Cornell decision adds to growing climate of fear on Chinese campuses

  • US college has suspended two exchange programmes with Renmin University out of concern for academic freedom
  • Student says he hopes Renmin ‘can reflect on its practices and restrictions’ after labour rights activists said they were punished
PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 10:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 5:43am

A decision by Cornell University to suspend two exchange programmes with a leading Chinese college out of concern for academic freedom has added to a growing climate of fear on campuses in China.

The decision by Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labour Relations (ILR) came after students at Renmin University of China said they had been punished for their labour rights activism.

One of the Renmin students who took part in demonstrations and has worked at a factory to better understand workers’ needs said: “What kind of people is our education system trying to build? Pillars of society who care about our workers and farmers, or egocentric elitists?

“I appreciate what Cornell has done in support of academic freedom and labour activism, and I hope our university can reflect on its practices and restrictions for students,” he said.

Meanwhile, a student group supporting workers involved in a labour dispute at Shenzhen-based Jasic Technology tweeted that “those who stand on the opposite side to the people will pay”.

The group has regularly tweeted about the intensifying clampdown at universities, as the authorities target young activists inspired by Marxism who in recent years have been trying to bring change on issues ranging from workers’ rights to feminism and income equality.

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In the Jasic case, students from Renmin and other universities travelled to Shenzhen to back the workers in their campaign for union rights at the factory, which makes electronic welding machines and robotic arms.

On August 24, police in riot gear raided the flat where they were staying in Huizhou, near Shenzhen, and detained about 50 activists. Most of them have since been released, but four have been placed under “residential surveillance at a designated location” – a form of secret detention – while four others are still in custody and could face prosecution, according to their friends and other activists.

But the whereabouts of one activist, 22-year-old Yue Xin, remain unknown. Yue had in April accused Peking University of trying to silence her for demanding information about the handling of a sexual misconduct case that led to a student’s suicide 20 years ago – one of China’s most discussed #MeToo incidents.

Eli Friedman, a labour expert and director of international programmes at Cornell’s ILR school, said it had decided to suspend the exchange programmes after learning about Renmin University’s restrictions on student discussions.

“It is Renmin’s responsibility, particularly at the labour school, to ensure that students can learn about labour conflicts and the sources of the conflicts,” Friedman said.

He said the school informed Renmin about the suspension last week, after two months of discussions and consultation on the issue with the Cornell administration.

In the past, the ILR school sent eight to 10 students to study at Renmin in Beijing every summer, while about two Chinese students went to Cornell in Ithaca, New York, in autumn. ILR students could also apply to study at Renmin’s business school.

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Friedman said the decision would not affect Renmin students currently at Cornell, and the school would consider reopening the programmes if Renmin allowed its students to discuss labour issues freely.

Renmin University did not respond to requests for comment.

Since the new academic year began in September, young Marxists have come up against tighter controls at their universities. Marxist student societies have said they had trouble renewing their registrations at top colleges including Renmin University, Nanjing University, the University of Science and Technology Beijing.

Peking University also threatened to deregister its student Marxism society, which had supported the Jasic workers and published reports on campus workers’ rights.