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Academic freedom on Chinese university campuses has always been precarious. The early 2000s saw a brief liberalization, but academics say ideological controls are returning under Chinese leader Xi Jinping. NPR's Emily Feng surveyed dozens of universities across China to understand how these restraints are hitting students and scholars.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: It wasn't the fact that one of the best universities in China had changed its charter last month to emphasize loyalty to China's ruling Communist Party that raised eyebrows. Shanghai's Fudan University also deleted principles like freedom of thought and did so publicly as if expecting praise. Not everyone was happy. Furious students staged a rare and risky protest in a school cafeteria.
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UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing in Chinese).
FENG: Videos like this one show students singing Fudan's anthem last month while school officials yell at them to stop. A student who participated told NPR they'd hid planning for the protests by saying they were preparing a marriage proposal.
FENG: Fudan is not the only university to rewrite school charter to emphasize unswerving loyalty to the party. An NPR analysis found that since 2018, at least two other universities made similar revisions, downgrading or outright removing language protecting academic freedom while inserting a new clause. The university's Communist Party committee is the core leadership of the school. At least 109 universities didn't even have a charter until 2013, the year Xi Jinping became China's president. Since then, they've adopted charters for the first time, promising to implement the party's principles.
Economics professor Yang Shaozheng once taught at Guizhou University in southern China. He won awards for his teaching and volunteering. But in August of 2018, public security officials called him in.
YANG SHAOZHENG: (Through interpreter) They said, you can no longer use case studies drawn from reality in your lectures. You also must stop publishing political essays online. They told me, shut your stinking mouth.
FENG: Yang was shocked and angered.
YANG: (Through interpreter) I told them, as a university professor, what I choose to talk about is my right.
FENG: But Guizhou University administrators were powerless before security officials. Yang was fired later that year for spreading, quote, "politically mistaken speech and being unrepentant." Shi Jiepeng, a scholar of Chinese culture, says the problem in China today isn't that academics are being reported for ideological infractions. It's that the higher-ups who once could ignore such complaints now feel pressured to act or are themselves behind it all.
SHI JIEPENG: (Through interpreter) Reporting isn't the problem. The problem is that the political winds have shifted at the top, and that shift has been orchestrated by the political leaders themselves.
FENG: He'd know. Shi was fired in 2017 for criticizing Chinese leaders like Mao Zedong and even Emperor Wu, who lived more than 2,000 years ago. Shi is now a visiting academic fellow in Tokyo. You Shengdong, a former economics professor at Xiamen University, shares Shi's stubborn streak.
YOU SHENGDONG: (Through interpreter) I'm the kind of person who speaks the truth.
FENG: Like many academics NPR interviewed for the story, You was fired after a network of student spies run by the Communist Youth League reported him for criticizing President Xi's political slogans. University professors across China told NPR up to two such student monitors are now secretly positioned in each class. Public notices on university websites detail the responsibilities for such spies - to quote, "report student and teacher opinions on school policies and on current events." You, the former economics professor, said he had to be very careful about everything he said.
YOU: (Through interpreter) You had to pay attention to people's expressions. One person might hear me and agree, but another person might hear me and report me.
FENG: In the end, You decided these conditions made it impossible to give lectures. Professors in China, he said, may as well just read straight from the textbook.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.
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