The People’s Republic of China (China) has consistently been one of the lowest-ranking countries for academic freedom. In its 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Sans Frontiers ranked China 175th, out of 180 countries for their state of journalism, describing it as “the world's largest prison for journalists, and its regime conducts a campaign of repression against journalism and the right to information worldwide.” Similarly, China ranked “not free” in Freedom House’s 2022 Global Freedom Score and Internet Freedom Score, in their Freedom in the World Index. On a daily basis, popular apps and websites including Google, Wikipedia, and international newspapers are blocked in China.
Additionally, there is a long list, that is constantly changing and growing, of topics that are implicitly or explicitly forbidden. This list currently includes the Falungong, underground churches, the Tian’anmen massacre, political dissidents, Uyghurs, Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, self-immolation, corruption of top leaders, human rights activists, the death penalty, torture, organ transplants, and Taiwan’s democracy.
People who are involved in these topics may be persecuted, jailed under false charges, tortured, made to disappear, among other things. Some people struggle to not be a part of this list, if it includes their ethnicity, whereas others can choose not to address the topics. Even academic research that does not criticize the government can be dangerous when it comes to this list. Scholars, activists, and students have to always be on guard and prepared to change the direction of their work if the list changes and suddenly includes their topics.
Although academic freedom has been under threat for many years in China, it has drastically worsened since Xi Jinping was appointed Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012.
By May 2013, the CCP distributed an internal circular titled “On the Current Situation in the Ideological Domain”(known as Document No. 9) and it was shared online by Professor Zhang Xuezhong. The document instructs universities to not discuss: universal values (普世价值不要讲), freedom of the press (新闻自由不要讲), civil society (公民社会不要讲), civil rights (公民权利不要讲), historical mistakes by the Party (党的历史错误不要讲), Party-elite capitalism (权贵资产阶级不要讲), and judicial independence (司法独立不要讲). Scores of teachers and professors have been banned from teaching, publishing, or have been dismissed and detained since the pass of Document No. 9.
Professor Illham Tohti is an ethnically Uyghur economist at China Minzu University in Beijing. He founded a blog called Uighurbiz which discussed China’s policies for Uyghurs. In 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and video recordings of his classes were used as evidence against him.
Professor Xu Zhiyong was a Professor at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications and one of the leading human rights activists. He founded multiple NGOs and movements and was detained for 4 years between 2013 and 2017, being convicted for "gathering crowds to disrupt public order". He was detained again and charged with “subverting the state power” in 2020, for his human rights activism and articles, one of which demanded Xi jinping’s stepdown.
These are two cases among many scholars who have been threatened and punished in China. Scholars of ethnic minorities, or related to any other topics in the “list” are especially at risk. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, 386 intellectuals have been interned, disappeared, or imprisoned since 2017. Furthemore, the Xinjiang Victims Database lists 152
individuals who died in custody or shortly after their release. Among them are religious scholars Muhammad Salih Hajim and Abdulehed Mehsum; scholars Abdusattar Qarahajim and Erkinjan Abdukerim; students Abdusalam Mamat, Yasinjan and Mutellip Nurmehmet. These are the known cases only.
Additionally, a disturbing pattern has recently emerged, illustrating China’s attempts to control academic freedom abroad. The Confucius Institutes and Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) are used to influence academic institutions, by controlling the teaching staff, syllabus, and trying to cancel events that threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s image abroad. Many institutions are also affected by economic coercion, where China withholds or threatens to withhold funding if the institution does not follow their narrative correctly.
Individuals abroad also engage in self-censorship and face harassment, intimidation and even abduction. For example, Perry Link, author of The Long Shadow of Chinese Blacklists on American Academia gave examples of people changing dissertation topics, Professor Teng Biao had scheduled talks cancelled, and teachers at a new Chinese-owned private school in Vancouver were told to “tread lightly” around China-related topics. Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish publisher and writer, was abducted from Thailand in 2015. He has since been forced to confess and imprisoned in China. Similarly, Lee Bo, a Hong Kong national and bookseller, was abducted from Hong Kong and taken to China. He also made a forced confession and statements and promised to stop selling banned books.
In 2020, the Chinese government passed the Hong Kong National Security Law. It is a broad and vague law, with a maximum sentence of life in prison. It criminalizes any secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion, has been applied retroactively, and the government claims that it has extraterritorial jurisdiction. Since all of these terms are broadly defined by the government itself, it causes people to self-censor and has heavily restricted freedom of expression. This has had a huge impact on academic freedom, as well as civil and political rights in Hong Kong and abroad.
Despite all these abuses and threats, Western universities still have campuses in China, deceiving themselves by claiming to have academic freedom, and whitewashing the reality of scholars, activists, and students in China.
Endangered Scholars Worldwide holds the Chinese Government responsible for the persecution and deaths of these scholars and activists. Whether through deliberation or indifference, Chinese authorities are wielding the denial of adequate medical care as a weapon against those they find dissident. ESW calls upon the Chinese Government to end the practice of deliberately depriving political prisoners of medical care and to ensure that detainees are granted medical parole in time for their illnesses to be properly treated.
(Last updated: November 5, 2022)
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