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A screengrab of the censored video clip showing dozens of students taking part in a flash mob demonstration against changes to Fudan University’s charter. Photo: YouTube

China’s Fudan University students in flash mob for freedom of thought

  • Video clip of protest against changes to charter removing ‘free thinking’ goes viral on Chinese social media before it is censored
  • Global Times editor-in-chief describes the revisions as ‘insensitive’

Dozens of students at a prestigious university in Shanghai, eastern China, took part in a singing flash mob demonstration on Wednesday against changes to its charter that have replaced commitments to “free thinking” and “democratic management” with long-winded ideological jargon.

About a dozen students started singing the first verse of the Fudan University school song – which celebrates the pursuit of academic independence and free thinking without political and ideological influence – accompanied by a harmonica as campus security and teaching staff looked on.

The flash mob lasted just under 20 minutes on the first and second floors of the Danyuan cafeteria in Guanghua Building on campus. More students joined the action, which concluded with the participants dispersing. No slogans were shouted or banners displayed, according to a Fudan student who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“The university is aware of this, and it is clear to us that the students who organised the flash mob were responding to the alteration of our charter,” the student said.

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A video clip of the flash mob at Fudan – a relatively liberal college and one of China’s most prestigious – went viral on Chinese social media. The clip has since been censored as debate over the change to the institution’s charter has continued to intensify. The Fudan song’s lyrics have also been widely shared on the internet.

Changes to the charters of two other leading institutions – Nanjing University and Shaanxi Normal University – were also approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education on Tuesday.

Tongue-twisting party jargon has been extensively added to Fudan’s charter, which now highlights the “Chinese Communist Party’s leadership under the guidance of Marxism and Socialism”. The revisions include “upholding the leadership of the CCP”, “implement the party’s direction, principles and policy”.

References to the university’s core values, such as academic integrity, encouraging students to pursue the virtues of unity, servitude and sacrifice, have been replaced with “patriotic contribution”, while “free thinking” and “academic independence” have been removed from the second clause. The university’s commitment to “respect and protect academic freedom” has been retained, but downgraded to clause 18.

While the original charter stated that governance at Fudan was in the hands of “teachers and students” and “democratic management”, the revised version places that responsibility with the “Chinese Communist Party Fudan University Committee” and its “chancellor”.

It was the removal of “free thinking” from Fudan University’s charter that became the most heatedly debated topic on Chinese social media, with even Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of nationalistic tabloid Global Times, calling the changes “insensitive” and saying they “caused resentment among the people” on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform.

Without making a direct reference to Fudan’s charter change, Hu said, “we should not go for unlimited ‘political correctness’, and in actual fact causing dissatisfaction of the masses, creating barriers among the people and eroding social confidence”.

“Words like democracy and freedom are part of the 24-word socialist core values too,” he said.

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Ideological control has been tightening on Chinese university campuses in recent years. All universities and colleges in China are under the control of a party committee, which oversees party affairs on campus and the running of the schools.

A slew of outspoken academics have been sacked or suspended after criticising the stifling of academic freedom by the party’s excessive control.

Fudan was among the first batch of 26 Chinese universities ordered by the education ministry in December 2010 to review their charters in a bid to refine their governance.

A number of Fudan’s teaching staff were approached by the South China Morning Post but declined to comment.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Flash mob aims to uphold free thought