US universities in China have academic freedom – Report

A dozen United States universities operating in China in partnership with Chinese institutions say they enjoy academic freedom, but the majority face internet censorship and other restrictions, a just-released report by the US Government Accountability Office or GAO has found.

“Administrators at several universities told us that academic freedom was non-negotiable,” the GAO report made public on Wednesday said, but added that several US branch campuses had reported ”they either did not know the extent of academic freedom at their institution in China or that it was slightly restricted”.

“We found that universities generally emphasise academic freedom at their institutions in China and, in most cases, include language seeking to protect these or other freedoms in written agreements and other documents.” However, the report said, universities faced other challenges including internet censorship.

The US government audit agency, which investigated academic freedom at branch campuses for members of Congress, said fewer than half of the 12 universities reviewed between September 2015 and August 2016 had uncensored internet access.

“At several universities that lacked uncensored internet access, students and faculty told us that, as a result, they sometimes faced challenges teaching, conducting research, and completing coursework,” the auditors said.

One university administrator told GAO investigators the university was required by the Chinese government to track and maintain records for several months of faculty, student and staff internet usage, including the internet sites visited by faculty and staff. The administrator added that, to date, no Chinese government official had asked for these records.

Other university administrators at campuses in China visited by the audit team said they were either not required to track internet usage of faculty or students or that they were unaware of any such requirement.

However, administrators, faculty and students cited examples of self-censorship, where certain sensitive political topics – such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident or China’s relationship with Taiwan – were avoided in class, the report said.


The GAO report was based on a survey and interviews with more than 190 faculty, students and administrators at New York University Shanghai or NYU Shanghai, Carnegie Mellon University which has partnered with Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Duke Kunshan University, Kean University-Wenzhou, Missouri State University in Dalian, New York Institute of Technology in Nanjing, Northwood University operating two institutions in China, Fort Hays State University, Rutgers University, University of Miami, University of Michigan, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Some institutions such as NYU and Duke operate full branch campuses separate from their cooperating Chinese partners; others offer joint degrees and other joint programmes at their partner university.

The report noted that the further away the institution was situated from its Chinese partner university the more leeway it appeared to have. “Members of universities we reviewed indicated they have freedoms on campus that do not exist beyond it, suggesting that they operate within a protected sphere in China. But the universities clearly vary in this regard, with a few seeming to be less subject to influence from Chinese entities than others,” the report said.

The institutions – six public and six private non-profit – enrolled more than 6,500 students in the 2014 to 2015 academic year. More than 90% of the students are Chinese, and fewer than 6% are US citizens. About 60% of faculty staff in 2014-15 were US citizens, about 16% Chinese, and the remainder from other countries.

“Faculty we interviewed told us they did not face academic restrictions and could teach or study whatever they chose. For example, several faculty members asserted that neither they nor their colleagues would tolerate any academic restrictions, and one faculty member told us he and his colleagues intentionally introduced class discussions on politically sensitive topics to test whether this would trigger any complaints or attempted censorship,” the report said.

Several faculty members who had also taught at Chinese universities not affiliated with a US university noted that students and teachers could not talk as freely at the Chinese university, with one faculty member noting he had specifically been told not to discuss certain subjects while at the Chinese university.

Financial leverage

The report also noted that the US branches were substantially dependent on their Chinese partners for financial support. This follows a hearing at the US House of Representatives foreign affairs subcommittee meeting in June 2015 during which it was suggested that China’s financing of joint-venture universities was a way China could exert control over US branch campuses in the country, such as over academic freedom to discuss sensitive issues.

“The universities we reviewed generally reported receiving material support and funding from their Chinese partner universities or from provincial and local governments to help establish and operate their institutions in China,” the auditors said, adding that “most universities reported being granted land, resources for construction of new buildings, and the use of the Chinese university’s campus facilities”.

“Two universities reported receiving financial support from Chinese government entities ranging from US$1.5 million to over US$15 million. Several other universities described the support provided, including classroom space, campus facilities and student scholarships, but they did not report its monetary value.”

Some US universities noted that their institutions in China are entirely owned and operated by the Chinese universities, which have assumed financial responsibility, and that the US universities provide primarily academic guidance to the institutions.

Another pressure point, a new law on ‘managing foreign non-governmental organisations’ in China, was being closely watched by US university branch campuses for possible implications for their operations, but they told auditors it was still too soon to know the impact.