Why China’s crackdown on academic freedom will backfire
- Beijing’s recent decision to remove a statement about academic freedom sparked protests at Fudan University – and they had a point
- This political suppression runs counter to Xi Jinping’s programme of ‘national rejuvenation’, undermining its reach for a knowledge-based economy
But when the government’s decision to drop the statement from the charter of Shanghai’s Fudan University came to light on December 17, it sparked a rare act of defiance. Students gathered in a cafeteria during their lunch break and joined in a rendition of school’s official anthem, which extols “academic independence and freedom of thought”. Professors and educators continued to show their discontent by joining in a chorus of the anthem on December 21, when they gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the school’s world economics department.
Established in 1905 by Ma Xiangbo, a famous Chinese Jesuit priest and educator, Fudan is considered one of the most prestigious and liberal campuses in China. Fudan got its name from the Confucian quotation “Its light shines heavily day after day”, committing its members towards undertakings that will brighten society.
Student protests have been rare in China since the bloody military crackdown on the student-led democratic movement in 1989. Though academic freedom is scarce in any communist-ruled nation, between 1978 and 1989 there had been some progress under the stewardship of reformist party leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Two of China’s post-1989 leaders, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, showed a limited tolerance towards freedom in classrooms, despite rejecting any meaningful political reform.
Theoretic study and historic experiences have suggested that academic freedom is vital both for creating the best universities and scientific discoveries. The idea has been deeply rooted in free societies since it was first written into the charter of Leiden University in the Netherlands in 1575. Today the university’s motto is “Praesidium Libertatis” – bastion of freedom. The concept is enshrined as the raison d’être of academic life by universities around the world, including many of China’s oldest, which were founded before communist rule.
The United States has offered the best example of how the unfettered search for truth by scholars is essential for any first-class academic institution to excel. Universities from the world’s sole superpower make up the vast majority of the world’s top 100 and the lion’s share of the top 25. In sharp contrast, China, which runs the world’s largest higher-education system, has had only a few schools – such as Peking and Tsinghua Universities – ranked among the world’s top 100.
The historic lesson from the suppression of Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism – the theory that the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun, a model developed by the mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus – has proved the critical importance of academic freedom in scientific research and discoveries.
When it comes to the Nobel Prize in science and economics, mapping the winners by university affiliation also proves the close relationship between academic freedom and achievements. All of the world’s top 70 universities, each with at least a dozen laureates, come from free democracies – in Europe, North America and Japan.
Among them, Harvard University tops the list with 160 Nobel laureates, followed by the University of Cambridge’s 120, University of California, Berkeley’s 107, University of Chicago’s 100, and Columbia University and MIT’s 96.
When it comes to laureates’ country of origin, China – which has had only one Nobel Prize winner in science – lags far behind even small nations, like Sweden’s 32 laureates, Switzerland’s 28, and Austria’s 22. These three countries each have a population of 10 million or fewer – China has 1.4 billion people.
The Chinese leadership’s effort to tighten its grip on campuses comes as a growing number of Chinese youth head overseas for education, as a result of their increasing disappointment over the country’s politically dictated education system.
In China, some professors of ideologically related social sciences are forced to give up their academic pursuits due to the fear of being punished, and shift to non-academic jobs. The academic clampdown is undermining the government’s effort to attract high-quality, overseas-educated talents to take up jobs in Chinese universities.
This political suppression also runs counter to Xi’s cherished programme of “national rejuvenation”, as an academic clampdown would undermine the country’s embrace of the knowledge-based economy – which is characterised by a dependence on a highly skilled, well-educated, and technically minded workforce, and driven by innovation and scientific findings.
Tertiary education is broadly defined as a key driver of growth, prosperity and competitiveness in a knowledge economy. It also plays a pioneering role in creating a better world, as it helps promote the dissemination of knowledge, upheld law and order, bolster social ethic and harmony, and shore up good governance.
Academic freedom to universities is as significant as water to fish and air to human beings – as Albert Einstein once asserted, academic freedom is the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. “It is evident that any restriction on academic freedom acts in such a way as to hamper the dissemination of knowledge among the people and thereby impedes national judgment and action,” said the greatest physicist and scientist of the 20th century.
China’s ongoing campaigns are intent on legitimising the party’s monopoly on knowledge and truth, amid the bankruptcy of communist ideology. However, the party should focus on efforts to deliver prosperity and promote social and political advancement to prop up the legitimacy of its rule, rather than resorting to political suppression and backtracking to revive rotten ideologies at the expense of the nation’s economic development and social advancement. ■
Cary Huang is a veteran China affairs columnist, having written on the topic since the early 1990s