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Professor: American universities must reexamine relationships with China because of threats to academic freedom

In late October, Cornell University made the decision to nix two exchange programs with a Chinese university over concerns about student well-being and academic freedom. According to one of the organizers, the decision to cancel the programs wasn’t just about academic freedom inside the university. It was about “the increasingly repressive political environment outside universities” existing in China.

Eli Friedman, an associate professor and director of international programs in Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, writes in Foreign Policy that there was a strategy of “quiet diplomacy” conducted by foreign universities and governments that “failed to generate greater space for academic freedom or political expression” in China.

He writes that in his own communication with the Chinese university, Renmin University, made no progress on loosening restrictions on student activism.

“The lesson the Communist Party has learned is that there are no ‘red lines’; seemingly no matter how grave the violations, foreign institutions have thus far been unwilling to pass up the real or imagined benefits of engagement,” Friedman writes.

He describes the reason why Cornell made the decision to end the exchange programs with Renmin:

It was student participation in a labor conflict at Jasic Technologies in Shenzhen this past summer, and Renmin’s subsequent behavior, that spurred our decision. In addition to taking steps to prevent students from traveling to Shenzhen, university officials harassed and threatened students who had spoken up on the issue, and then deployed extensive surveillance to keep watch over those deemed as troublemakers. Most disturbingly, Renmin University was complicit in the forcible detention of a student who had traveled to Shenzhen, after which school officials threatened her with a yearlong suspension unless she promised to refrain from speaking out.

Friedman says he and his fellow organizers of the program spent weeks exhausting private channels in an effort to get more information from Renmin about the situation. When that failed, the program was suspended.

The “erosion of academic freedom” in China is “is directly linked with the increasingly repressive political environment outside the universities,” Friedman argues. His book, “The Insurgency Trap,” demonstrated “the Chinese state’s unwillingness to allow independent unions has resulted in workplaces where employers are generally free to flout the law.”

The repression is spreading across multiple areas of academic inquiry:

“As the Chinese state cracks down on an increasing array of social actors, including rights lawyers, feminists, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities—both Muslim and Christian—the related topics become off-limits to academic researchers,” he writes.

Friedman is not advocating disengagement with Chinese universities across the board, but action is still needed:

Nonetheless, substantive, mutually beneficial exchanges must be built on a foundation of shared values. When those values are repeatedly and egregiously violated, as has been the case at a growing number of Chinese universities, scholars and politicians must think seriously about moving beyond the quiet diplomacy model. This is a matter not just of principle, but of ensuring academic quality and therefore the reputations of our universities.

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