Over the last three years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has intensified his campaign to crack down on every segment of Chinese society, including academia. From teaching to research, the repression has left its mark across a wide range of collegiate activities. Chinese professors have censored classroom lectures to avoid touching upon prohibited Western themes, while well-known scholars—such as Xia Yeliang, an economist and signatory of the human rights document Charter 08, who was fired by Beijing University—have paid a high price for their unorthodox views. These changes are certainly troubling for Chinese campuses, but so is the silence from the leaders of U.S. colleges and universities who have shown no signs of rethinking their growing ties to China.

It’s hard not to conclude that these university administrators have been silent because they hope to continue to tap a very lucrative education market. To be sure, as in other sectors of China’s economy, the opportunity has enormous potential. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students seek to study abroad at brand-name universities, while thousands of others have set their sights on new foreign programs in China itself, such as those run by Johns Hopkins, New York University, and Duke in Nanjing, Shanghai, and Kunshan.

China’s ten-year plan to transform its educational system, an effort to bring Chinese schools to internationally competitive levels, continues to attract foreign institutions seeking opportunities to expand their brand as well as grow their revenues both at home and abroad. With well over 200 programs and partners in China, U.S. colleges and universities have grabbed the lion’s share of the market. Half of the more than two dozen foreign branch campuses in China are U.S. ventures (although they are all partnerships with China because Beijing does not permit stand-alone foreign campuses).

As part of its national development goals, Beijing encourages local governments to invest in these campuses. As a result, cities and provinces across the country are funding lecture halls and laboratories as well as helping to underwrite the universities’ revenue-generating programs. A case in point is Duke and Wuhan Universities’ collaboration on Duke Kunshan University, which opened in 2014 in the city of Kunshan west of Shanghai. Duke is spending some $42 million through 2020 to support this venture, while the Kunshan city government has invested $200 million in the campus and is also paying for half the new school’s operating costs. In fact, Beijing is encouraging municipal investment in joint ventures between foreign and Chinese universities because it believes it will create the infrastructure and the intellectual capital needed to spark and sustain innovation and economic growth.

A student takes a nap on a desk during his lunch break in a classroom in Hefei, Anhui Province, June 2, 2012.

Of course, university leaders frame these initiatives not in terms of their moneymaking potential but as philanthropic projects for transmitting know-how to Chinese students, forging new global learning networks, and developing unique cross-cultural programs. As Jeffrey Lehman, the vice chancellor of New York University’s Shanghai campus, put it last year, “I believe . . . that this is a noble project.” Noble project or not, Xi’s crackdown, which includes free speech on Chinese campuses, makes clear that Beijing has a decidedly different perspective not only on what education amounts to but also on what universities can and can’t do.

For one thing, new legislation passed in April by the National People’s Congress gives public security officials and police far-reaching powers over foreign nongovernmental organizations in China. Implementation is still in the works, but the law has already raised major questions about how it will constrain the activities and works of foreign academics, such as “study in China” travel seminars, alumni meetings that include academic presentations, and research trips that bring U.S.-based university scholars to “joint venture” campuses in China. As things stand now, the new law could call for police approval of such activities, as well as of the content of any presentations. Such a process should trouble any institution that prizes academic freedom. 

The growing number of detentions and arrests in China—from journalists, bloggers, lawyers, religious leaders, and labor activists to businessmen and professors—should be an even stronger warning about the line Beijing expects a foreign campus in China to toe. Of course, U.S. university administrators have asserted their unfettered latitude to speak and write on their campuses in China, arguing that faculty and students in China do enjoy the same academic freedoms as in the United States. Their behavior and language, however, have proven otherwise.

U.S. university administrators have asserted their unfettered latitude to speak and write on their campuses in China, arguing that faculty and students in China do enjoy the same academic freedoms as in the United States. Their behavior and language, however, have proven otherwise.

Take New York University’s approach to political debate in its Shanghai classrooms. In 2012, then NYU President John Sexton said, in describing the university’s (then) soon-to-open program in China, that he “had no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression” on its new Shanghai campus. But when it came to faculty or students in Shanghai criticizing the Chinese government, Sexton said, “These are two different things.” He didn’t elaborate any further, but Sexton clearly implied that NYU’s idea of academic freedom didn’t cover political speech on the school’s Shanghai campus. In Kunshan, Gao Xiqing, a senior Chinese investment manager who is on Duke’s board of trustees, said as much about Duke’s program last year. “Academic freedom,” he explained, “is a relative concept.”

When it comes to academic freedom, Johns Hopkins’ administrators in Nanjing demonstrated their own “theory of relativity” five years ago when they canceled a school screening of a documentary on the Tiananmen uprising and blocked the distribution of its first student journal outside the joint program’s classrooms. University President Ronald Daniels all but acknowledged the contradiction between the concept of academic freedom on U.S. campuses and its application in China. He said at the time, “Is it what we would desire for every project, every center we’re involved in? The answer is no.” Daniels also offered no further explanation, but he left a clear impression that the success of Johns Hopkins’ 30-year-long joint venture in China has come at the expense of academic freedom, even if the institution was reluctant to compromise. But it was a blatant example of how “academic freedom” is compromised on these joint venture campuses.

Given their rhetorical gymnastics and self-censorship, university administrators are well aware that their values do not align with Beijing’s and that Chinese officials are paying close attention to their behavior. As elsewhere in China, police and security services have unfettered access to the campuses. The Communist Party is a fixture in all Chinese organizations, including universities, and the Ministry of Education’s 2013 progress report on joint venture campuses made clear that party officials are keeping an eye on foreign academia as well: “Joint venture universities . . . have insisted on establishing Communist Party committees . . . wherever there are party members, achieving the party’s no-blind-spot coverage on the grassroots level.”

To date, university leaders have said nothing about the future of their campuses in the face of China’s growing repression. Discussing its Shanghai campus a few months ago, NYU President Andrew Hamilton said he believed “a presence such as NYU’s . . . brings more freedom of ideas, not less.” After three years of Xi Jinping’s crackdown, the facts suggest otherwise. For the university presidents and chancellors who tout their presence and partnerships in China, a statement about their institutions’ academic values is long overdue.

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  • KENT HARRINGTON is a former Senior CIA Analyst. He served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, Chief of Station in Asia, and the CIA’s Director of Public Affairs. 
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