Spike in China’s efforts to deter dissent, block ideas

There has been a spike in reported attacks on students and scholars in China over the past year, aimed at “eliminating dissent and restricting the flow of ideas”, according to Scholars at Risk or SAR’s Free to Think 2019 report.

A resurgence of student activism not seen on the mainland since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests has been met with swift punishment by police, the report says, with a growing number of students detained and some disappeared.

Scholars have been “arrested, prosecuted and targeted with disciplinary measures, including dismissal, for their research, teaching and online expression”, the report says.

“Meanwhile, authorities continue the mass detention of members of China’s ethnic minority communities, including many scholars and students, at so-called ‘re-education camps’ scattered throughout the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region.”

SAR has documented restrictions on academic freedom and related rights in China over the past decade, so this is not a new phenomenon, but the sudden spike in incidents and the consequences they carry for the country’s increasingly global higher education sector “heighten longstanding concerns and warrant a closer review”, SAR says.

A growing number of scholars and students have been detained and prosecuted, often for their online activities, but also due to their ethnic and religious identities. Some have been detained without charge; others have been charged on national security-related offences.

For example, Yang Hengjun, a prominent writer, former Chinese official and current visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York, where he resides, is being held in harsh conditions in detention in China on charges of engaging in “criminal activities that endanger China’s national security”.

He had been prevented from boarding a connecting flight from Guangzhou to Shanghai a few days before he disappeared in January 2019, but Beijing later announced that they had detained him.

He had been detained for seven months before it was reported that charges had been brought against him and he faces 10 years or more imprisonment if convicted or, as some reports are indicating, a death sentence. He has not been given access to legal counsel and is reportedly shackled during interrogations.

Another case cited is that of Northwest Minzu University graduate student Sonam Lhundrub, who was reportedly detained in April 2019 by authorities from the Tibet Education Bureau for writing an essay for his civil service exam in which he described the decline in government career opportunities for Tibetans.

A scholar and human rights activist, Guo Quan, was detained by police, supposedly for 10 days, in April this year for social media posts that reportedly demanded that the Chinese government disclose information about a chemical explosion in Xiangshui in March that left more than 70 people dead. SAR said there was no evidence that he had been released.

Over the past year, Chinese police and other security forces appear to have increased their efforts to detain student members of Marxist and labour groups at some of China’s most elite universities, SAR reported.

For example, on 21 January 2019 authorities detained seven Marxist activists from Peking and Renmin universities for reporting on tactics by the police that were apparently intended to restrict student activism.

Specifically, the students reported over social media and to the press that police forced students to watch videos of prominent detained student activists allegedly confessing to “spread[ing] false information and violat[ing] the law”, and denouncing their past actions. Shortly after the students’ accounts were circulated, police conducted house-to-house searches and detained seven students.

Nearly three months later, on 29 and 30 April, it was reported that authorities detained six students from Peking University in apparent connection to their Marxist activities.

The students included Qiu Zhanxuan, a student activist from Peking University and head of the university’s Marxist Society, who had previously been held overnight by police for organising a memorial for the 125th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birthday, an event that the university administration allegedly warned Qiu to not hold.

Sources indicated that five of the students went missing after they reported being followed by men who appeared to be plainclothes police officers.

A sixth student, Shen Yuxuan, told a friend over the phone that she was being harassed by police officers and security guards. When she went to the bathroom to hide, several police officers broke in and took her into custody before turning off her phone. SAR has received no further information regarding the whereabouts of Shen and the five other students.

Mass detention

State authorities in the People’s Republic of China continue the mass detention of scholars and students of the Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnic minority communities, apparently on the basis of their ethnic and religious identity, academic activity or views and ideas, SAR reported.

Authorities are reportedly holding detainees at so-called ‘re-education’ camps throughout the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Reports indicate that some detainees have been forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, in contravention of their Muslim beliefs, and to attend indoctrination sessions, SAR reported.

SAR said that while a comprehensive accounting of scholars and students detained at ‘re-education’ camps and other facilities is not available, reports by the Uyghur Human Rights Project and others suggest that a “staggering number of university professors, students and other intellectuals have been imprisoned at the so-called ‘re-education camps’ or are otherwise being held against their will”.

The report cites two cases of scholars being handed down death sentences. In September 2018, reports surfaced that authorities had issued a two-year suspended death sentence to Halmurat Ghopur, a scholar of medicine and a former president of Xinjiang Medical University Hospital, “for exhibiting ‘separatist tendencies’”.

Within weeks, in October 2018, news broke that authorities had also sentenced to death renowned geographer and former Xinjiang University president Tashpolat Tiyip on a charge of “separatism”, but they have not publicly disclosed the evidentiary basis of the charge on which he was convicted.

In August this year, the China’s State Council Information Office published a paper asserting that trainees could leave the camps, “enjoy the freedom of correspondence,” and were gaining employable skills via vocational training.

Universities ordered to silence academics

SAR reported that universities have been ordered by the Chinese Communist Party to punish or silence academics for views expressed on or off campus.

For instance, in September 2018, Zhou Yun-Zhong, an assistant professor of history at Xiamen University, was dismissed from his position for expressing views critical of Chinese society and China’s historical achievements in a blog written under a pseudonym.

It was alleged that he was “distorting Chinese historical reality, harming the image of the Party and the country, hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, crossing the red line of teachers’ ethics and work style, and exerting a bad influence on society”.

In October 2018, Zhao Si-yun, the deputy head of the School of Literature of Zhejiang University of Media and Communications, was investigated and given a ‘severe internal warning’ for criticising China’s school system’s failure to nurture students’ creativity, innovation and concern for society and talking of the need for students to have independent thought.

The Chinese authorities have also prevented scholars from travelling in and out of China to engage in academic activity.

“State-led efforts to constrain and punish ideas and questions run contrary to efforts to establish quality higher education communities that drive scientific, cultural, economic and social progress,” the SAR report says.

“Such attacks and restrictions on academic activity and the peaceful exchange of ideas, by the Chinese government or any state, undermine progress and curtail national and international academic opportunities.”

Commitment to academic freedom

SAR urged Chinese state authorities to publicly affirm their commitment to academic freedom and human rights.

“Chinese state authorities must secure the immediate release of scholars and students wrongfully imprisoned in connection to their academic activity, opinions, associations, or ethnic or religious identity, and, pending this, disclose the location of all detainees and uphold national and international legal obligations related to due process and the humane treatment of prisoners,” SAR says.

It also calls on Chinese state authorities to refrain from wrongful imprisonments and prosecutions, ‘re-education’ efforts, travel restrictions, pressures on universities to carry out wrongful disciplinary measures, and other actions that restrict academic freedom and its constituent freedoms of expression, opinion, thought, association and travel.