Freedom to Learn

Check out this month's sneak peak of Towerview magazine. The issue hits stands Oct. 30.

In September, several Chinese journalists visited Durham to learn about Duke and its new campus in Kunshan, China.

One of the journalists for several years has covered Western universities that have China partnerships, including the beginning stages of Duke Kunshan University (DKU). I asked her what I thought was an obvious question: What are your thoughts on Western universities’ concerns about academic freedom when they enter China?

The woman, who asked not to be named because she is not allowed to speak with other media outlets, had been talking at a rapid-fire pace. But on this question, she paused and looked up at the ceiling in thought.

Through a translator, she said, “I don’t know too much about this. It’s not my area of expertise.”

This response took me by surprise. Oftentimes more so than costs or logistics, the issue of academic freedom is at the forefront of American educators’ minds when they consider an expansion into China. It has been a constant debate since Duke first expressed interest in a China campus about five years ago.

Globally minded universities understand that there is give-and-take when programs expand abroad. Students and faculty should immerse themselves in a culture without sacrificing their own values. Some examples are obvious: adopting another country’s manners, trying strange foods and even avoiding taboo conversation topics. Where the line between expanding one's worldview and abandoning personal principles starts to get blurry is in countries like China where broaching sensitive topics can land someone in jail.

Since DKU was in its early planning stages, Duke has asserted that the Chinese Ministry of Education understands and respects the University’s fundamental principles of academic freedom, and the ministry has not fluctuated or expressed concerns about Duke’s values.

“We have been clear with what our principles are, and we have made clear that these are not marginal concerns for us,” President Richard Brodhead said.

According to a 2011 statement given to the Academic Council, the principles outlined in Duke’s agreements with its Chinese partners say, “Freedom of inquiry, instruction and expression are essential commitments in the pursuit of this aspiration and must therefore be animating features of DKU.”

These stipulations are included in the Articles of Association, a public document in China, said Nora Bynum, vice provost for DKU and China initiatives, in a Chronicle article published Oct. 11.

To deal with issues of academic freedom, Mary Bullock—executive vice chancellor of DKU—will monitor the situation in China and report back to the provost. The provost will take concerns to Academic Council. There will also be an annual report on the issue.

Administrators argue that the partnership is a result of China’s desire to learn about and foster the Western style of higher education. But issues of information freedom in China have flared up this year, raising the question: How will Duke maintain its essential value of academic freedom during what seems to be Communist Party crackdown on the propagation of Western values?

Representatives from DKU's partners gave a press conference in China in September after receiving formal establishment approval from the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The extendable leash

Many scholars in China and the United States believe that universities in China are seeing an overall upward trend in information freedom, particularly in the last five or six years.

That outlook has been at odds with reality in recent months.

In June, Peking University professor Xia Yeliang, who has been vocal with his criticisms of the Chinese government, was told that he would face a faculty vote over whether or not he should be fired from teaching. He was dismissed in October. The incident prompted about 130 faculty members as Wellesley College to write an open letter this summer urging to the college to reconsider its partnership with Peking University.

In August, administrators at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai suspended law professor Zhang Xuezhong from teaching. Zhang had written several articles earlier this year urging China to adopt constitutional reforms.

At the end of September, Japanese officials revealed that the Chinese government might have arrested a Zhu Jianrong, a Chinese citizen teaching at a university in Japan. Zhu is an expert in Sino-Japanese relations, which have been rocky in recent years.

These incidents follow General Secretary Xi Jinping’s efforts to strengthen central leadership, which requires a unified, party-based values system. Many expected reform when Xi took power last November, and even though the state is loosening up on the economy, it has cracked down politically in an effort to quash the spread of Western values.

“It depends on the mood of the national leadership and the point they're trying to make at a given moment,” said Jonathan Ocko, China expert and adjunct professor of legal history at the Duke School of Law. “It certainly has been tightening down in recent months.”

The Chinese government holds people on an extendable leash, Ocko said.

“You never let the dog off the leash, and the dog can run pretty far out. But you can yank it back whenever you want.”

A secret memo known as Document No. 9 and authored by top Communist Party officials said the party should rid the country of several ideals typically assoiciated with Western thinking, including universal values of human rights and the freedom to criticize the government, as well as advocating for democracy, multiparty systems or separation of powers. The memo was issued in April and leaked in August.

Additionally, some Chinese university administrators and faculty reported receiving a directive from Beijing this summer avoid seven specific topics in the classroom, including: press freedom, universal values, historical mistakes of the Communist Party, judicial independence, economic neoliberalism, the wealth accumulated by top government officials and civil society.

Ocko said he was teaching at the law school at Shanghai Jiao Tong University when the Communist Party was spreading the message around, but the university was not concerned. Clearly, the government has less tolerance for certain classroom conversations than it has had in the past, but it is impossible for them to have eyes in every room.

