The two biggest threats to academic freedom have come together in China

Books on politics are seen on a shelf at the Cambridge University Press (CUP) stall at the Beijing International Book Fair in Beijing, China, August…
Books on politics are seen on a shelf at the Cambridge University Press (CUP) stall at the Beijing International Book Fair in Beijing, China, August…
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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A year ago, Cambridge University Press made the shock announcement that it was pulling more than 300 articles from its China Quarterly website in China at the request of the government there. It then reversed itself, declining to pull the articles, which covered topics like the 1989 Tiananmen uprising and analysis of Communist Party leaders. Soon after, however, other major academic publishers revealed they had acquiesced to censorship requests from Beijing.

A year on, the journal’s editor, Tim Pringle, speaking in Hong Kong about his worries about academic freedom, said that while he expected there to be some repercussions, “to date, we’re doing okay.” In fact submissions from authors on the the mainland have gone up. “I’m not saying I’m not worried,” he said. “It’s something we think about all the time.”

Pringle said that one of the biggest threats to academic freedom, which among other things should encompass the freedom to choose what to study and how to share those findings, is authoritarianism. But just as harmful, according to Pringle, who was speaking at the city’s Foreign Correspondents Club on Sept. 14, is “market fundamentalism,” or the commodification of many public services, including education, which has put more power in the hands of administrators focused on business concerns rather than scholarly ones.

“We are creating a supermarket product to be picked by students as consumers,” he said.

Academic freedom isn’t necessarily viewed as a critical ingredient to that product, said Pringle, noting “the obsession with university rankings and the absence, interestingly, in these global rankings, which are so important to universities around the world, of academic freedom and autonomy as measurement criteria.”

In China, the two phenomena have melded, he said, making the task of carrying out and publishing independent research very challenging for both Chinese and non-Chinese scholars.

China is a place where “the pressures of authoritarianism and what I call market fundamentalism have come together to bring perhaps severe constraints on research in China, which is not to say, by the way, there isn’t some excellent research coming out of China… but it’s not easy, and it’s getting much, much harder,” he said.

The constraints include the party’s involvement at all levels of university governance, political vetting of professors, and surveillance of course content and classroom discussion. According to Pringle, scholars say there was greater academic freedom in China in the 1990s, and early 2000s, compared to now.

These limitations on free discussion have also been felt overseas. China’s government has gained a semi-official presence on many campuses around the world with the language-teaching Confucius Institutes it backs, and through the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who now go to college overseas. At times, Chinese students studying abroad have expressed concern over participating in discussions of sensitive topics for fear of being spied on. Sometimes, students themselves have tried to curtail classroom discussion by professors or campus visits by prominent figures viewed unfavorably by China.

Still, at least some of the state-backed efforts to influence academia backfire. In the year since the demands China was making of academic publishers became public, researchers and journalists have been looking more closely at the ways that China’s government seeks to influence researchers and campuses abroad (pdf), and the impact on research choices. Some are also explicitly debating how China scholars should be contributing to the public debate on human rights issues in the country, such as the repressive treatment of its Uyghur and Muslim minorities.

Beyond China, researchers are threatened in other countries by elected strongmen who frequently deploy authoritarian tactics. Teachers and university deans in Turkey, for example, have faced mass firings under leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the wake of a failed coup against him. In India, those who study Hinduism face extreme aggression from right-wing groups.

“It’s a sorry state of affairs,” said Pringle.