Academic freedom in Yantai

Behind the intended University of Groningen Yantai (UGY), there is a philosophy. An important part of that philosophy is the argument that by bringing the Dutch higher education model to Yantai and Yantai students to Groningen, both sides will benefit and, in particular, Western ideas of academic freedom will spread into China.

This is a very strong argument, for several reasons. First, academic freedom is indivisible: you cannot desire it for the Netherlands and not for China. Second, you introduce it not through preaching but through practice: you do what you are good at and, almost invisibly, daily experiences make the minds more free and critical. Third, China is a country with a very impressive scholarship tradition since the days of Confucius.

There are some countervailing factors, however. I see three of them: the general political situation, the world surrounding the campus, and life on the campus.

Seven speak-nots

First, the political situation. In May 2013, six months after coming to power, President and Party leader Xi Jinping issued a memorandum, called Document no. 9. It presented a ‘Seven Speak-Nots’ policy. This new policy intended to ban the teaching or discussing of seven topics at universities: ‘universal values, such as human rights’; ‘freedom of the press’; ‘political and other rights for citizens’; ‘civil society’; ‘historical mistakes by the Communist Party’; bureaucrats ‘who grow rich through their monopoly of vested interests’; and ‘judicial independence’.

In January 2015, Education Minister Yuan Guiren urged a tightening of control over textbooks that spread ‘Western values’. Yuan added that university lecturers were forbidden to complain in the classroom and to transmit ‘harmful moods’ to the students. Universities had to step up propaganda and teaching of Marxism on campus.

And last May, a new draft law on ‘managing foreign NGOs’ was introduced in the National People’s Congress (the parliament). It includes a catch-all phrase that could curb anything that is considered a threat to national security. This has sparked alarm in academic circles, because universities appear to be treated as NGOs. The law could be approved by the end of this year.

Although there seems to have been no systematic implementation of the ideology campaign in university classrooms yet, the ‘Seven Speak-Nots’ and the draft law create a chilling effect on campus. If anything, all this means that the general political situation is not conducive to academic freedom.

Freedom of expression

Second, the history of the persecution of dissident intellectuals in China is well documented. The freedom of expression of individuals outside the campus — including the academic freedom of foreign scholars to speak about their expertise to the press or in public venues — is not non-existent but still risky. And the quasi-permanent presence and surveillance of the Chinese Communist Party and Public Security Bureau at universities make it safe to say that at least one important aspect of academic freedom, namely university autonomy, is fragile.

Academic freedom

Third: academic freedom on campus. Reports here are consistently more favorable. Many sources confirm that academic freedom on university campuses does exist and has increased at great pace since the days of Deng Xiaoping. And if that is true for regular universities, it is even more so for joint ventures. There are, however, daily obstacles to the free circulation of thought. From first-hand experience last month, I can tell you that Google and its services are blocked. Researchers must use so-called Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in order to access such services and even these are increasingly cut.

Although the freedom to speak on campus is considerable, staff and students can easily go too far. If foreign staff and students are too critical in the eyes of the Party or government, they are punished with blacklisting and are no longer extended a visa. This technique is well documented. If domestic staff and students are being too critical, what happens next is usually less visible. A classical pattern is that they are reported upon. Some are intimidated and see their graduation or career at serious risk. In sum, strict internet control hampers intellectual traffic, and fear instilled in students and scholars jeopardizes the quality of education.

Unpredictable risks

The conclusion from this analysis must be, first, that there is a real window of opportunity for academic freedom in Yantai and that the perspectives are not as bleak as pessimists say. Nevertheless, this window of opportunity is surrounded by risks, many of which are considerable and unpredictable. Much caution is needed.

In its attempt to spread the message, the University of Groningen should not, should never, condone the harassment or persecution of academics and students under its flag, even if this flag is labeled UGY. Evidence of the violation of the academic freedom of anybody on the campus should be sufficient reason to withdraw from UGY. In this spirit, we welcome the fact that to its concessions to the Council made in June, the Board has recently, on 21 September, added a new one: I quote: ‘Academic freedom shall be respected at UGY.’

Academic freedom is of paramount importance to the Personnel Faction. Speaking on behalf of the majority of the personnel, we have consistently demanded attention for academic freedom since our first comment on the Yantai file last April.

We understand that the Board cannot predict the future of academic freedom in China. We understand that the Board cannot guarantee academic freedom outside the campus. We understand, albeit reluctantly, that the political and legal conditions are such that a Chinese campus is more subject to control than a Dutch one. But we urge the Board to insert the new concession on academic freedom in any agreement with the Chinese Education Ministry. And, more importantly, to add to that concession the following clause: ‘If University of Groningen standards of academic freedom or scientific integrity are compromised, any agreement or program may be canceled at any time.’

Antoon de Baets is spokesperson for the Personnel Faction in the University Council.