“People don’t feel like they're in a cage,” Ocko said. “But they do have a sense that on some days the space for them to say whatever they want is larger or smaller.”

DKU never received the directive. Despite recent shake-ups at Chinese universities, Duke administrators are optimistic. Provost Peter Lange said that in particular, receiving the final stamp of approval from the Ministry of Education in September was assuring.

“Nothing in that [two-year] process ever raised any issues about the fundamental principals that we included and have publicly and privately insisted on,” Lange said. "None of it was ever contested in the process. None of it was even mentioned, except in a positive way.”

Additionally, nine elite Chinese universities signed a statement in October outlining the 10 key components of a research university, including principles of academic freedom. Several international higher education associations also signed the statement, including the Association of American Universities, of which Duke is a member.

The Skyline of DKU over the city of Kunshan. The campus is expected to be ready for occupation July 2014.

Problem areas

The Chinese Ministry of Education might make exceptions for Duke because it wants the University to have a presence in China, said Gao Xiqing, president of the China Investment Corporation and member of the Board of Trustees. For example, joint-venture universities are required by Chinese law to start out with undergraduate degree programs. But the ministry allowed Duke to launch graduate programs first.

Duke administrators are reluctant to draw lines prematurely at which they would have to reassess the nature of the Duke-China relationship because of a breach of academic freedom.

“Obviously, if certain things were to happen—I’m not going to enter into hypotheticals— they would raise very particular concerns,” Lange said.

The nature of DKU's first set of programs—global health, medical physics, management studies and undergraduate study abroad—should not attract attention because they do not fall into the seven banned categories, Ocko said. Additionally, because of its high profile and location near Shanghai, an area where there are many foreigners, the government might not want to crack down heavily on DKU.

Classrooms are often a place for open discussion, and many universities want them to be that way, but if professors do not censor themselves, they could face retaliation, Ocko said. For example, there are occasionally Communist Party members in a classroom or administration that will tattle on an outspoken professor.

At DKU, a professor would not have a problem if a banned topic comes up briefly in class. The situation might get hairier if they start to produce research on a topic the Chinese government does not like, or if students start a political movement .

The most recent highly-publicized issue for an American university in China concerning information freedom, which came to light in 2011, happened at Johns Hopkins University’s joint campus with Nanjing University. A student tried to circulate an academic journal, but administrators clamped down on it, revealing that they saw a difference between academic freedom on and off campus.

At the time, Brodhead and John Sexton, president of New York University, which recently opened up a Shanghai campus, echoed Johns Hopkins’ sentiment.

In an interview with Bloomberg News that November, Brodhead said DKU would have to be comfortable with distinguishing between “intra-campus discussion and what you do at large.”

This idea is not as foreign as it sounds, Lange said.

“Duke is present in many places in the world where those kinds of tensions would arise, and there have been many times in U.S. history when those tensions have arisen,” he said. “China has policies, some of which are fundamentally at variance to the values we’re talking about, and that’s a world we’re choosing to engage.”

Duke needs to build up its reputation in China, but Gao, Law ’86, said he is optimistic that DKU will eventually be able to pursue whatever academic subjects it chooses because China is moving toward a more open environment.

“In the long run, I have no problem with the idea that China is going to fully open up and the Communist Party will reform itself,” Gao said.

Difference in message

When Duke talks to the Chinese media about DKU, they sometimes have trouble fully explaining Western education because there is such a fundamental difference in understanding about education, said Director of Global Communications Laura Brinn. For that reason, Duke brought seven Chinese journalists to Durham.

Ocko said Chinese educators grasp the concept of academic freedom, but what the Chinese want out of American partnerships is liberal arts education. Even though Americans might assume that liberal arts and academic freedom go hand-in-hand, a Chinese university can have one without the other.

“They want critical thinking,” he said. “But not necessarily without limits on where that thinking can take you.”

Universities in China want to have more independence from the government, but it is a difficult process that sometimes attracts administrative interference, said Xiong Binqi, an influential blogger and vice president of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Education Group, through a translator.

“We hope that what we have [in the United States] can come to China and drive the whole process and can be a model for the reforms of academic freedom and universities,” Xiong said.

Brodhead said DKU is an experiment—one that the Chinese government has given top priority, so they have to be on board with the values.

“When we come, we come with a model of education, and we’ve said what its principles are,” Brodhead said. “They’re in all the documents that are the basis of founding DKU.”

The journalists talked about academic freedom over dinner with several top administrators on their first night in town. They pressed the administrators to assure them that Duke would stick to their values in China.

“Duke itself has strong and unambiguous statements of principle on academic freedom,” wrote William Kirby, a Harvard University professor and Duke senior adviser on China programs, in an email Oct. 3. “This is one of the things that Chinese most admire about American higher education.”


Share and discuss “Freedom to Learn” on social media.