A top Chinese university stripped “freedom of thought” from its charter

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Fudan University, a prestigious Chinese university known for its liberal atmosphere, recently deleted “freedom of thought” from its charter and added paragraphs pledging loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, further eroding academic freedom in China.

In a notice (link in Chinese) revealing the revised version of its 2014 constitution submitted by Fudan that was published on the education ministry’s website yesterday (Dec. 17), the Shanghai university was found to have made more than 40 revisions to its bylaws. The changes went into effect in early December, according to the notice. In the original version, the university said that its “educational philosophy” was in accordance to the values advocated in its school song (video in Chinese), which are “academic independence and freedom of thought.” In the revised version, “freedom of thought” was taken out. In the sentences that read “the school independently and autonomously runs the university” and “teachers and students independently and autonomously conduct academic studies while abiding with the law,” the term “independently” was removed.

Fudan also added sentences that emphasize the firm leadership of the party over the school, such as “the university sticks to the party’s leadership, fully implements the party’s policies on education,” and “adheres to Marxism as the guiding philosophy and socialism as the foundation of the school’s operation” to the constitution, and that the school should “always serve the people, serve the party’s governance of China,” and “serve the consolidation and development of China’s socialist system with Chinese characteristics.” It also said that the university needs to “equip its teachers and employees” with “Xi Jinping Thought,” the signature political theory of the Chinese leader that was added to the party’s constitution in 2017.

The revisions have come as a shock for many in China, as Fudan has long enjoyed the reputation as being one of the most liberal schools in the country, a reputation probably best demonstrated in its unofficial school motto: “freedom and the pursuit of non-material goals.” Qu Weiguo, a professor at Fudan’s English department, drew attention in June when he gave a speech to the graduating class where he emphasized the importance of fighting for individual liberties, a rare topic of open discussion in today’s tightly controlled academic climate in China. Qu cited the unofficial Fudan motto in this speech, and said that under obstacles such as “shameless suppression and temptation,” defending the “freedom of thought” had become very difficult, according to a translated transcript of the speech. Qu also criticized the revisions in a now-deleted online post, and said that they were against the rules as they were not raised for discussion at staff meetings.

Established in 1905 by Ma Xiangbo, a famous Chinese Jesuit priest and educator, Fudan got its name from the Confucian quotation “heavenly light shines day after day.” The school is known particularly for its education, medicine, and sociology departments, and has produced many of the country’s most famous politicians.

Fudan did not reply to multiple requests for comment from Quartz.

On Chinese social network Weibo, users expressed their disbelief at the revisions and concerns that it spells the beginning of Fudan’s decline. “I am really worried that children in the future will never know that Fudan had a period of valuing ‘freedom of thought’ and ‘academic independence’,” said one user (link in Chinese). Another commenter, who claimed to be a student at Fudan, said, “I finished my paper overnight yesterday. In the acknowledgments section I thanked the freedom of thought and academic independence taught to me by Fudan. Who would have guessed that the two terms don’t belong to Fudan anymore?”

In a video circulating widely on Weibo today (Dec. 18), a dozen or so students were seen singing Fudan’s school song at the university’s canteen as a form of protest against the revisions. A former student at Fudan confirmed to Quartz that the video was taken inside Fudan.

Fudan was not the only university that revised its constitution. In their changes, Nanjing University (link in Chinese) and Shaanxi Normal University also emphasized the power of the Communist Party, which they say needs to have “comprehensive leadership” over the institutions.