Academic Collaboration with China is Important. But What’s the Price?

Example of self-censorship in a Chinese academic journal. The journal editor requested the removal of the highlighted sentence for the reasons shown. The sentence was removed, the article has been published. The identifying information (author/editor names, journal/article title, etc.) have been removed to protect the anonymity of the involved parties. (Image: Lochost of China/CC0/ Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years, Chinese academia has embarked on a path of sustained, if uneven, academic internationalization. Internationalization has occurred along multiple tracks: exchange and cooperation agreements between Chinese and foreign universities, the creation of teaching and research centers at Chinese universities that are operated jointly with a foreign partner universities, permission for foreign universities to found overseas campuses in China in collaboration with Chinese universities, extensive scholarship programs to attract foreign students to Chinese universities, ‘talent schemes’ to recruit particularly promising scholars from overseas, as well as the employment of foreign academics outside such schemes. These initiatives are meant to develop China’s universities, enhance their international standing, boost research, promote China as an international study destination, and improve the country’s image, particularly among its partners in the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.

China’s approach to academic internationalization, as we have just described it, hardly seems unusual, and the tracks pursued by the country’s universities and government have been employed in similar ways elsewhere. However, internationalization in China is stunted by both longstanding features of Chinese academia and newly emerging trends. Discussion and analysis of these obstacles has remained curiously limited in the academic literature on academic internationalization in China. One reason for this may lie in the increasingly pressing need for scholars of China to self-censor and avoid the wide range of topics that are deemed politically ‘sensitive’ in the country. The fact that the authorship of this short piece is anonymized speaks to this need. In any case, it seems worthwhile to point out some of the limits to academic internationalization in China.

Considering these limits, a useful point of departure lies in wiping the lipstick off the pig and acknowledging that, under its current ruler, the Chinese party-state has acquired neo-totalitarian features. The squishy label of ‘authoritarianism’ will not do anymore, at a time at a which the Chinese party-state systematically intervenes in its citizens’ private lives, seeks to define and micro-manage moral conduct, imprisons or otherwise punishes thousands and thousands of people for their religion, their ethnicity, their political views, or their opinions on the most recent movie, runs a system of concentration camps, and on and on. Importantly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pursues its totalitarian ends as much through persuasion as via coercion. One of the defining features of its approach to totalitarian rule arguably lies in its efforts to create, within China and, increasingly, abroad, an intellectual, cognitive and emotional environment in which alternatives to CCP rule become unimaginable.

All this comes with specific consequences for universities. To begin with, it is important to note that ‘university’ in China does not mean the same kind of organizational structure as it might elsewhere. Universities in China are an immediate element of the party-state, in terms of their structure and governance. So, for instance, each administrative unit and academic department has a dual structure, in which academic and administrative offices are paralleled by CCP offices. So, for example, within any academic department will be shared between a head of department and a party secretary. The same applies to any other level of administration and governance. This pattern characterizes Chinese public and private universities and, to a more limited degree, the overseas campuses of foreign universities in China. In the former, the Party is everywhere. In the latter, it would like to be everywhere.

Totalitarian rule and the governance strategies it entails therefore have direct implications for academic internationalization at Chinese universities and for their collaboration with universities abroad.

While many Chinese universities have made a sustained investment in internationalization, along the pathways outlined above, they are simultaneously engaged in broad-ranging efforts to create and maintain intellectual purity on their campuses, among staff, students, and administrators. These efforts involve a comprehensive regime of political indoctrination. A third or more of undergraduate students’ degree course will consist of modules geared towards political indoctrination, staff and administrators are regularly required to attend indoctrination events, and the soundness of academics’ ideological position is monitored, audited, and recorded. Freedom of consciousness, thought, and expression is absent from university campuses, and academic freedom does not exist. Classrooms are fitted with surveillance cameras and microphones to ensure that teaching does not deviate from the lines established by the CCP. Research and research funding priorities are systematically aligned with the socio-economic development priorities of the party-state, and Chinese universities might be usefully thought of as tools in the Party’s efforts at social engineering.

To be sure, academics can choose the subjects of their research freely to an extent, but they would do well not to touch upon subjects or express views that might contradict the Party’s positions or offend their leaders. The authors of the present texts are immediately aware, for example, of several cases in which academics have been punished or dismissed for expressing politically unacceptable views over the past year. Likewise, we know of scholars who have to disguise their religious faith, or who have been advised that their career prospects are limited due to their ethnic origin. In order to succeed in Chinese academia, you and your scholarship need to be closely aligned with the Truth, as always already defined by the Party.

There are likewise mechanisms to curtail international intellectual exchange and the challenges to the Party’s Truth that it might bring. For example, presentations by Chinese scholars at foreign conferences are subject to ideological audits before overseas trips are approved by universities. Local conferences involving substantial numbers of overseas scholars, in particular in the social sciences and humanities, will equally be subject to ideological assessments that may take months to complete and render the effective organization of such events unfeasible. While journals and academic books in subjects that are instrumentally useful to socio-economic and technological development in China, typically in the natural sciences and engineering, can be readily accessed, foreign-language books and journals in other subjects have become increasingly difficult to access. Chinse translations of literature or academic books in the social sciences can be readily obtained, having been reviewed and censored prior to their publication in China. The direct import of uncensored foreign-language books has become very difficult indeed. Foreign-language books are typically not sold at university bookshops, and the stock the few foreign-language bookshops in China’s metropolitan centers is readily surpassed in quality and range by the bookshop at your local airport.

To be sure, among the small number of foreign academics employed at Chinese universities, there are those who have found an academic home and remained in the country for a long time. Nonetheless, the preceding examples illustrate how academic internationalization in China is curtailed by a strict regime of totalitarian ideological control. These controls stand in open contradiction to universities’ program of internationalization and threaten to jeopardize them altogether.

At the same time, from our outsiders’ perspective, the question arises how collaboration with China’s totalitarian universities can still be morally justified. Justifications of such collaboration were long grounded in the narrative that sustained foreign engagement with China would support the liberalization and internationalization of its socio-political structures. This narrative holds no longer, as the CCP has, over the past decade, firmly committed to a neo-totalitarian political program. By cooperating with Chinese universities, foreign scholars, students, universities, and governments run the risk of legitimizing the CCP’s neo-totalitarian rule. Is this really the way forward?

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