When the CCP Threatens International Students’ Academic Freedom

Critics warned against the imposition of China’s new national security law in Hong Kong, June 2020. They would remove both cultural norms and legal freedom speech from this long-independent region. They were wrong: The police forces have reacted to critics. The newsrooms were raidedStudents and faculty have reported professors who critique Beijing to tiplines; and many people have fled their homes and sought refuge in the U.K. special visa policy. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has caused these problems to cross borders in surprising ways. It threatens academic freedom of those studying in the U.S.

Many American professors faced a unique dilemma in 2020. They had to handle students from Hong Kong who were being sent home while still Zooming in on their classes at American universities. “I don’t think people understand how… a speech rule in China suddenly becomes a speech issue in the United States. It is quite jarring,” Sarah McLaughlin, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), tells. There are reasons

China has long been the number one feeder of international students to the U.S.; for the 2020–21 school year, more than 317,000 Chinese students were enrolled at American higher ed institutions. Every year 6,800 Hong Kong students travel to American universities. McLaughlin explains that this is because the U.S. expelled foreigners temporarily during the Pandemic. “Is it safe to them learn?” 

American professors began “trying” to teach.[ing]McLaughlin states that they are trying to figure out the best way to educate without being censored. McLaughlin says they have removed certain discussions from social media platforms and started to use blind grading. Students are not allowed to submit papers under their name. Some conversations were changed to one-to-one, instead of being in groups where another student could potentially record or share the comments. Professors like Rory Truex in Princeton Warnings issuedIn their syllabuses they stated that students who are currently in China should not take any class until they return to the United States.

To stop Chinese Communist Party (CCP censors, academics have gone to great lengths to suppress their own self-censorship. One University of Toronto teaching assistant claimed he was told to not discuss certain topics online as it might put students at risk. A guest journalist from the University of Toronto also stated that he had been instructed. Hong Kong Free Press He declined a previously agreed-to speaking engagement at Leeds University because hosts had instructed him to not focus on Hong Kong protests due to concern about the safety of remote Chinese students.

Zoom videoconferencing technology allowed international students to learn even when they were returning from America. But for students in Hong Kong, the national security law—which seeks to bring Hong Kong under tighter CCP control, imperiling speech rights—collided with pandemic-era tech solutions to create a tricky situation; professors have called on Zoom to provide certain contractual promises related to sharing private information with the Chinese government and complying with the CCP’s censorship demands. Federal prosecutors have charged a former employee of Zoom with secretly censoring Tiananmen square vigils via the platform. The Verge Reports that “[Xinjiang]Jin was alleged to have identified participants who had discussed “disfavorable” political and religious subjects, then collaborated with other employees to prevent them from taking part in calls,” asking US employees for information regarding dissidents planning on commemorating the events and getting the company blocked accounts from several attendees who hosted Tiananmen events starting in New York.

Ultimately, “Chinese authorities…detained potential participants inside China and in at least one case, it threatened the family of a participant living abroad.” Zoom later apologized for the situation, but international students are left wondering about how security was provided and what they could do to keep their anonymity when studying from home.

Dartmouth is one school that has attempted technical solutions. This includes deleting metadata and identifying information from submissions, turning off Zoom video and turning off transcription and recording, as well as permitting “students”. [to]Participation grades for assignments in which anonymity is “not possible” will be exempted. And, for now, some number of students—the U.S. embassy in Beijing estimated a little under one-third as of the start of the 2021 school year—have been allowed to return to on-campus instruction in the U.S., to the extent that it exists, allowing them to take part in more robust discourse far from the prying eyes of the state.

Students from Hong Kong and their American counterparts, as well as professors in Hong Kong had to be concerned about the consequences of students taking a cell phone and filming comments during class. McLaughlin says that this situation has only gotten worse with the adoption of remote learning. No matter what the intention, it is much simpler to track down and censor speech critical of the government online.