A step forward for academic freedom?

On 9 October in the Chinese city of Hefei, nine elite Chinese universities – members of the C9 group often acknowledged as “China’s Ivy League” – signed a statement with the presidents of the Association of American Universities, the Group of Eight in Australia, and the League of European Research Universities endorsing open inquiry, scientific integrity and other academic values as the key components of a modern research university, and demonstrating an incipient effort to work closely with top universities in other parts of the world.

The move is welcomed by some as a bold step on the part of those Chinese universities to openly embrace academic freedom (the statement describes the sixth characteristic of a modern research university as “academic freedom”), although it might be merely a small step forward from what was already framed in the Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010–2020) – also known as the 2020 Blueprint.

But does the Hefei statement signal a move towards greater academic freedom and institutional autonomy for China’s elite universities? Or is it simply a cynical attempt to increase China’s higher education standing around the world? Launched in July 2010, the 2020 Blueprint calls for, among other actions, the introduction of a modern university system on Chinese soil, which sees academics overseeing academic affairs.

The recent Hefei statement appears to represent a step forward.

While implying that a modern university system should embody such notions as academic freedom and university autonomy, the 2020 Blueprint tends to use vaguer expressions, such as offering “a friendly and relaxed academic environment”, giving professors “a full role in teaching, research and institutional governance” and strengthening the transparency of internal decision-making procedures.

Eventually, such a system would retain “Chinese characteristics” that arguably centre on having “a governance system that holds the president responsible to Party Committee leadership” in all public institutions. By contrast, the Hefei statement is more explicit in its wording, conspicuously highlighting the notion of “academic freedom by faculty to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching and service without undue constraint”.

Notwithstanding this statement, this is perhaps only a small step beyond the 2020 Blueprint; that is, it is still within the framework laid out by the latter. Notably, the adjective “responsible” has been added in front of “academic freedom”, which hints at a kind of restriction that could be applied to academic freedom.

Others go to the other extreme, claiming the statement’s endorsement of academic freedom is largely rhetoric and only included for practical reasons. Indeed, without the inclusion of this part, it is hard to imagine that Western partners would agree to being signatories of this document, which in turn provides a great opportunity for top Chinese universities to align their names with international peers.

And this claim of rhetoric might make sense, given that these Chinese universities often have their hands tied by China’s party state and can do little to protect their university autonomy and academic freedom if the government should intervene.

Nevertheless, we suspect this cynicism underestimates the ambitions of these Chinese universities.

The Hefei statement represents their initial moves towards a more structured alliance that will allow them to collaborate with the Global Research Council, formed in 2012 by 50 government agencies around the world, the US National Science Foundation among them. It is hard to believe that rhetoric alone can take them there. Rather, this move might better be seen as an experiment with the C9 universities.


As a matter of fact, this move was indicated in the 2020 Blueprint. In chapter 21, article 67, the policy document spells out a number of pilot reform programmes to be undertaken in the years immediately following its promulgation. These include experimentation with establishing governance boards and senate-like academic committees in Chinese universities and installing university charters.

In 2011, 17 universities were selected to pilot such experimentation in one of their colleges or schools. As a major goal, those pilots are supposed to showcase a new governance model through creating a governance board and holding the dean accountable to it, and instituting an academic committee and enabling it to govern academic affairs.

A year later, based on the accumulated experience of these pilots, China’s education authorities promulgated Guidelines for Pushing for Reforms at Pilot Colleges/Schools, which set out much clearer orientations and conditions for their experiments.

A similar scenario can be observed with regard to university charters. With university charters in place, Chinese universities are supposed to be able to have greater powers and authority in the administration of their own affairs, in particular with regard to academic administration.

To facilitate this experiment, the Ministry of Education in January 2012 promulgated interim regulations for creating charters for Chinese universities in drafting and installing their charters. Twenty-six universities were then selected to pilot this move. To date, only six have put their charters in place while the majority are still struggling to discern how far their powers extend.

Similar experiments on a smaller scale were carried out even earlier in a few selected universities. For instance, Peking University started trialling a new governance structure in its college of engineering from 2005 onwards, and began installing a university charter from 2007.

A salient feature of the Chinese model for reform and development (or the so-called Beijing Consensus) is gradualism. Unlike the approach adopted to reforms in the West, which have often started with amendments and changes to laws and regulations, China tends to start with experimentation and pilot projects. Successful pilots are then extended to a wider reach.

Following such a practice-based reasoning, the Chinese model denotes a trial-and-error approach, encouraging local experiments of all kinds and dispersing the useful experiences generated from the experiments. This approach is perhaps best summarised by the commonly cited wisdom of Deng Xiaoping, “Crossing the river by searching for stepping stones”, and certainly finds its expressions in the realm of higher education.

It is typical in the case of the pilot project around new governance structures implemented in 17 selected universities where one was even started without an explicit policy framework. This kind of gradualism would certainly cost time to transit from experimentation to institutionalisation.

What adds to the complexity are other features that are embedded in the Chinese model, namely: prioritising stability and a strong state. So far, a doctrine for China’s reform programmes is that “stability prevails over everything else”. For this reason, any dramatic changes are unlikely to take place.

In fact, most changes that have happened or are happening now are planned and staged by the state. Essentially, “any weakening or transformation of the state function” could only be introduced by the state itself. This rule certainly applies to such far-reaching issues as university autonomy and academic freedom.

The effect of the Hefei statement remains to be tested, given the current politicised environment in which Chinese universities operate. A salient question is whether issues that carry universal values like academic freedom can be piloted, or, more precisely, restricted in scope and to certain areas – even for a while.

This approach portrays the constraint or paradox of the Chinese model. As stated in the Hefei statement itself, “in the absence of a supportive environment, research universities will be unable to impart the major competitive advantage and [achieve] global recognition”.

* Qiang Zha is an associate professor in the faculty of education at York University in Canada. Email: Guangkuan Xie is the director of the academic planning division, in the office of planning and policy research, at Peking University in China. Email:


A real great leap forward!

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page