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Universities teaching Chinese students remotely need to scale the Great Firewall

Chinese students
Beyond the firewall.

Universities that have shifted to online platforms to teach their students during the coronavirus pandemic are facing unique risks in reaching one particular group.

The UN estimates that nearly 1 million Chinese students were enrolled at international universities in 2017, the latest year for which data are available. Many current and prospective students remain stuck in China because of the pandemic. As a result, universities are having to factor in something they might not have considered before: censorship and surveillance due to China’s internet controls.

Concerns about teaching students in China online—or anywhere, when the course material involves China—amplified after Beijing imposed a new vaguely worded national security law on Hong Kong in June that claims sweeping extraterritorial jurisdiction. A group of five professors who teach on China at US universities last week laid out recommendations for protecting students and faculty during online teaching, and warned the law “casts a long shadow over all China discourse.”

On social media and in interviews, students attending online classes from China have expressed concerns over whether they will be able to freely access platforms or materials used by their foreign professors. China’s great firewall blocks major foreign websites such as YouTube. They also worry about facing consequences for reading or talking about sensitive topics related to the Communist Party during classes—a fear that exists during on campus classes as well.

“Once those students who are using those materials download something sensitive or watch a movie that’s banned, I think there’s some risk to them,” said Mary Gallagher, a China expert, and professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “We need to make them aware of the risk.”

Gallagher is teaching an introductory class on China in the upcoming semester she described as “70% sensitive” as the material she’s covering, from the Mao Zedong-era to Tiananmen to the current Communist leadership “wouldn’t be discussed in the same way in a Chinese classroom.” She isn’t changing the class she’s taught for 20 years, which will be conducted both online and offline, but she does plan to attach a disclaimer to her course description that lets students know that it contains content the Chinese government may consider sensitive, which could pose a greater risk for students in China or of Chinese nationality.

“I think it’s our responsibility to make students aware that the risks you are under are due to your own government,” she said.

Among several faculty, worries over online teaching in recent months have focused sharply around the use of Zoom, which became the go-to platform for US universities as they shifted rapidly to online classes in the spring semester. In June the video-conferencing service, one of the few foreign platforms not blocked in China, admitted to shutting down meetings and suspending the accounts of overseas Chinese dissidents at Beijing’s request, citing the need to comply with local laws. The company’s subsequent promise to carefully censor users based on geography doesn’t offer much reassurance.

Eric Hundman, an assistant professor of political science at NYU Shanghai, told Quartz in June that any teleconferencing platform comes with risks. “While Zoom is perhaps the most prominent platform for teleconferencing at the moment, any other such platform would bring many of the same risks: comments by professors and students alike can be captured, maliciously edited, and shared online, for instance,” he said.

In a July statement, the Association of Asian Studies advised against making or sharing recordings of class discussions, and also recommended one-on-one or small group discussions for students located abroad. The letter from US faculty posted online Aug. 20 suggested that for discussion components, students could email the instructor their comments in advance to be shared anonymously with the class. “Now more than ever, it is worth appreciating the difficult position in which Chinese students find themselves—they are caught between a Chinese government that demands political loyalty and a US government that is actively demonizing them,” they wrote.

Some universities in the UK have tested teaching students in China using a special platform enabled by Chinese tech giant Alibaba, with course materials that comply with Chinese regulations, the BBC reported. Alibaba earlier this year helped implement a similar model in Australia.

Many Chinese youngsters are savvy users of virtual private networks (VPNs)—which help them bypass China’s firewall—but the country has cracked down on the use of the tool in recent years, and some people have reportedly been punished for using the software.  Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, taught a number of students online during the peak of the pandemic in China. He said he was advised “to avoid telling students to use VPN in China” for fear that they may get in trouble.  “I have been operating on the assumption that whether it’s on Zoom or me sitting here at the school, the Chinese government is probably monitoring what we teach,” Richburg says.

The Trump administration’s moves against Chinese tech giants could add to difficulties for students in China attending US schools’ online courses. The White House has announced plans to stop “untrusted” Chinese telecom carriers, apps, and cloud services from having a presence in the US.

It is critical that international universities be able to continue to teach and attract Chinese students—even more so now that the coronavirus pandemic has limited or eliminated campus life. Beyond the valuable cultural exchange that occurs when students criss-cross campuses, they are also vital contributors to the economies of their host countries. Around a third of all international students in the US come from China, making them one of the largest funding sources for schools. The US Department of Commerce estimates that they contributed as much as $13 billion to the US economy in 2018, despite a slight drop-off in their numbers as US-China tensions increased.

Chinese students  have expressed concern over what they lose by not being able to attend a foreign campus. Tuition is steep, and students expect to be able to practice English or other languages and network with fellow classmates. Chinese parents and families “really cannot accept online learning, especially for a long time,” says Sang Peng, president of the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association, which helps foreign schools recruit students. Students who spend less than a year studying overseas, may not see their foreign diplomas recognized by China as valid according to the country’s rules, according to Sang.

“Online classes are fine, but it doesn’t make me feel like being abroad,” Li Xiao, a Chinese student whose plans to attend a foreign university were put on hold due to the pandemic, told Chinese news outlet Sina Tech (link in Chinese).”Part of the motivation for me to study in a foreign university is to see the world outside.”

—Jackie Bischof contributed reporting