreign partner schools.

Eroding foundations of learning?

Many Chinese reformers admire the late Taiwanese scholar Yin Haiguang, who was dismissed from teaching in 1966 during the martial law era in Taiwan. A courageous free thinker, Yin sacrificed a brilliant career to speak out against the dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek. "Even if politics is bad, it's important to face it," Yin told his students more than two decades before democracy was achieved for the island republic. Popular among reformers in China, Yin wrote many articles challenging one-party rule and propaganda-based education, though his books were banned in Taiwan during his lifetime.

Freedom in the academic world can be elusive. One scholar's progressive ideas may be another's heresy. Hence the importance of openness, tolerance, and reason as the foundations of learning. These principles emerged from the European Enlightenment when critical thinking and opposition to tyranny brought a new era of optimism and achievement that changed the course of history.

Protecting a moral legacy

Educators engaging with China must be vigilant and protect this moral legacy. As Yin insisted during Taiwan's dark times a half century ago, educators cannot avert their eyes from the tyranny and injustice of their surroundings. Otherwise, they will eviscerate their strength and negate their purpose.

Future generations of students require free thought and inquiry to cope with the challenges they will face. These skills must be taught and learned well, especially in today's China.

Julian Baum is a journalist formerly based in both Beijing and Taipei, Taiwan.

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