U.S. Universities in China Face Internet, Self-Censorship: Report

U.S. Universities in China Face Internet, Self-Censorship: Report
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What you need to know

U.S. universities in China avoid sensitive topics like Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

American universities in China mostly enjoy academic freedom but still face challenges such as Internet censorship, according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The 59-page report, released on Sept. 28, says the GAO conducted the study after a 2015 State Department report showed academic freedom in China had worsened while “the number of U.S. universities establishing degree-granting institutions in partnership with Chinese universities — teaching predominantly Chinese students — has increased.”

Through interviews with people from 12 American universities in China, the GAO found the institutions generally received support in the country, and “agreements with their Chinese partners or other policies that GAO reviewed generally include language protecting academic freedom or indicating their institution in China would adhere to U.S. standards.”

However, while the report found that the universities enjoyed academic freedom, university members “indicated that Internet censorship and other factors presented constraints.”

Control over curriculum content was not an issue, administrators said, with faculty and students having freedom in selecting areas to teach or study. But “fewer than half of the universities GAO reviewed have uncensored Internet access,” and those that did not said they “sometimes faced challenges teaching, conducting research, and completing coursework.”

Universities also said self-censorship was an issue, and “certain sensitive political topics — such as Tiananmen Square [Massacre] or China's relationship with Taiwan — were avoided in class.”

In 2015, 11 American universities and one U.S. national were approved to partner with China to run 14 university campuses, according to an Epoch Times report.

“The primary mission of Chinese higher education is not the advancement of knowledge,” but training people to continue to develop the country’s economy, said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States Wilson Center, during a U.S. Congress committee hearing titled “Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on U.S. Universities?” held on June 25, 2015,

Sarah Lawrence, from the U.S. Congressional Research Service, told the hearing that “legal guarantees underpinning such zones of free speech remain ambiguous.” Lawrence also pointed out that “joint campuses tend to be heavily subsidized by the Chinese regime, so the latter has a lot of leverage if it wants to use it,” the Epoch Times reported.

Mirta Martin, president of Fort Hays State University, which has partnerships in three Chinese provinces, said that “While we stay away from hot-button topics like Tibet or Taiwan, we do include topics such as the environment, especially pollution […] and branding and market, including the concept of fake or imitation products.”

“Tiananmen Square is the only topic our faculty have chosen to avoid, not at anyone’s request, but because it is believed to be too sensitive in China.”

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole