Some of the world’s leading scholars on China have called for a united international front in defense of university freedoms, amid allegations of an increased Chinese threat to academic investigations following the passage of Hong Kong’s national security law.
Individual universities will be selected unless a general agreement is reached to counter Chinese interference in China̵
They emphasize the threat posed by Article 38 of the General Law on National Security, which states that the law is applicable to persons living outside the territory and persons not coming from there.
The law was imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in June after more than a year of anti-democracy protests.
Academics argue that Article 38 creates the worrying prospect of students traveling through Hong Kong and China being sentenced to lengthy prison sentences based on academic work that Chinese authorities consider subversive.
The signatories, representing 71 academic institutions in 16 countries, cited allegations that China-related modules also dropped writings self-censored by students for fear of reprisals.
“Universities should be a place for vigorous debate and offer a safe space for staff and students to discuss controversial issues without fear or favor,” said a letter signed by academics. “The national security law, which is global in scope and application under Article 38, will compromise freedom of speech and academic autonomy, creating a chilling effect and encouraging critics of the Chinese party-state to self-censor.”
Dr Andreas Fulda, a senior fellow at the Asian Research Institute at the University of Nottingham and one of the initiators of the letter, said: “Several students – from both the United Kingdom and mainland China – have told me in private that they are concerned that comments made in class or essays will be used as evidence against them.
“Universities cannot tackle this challenge alone. A united front of academic leaders, politicians and senior government officials is needed to build a common defense of our academic freedoms. We must emphasize the law on national security as it is: an intensified attempt to stop China’s critical discussion, as opposed to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
He added: “It is widely known that the Chinese State Party is arming students to observe its university professors in mainland China and Hong Kong. Such attempts to instrumentalize students do not stop at the Chinese border. Prof. Vanessa Frangville revealed that the Chinese Embassy in Brussels has tried to hire students from the University of Brussels to express its disapproval of a Uighur demonstration in 2018. “
A professor of Sinology at the University of Leipzig recently told Hong Kong activist Glacier Kwong that “his students from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China have asked if they can drop out of his class because they are worried about being criticized by others. party in an hour ”.
This week, a separate group of British scientists called for a code of conduct so that teachers in higher education can be consulted at all stages on how to administer cooperation between universities and foreign governments.
The code calls for transparency in the American way regarding foreign funding of universities and a national ombudsman who may be subject to violations of the code. They also want more protection for international students on campus and for British researchers working in authoritarian states.
The code is expected to be backed up in principle by a paper from UK universities, due to be published this week, which will also cover issues such as the protection of intellectual property on campus.
Some Chinese professors at Oxford University have said they intend to anonymize some student articles given in group settings in an attempt to reduce feelings of fear of repression to discuss shortcomings in the Chinese model.
John Heathershaw, a professor of international relations at the University of Exeter, said: “The open market model for university funding risks leaving individual universities vulnerable to authoritarian donor approaches and there needs to be much more transparency and faculty involvement at an early stage on the conditions under which grants are awarded. “