American Universities’ China Problem

Robert Precht:

According to a report released last month by a group of distinguished China scholars, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses vague threats to induce US professors and students to avoid topics that might offend Chinese government sensitivities—research or discussions on Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, human rights, and Chinese politics, for example. It denies visas to scholars who criticize the regime, uses Chinese students in the US to inform on one another, and punishes universities for hosting controversial speakers. After a university hosted the Dalai Lama, Beijing retaliated by banning Chinese students and scholars with funding from the Chinese government from attending the university. When the institutions we entrust to pursue the truth start avoiding the truth—particularly academic research that few of us can do on our own—we all suffer.

The importance of universities’ truth-seeking role cannot be overstated. Medical researchers produce data on effective and ineffective therapies. Economists measure the impacts of different policy options. Sociologists study how public institutions and individual experiences affect education and its outcomes. Political scientists analyze governments. The integrity of American universities has rarely been questioned because it was assumed scholars enjoy academic freedom.

In contrast, Chinese scholars inhabit a very different world. When I worked in Beijing 10 years ago, I frequently met scholars who had to be careful about what they said. In 2010, I co-hosted a program with a well-respected professor at Peking University—China’s finest. He became agitated and angry when one of the speakers just mentioned the name of a critic of the regime, Liu Xiaobo. The professor feared he would be demoted or have his salary cut. The incident gave me renewed gratitude for the freedom on US campuses.