May 24, 2019

It’s Time to Get Loud About Academic Freedom in China

“Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), where I am an associate professor and director of international programs, recently suspended two student exchange programs with Renmin University in Beijing over concerns about infringements on academic freedom. I helped launch these programs in 2013 with the intention of creating opportunities for our students at one of China’s top universities. Renmin is home to the School of Labor and Human Resources—a close analogue of ILR in several respects, and widely seen as the country’s premier place to study labor issues.

But after an investigation of Renmin’s treatment of students who spoke up on labor issues, we decided that this partnership was no longer sustainable. While our final decision rested on specific violations of academic freedom, it is critically important to view this event in the context of worsening political trends in China. The erosion of academic freedom on campuses is directly linked with the increasingly repressive political environment outside universities.

The strategy of quiet diplomacy, adopted by foreign universities and governments alike over the past generation, has failed to generate greater space for academic freedom or political expression. I saw this quite clearly in my private exchanges with Renmin, which produced no results whatsoever in terms of loosening restrictions on students. 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.”

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