China’s Threats to Academic Freedom Abroad

Fears of China’s growing threat to academic freedom have heightened worldwide. On 30 October, the Belgian authorities denied a residence permit to Song Xinning, former director of the Confucius Institute at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, making it impossible for him to return to his job or enter any other country in the Schengen area. Accused of spying for China, Song responded by blaming the Belgian State Security Service for smearing him, and appealed Belgium’s decision. A second scandal erupted in early November in the Czech Republic, when it was revealed that secret payments from China were made to four faculty members at Charles University in Prague. The scandal intensified anxiety that China could leverage its connections with some Czech politicians to deepen its influence in academia. Meanwhile, the British Parliament released a report that showed ‘alarming evidence’ of Chinese interference in British universities, with some of the activities that sought to curb academic freedom seemingly coordinated by the Chinese Embassy in London. On the other side of the Atlantic, on 3 November the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at McMaster University in Canada failed to reverse the decertification of its club status. The association had been stripped of its license in September, following concerns that it had monitored student and academic activities on campus on behalf of the Chinese government. The most disturbing news comes from Japan. On 15 November, Nobu Iwatani, a Japanese professor at Hokkaido University, returned to Japan safely after being detained in China for over two months for apparently possessing a ‘forbidden book’. He had travelled to the country on invitation of the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and was detained upon his arrival at the hotel designated by his hosts. Exacerbating existent worries about China’s expanding interference in international academia was the confession in late November by Wang William Liqiang, a self-claimed former Chinese spy seeking political asylum in Australia. Among other things, Wang also alleged that he was personally involved in infiltrating universities in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, universities in China are increasingly subjected to the control of the Chinese Communist Party. In December, changes to the charters of three elite universities in China—Fudan University in Shanghai, Nanjing University, and Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an—dropped the phrase ‘freedom of thought’ and included of a pledge to follow the leadership of the Party. This prompted heated discussions online, which were quickly censored, and a flash mob of Fudan students who gathered to singing their college anthem, which includes the phrase ‘freedom of thought’. NLiu


(Source: Financial Times; The Japan Times; Reuters; South China Morning Post; The Age; The Guardian 1; The Guardian 2)

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