China Wants to Silence Critics. Universities Must Fight Back | Opinion

While the rest of the world watches, China is systematically destroying the remnants of pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong. Amidst these efforts to eliminate dissent, it is vital that universities here in the United States and around the world stand by freedom of expression. Few other institutions can be relied on to do the same.

The fear on campuses is palpable.

Last week, Hong Kong Free Press editor-in-chief Tom Grundy withdrew from a classroom Zoom discussion after a University of Leeds instructor asked him to avoid discussing Hong Kong's protest movement due to "safety concerns" for Chinese students.

And just weeks ago, Princeton professor Rory Truex advised students in China against taking his Chinese politics course due to the legal concerns it could raise for them.

The root of instructors' fears about student safety? China's sweeping national security law, with purposefully broad bans on "subversion" and "separatism" that can ensnare anyone disfavored by Beijing and has wreaked havoc upon Hong Kong's democracy movement since the law went into effect in June.

Beyond gutting civil liberties in Hong Kong, the law now affects speech on campuses around the world.

In the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere, faculty members have changed teaching methods to protect students, especially international students, who may be at legal risk due to discussions about China that could violate the pernicious law.

This initiative largely has been led by individual professors who have refused pressure to self-censor sensitive material while still seeking measures that would preserve student anonymity. The stakes are even higher after COVID-19 forced classes online and introduced increased risk of surveillance.

What makes the law especially troubling to campuses is its assertion that it applies to offenses "from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region." That means your words—on campus or elsewhere—could follow you if you ever step foot in Hong Kong or mainland China.

The friction between universities and China did not originate with the law's passage; in recent years, troubling incidents of intimidation, pressure and self-censorship have emerged on U.S. campuses.

In 2015, a Harvard Law School vice dean interfered with Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer Teng Biao's campus event because its timing coincided with then-Harvard President Drew Faust's trip to Beijing.

In 2009, North Carolina State University rescinded its invitation to the Dalai Lama. NCSU's provost admitted, "I don't want to say we didn't think about whether there were implications. Of course you do. China is a major trading partner for North Carolina."

A 2018 report found that, for the prior two decades, some Chinese officials pressured administrators to cancel sensitive events at George Washington University, UC Berkeley and other institutions.

Chinese flag
A Chinese worker raises a national flag on the top of a building on August 28, 2020, in the financial district of Shanghai, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

As recently as November, controversy erupted at Brandeis University over a panel discussing Uighurs in Xinjiang. Amidst demands that the university "not treat [China] as a target for condemnation," Brandeis did not cancel the event, but panelists were Zoombombed by attendees who added "FAKE NEWS," "hypocritical" and other barbs onto panelists' screens, disrupting the event and interfering with speakers' presentations.

And while reports of censorship attempts materialize in the United States, a number of prestigious universities maintain satellite campuses and university partnerships in China, often promising freedom of expression despite China's clear record of suppression.

Universities and society benefit when learning is shared across borders. But we must consider the damage when universities are complicit in upholding the façade that free inquiry is easily within reach under the watchful eye of authoritarianism.

In a rare move, Cornell suspended its partnership with Renmin University of China in 2018 over reports that the university surveilled and censored student labor activists. A year later, Cornell released a set of guidelines for international partnerships, including a provision putting termination of the program on the table if academic freedom violations occur.

Other universities conducting operations in a significantly unfree region like China—and now Hong Kong—should follow Cornell's example.

University leaders may not want to acknowledge that their partnerships could inhibit academic freedom, but they owe it to students and faculty to prepare for the possibility that the expressive rights they promised may be undermined.

This is not an easy test, and it's one that could interfere with universities' access to financial support from international students and overseas expansions. When pressured to censor speech at their home campuses or to turn a blind eye to troubling realities at their expansions abroad, universities must transparently reject these efforts and reaffirm their commitments to free expression.

China is attempting to control the global conversation about its escalations in Hong Kong and its treatment of Uighurs.

Now universities must stand by what defines them: the freedom to speak, study and research. Dissenters around the world deserve nothing less.

Sarah McLaughlin is the director of targeted advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.