It wasn't just the fact that one of China's best universities had changed its charter last December to emphasize loyalty to the ruling Communist Party that raised eyebrows. Shanghai's Fudan University also deleted principles like freedom of thought, and did so publicly, as if expecting praise.
Furious students staged a rare and risky protest in the school cafeteria in December. They sang the school's anthem, which praises academic freedom.
"Everyone was enraged," one of the student protesters told NPR. She withheld her name because of the almost certain repercussions for speaking publicly on the matter.
To disguise their protest plans, the students publicized the event as a marriage proposal.
Fudan is one of at least three universities that have revised their charters since 2018, emphasizing unswerving loyalty to the Communist Party, an NPR analysis found. They have downgraded or erased language about academic freedom from their charters, while adding a new clause: "The university Communist Party committee is the core leadership of the school."
The move is part of a broader trend that has been growing since 2013, the year Xi Jinping became China's president. From 2013 to 2017, at least 109 universities unveiled their first-ever charters, affirming party leadership, according to NPR's analysis.
The new charters effectively hand the party ultimate control over the schools' administration, mirroring how the party dominates government agencies.
Some of China's most prestigious universities, including Beijing's Peking University and Renmin University, have new charters. And Nanjing University, which amended its charter in December, has a prominent international studies program jointly administered with Johns Hopkins University.
Academic freedom has always been precarious in China, although the 2000s saw a brief liberalization. But since Xi took office, academics say, ideological constraints have intensified, stifling discourse and innovation at home even as China seeks a global footprint in academia.
There are still some holdouts. For example, East China Normal University and Wuhan University — which have joint-venture campuses in the Shanghai area with New York University and Duke University, respectively — have not amended their charters, which still contain commitments to academic freedom.
But at the universities that have adopted pro-party charters, say academics interviewed by NPR, the rule change encapsulates some of the difficulties that educators face in China.
"I think it is a good thing that charters now reflect reality more accurately," says Qiao Mu, who once taught journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University. He left China for the U.S. in 2017 after his career was stymied because of his political outspokenness. "Why include all this pretty language about democratic freedom and freedom of thought if there is none of that?"
Cao Zhenhua has experienced the restraints firsthand. In 2018, he was fired as a lecturer at Guizhou Minzu University after being accused of questioning the current relevance of Marxism in a seminar.
"The university party secretary, institute director and local party officials tried to move me to library duties because of my political problems, but I put up a huge fight," Cao remembers. Four professors were docked pay, but because Cao pushed back on his punishment, he was dismissed.
"This kind of ideological thinking is like that of the class-struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution," Cao says, referring to a violent period in the 1960s and 1970s in China when Chairman Mao Zedong sought to root out political enemies.
Universities' local party representatives, backed by an emboldened public security apparatus, increasingly call the shots at school. When Yang Shaozheng, a former economics professor at Guizhou University, came under fire in 2018 for writing and commenting critically on Chinese politics, public security officials called him in and reprimanded him.
"They said, 'You can no longer use case studies drawn from reality in your lectures. You also must stop publishing political essays online.' They told me, 'Shut your stinking mouth.' I told them, as a university professor, what I choose to talk about is my right," Yang recounts, his voice rising in anger at the memory.
University administrators did not defend him. Yang was fired that August.
Campus party informants
Much of the control on campuses is implemented through low-tech means: human monitors. Students say classes are quietly seeded with student party members, who secretly report what teachers and students opine during lectures to party committees and school counselors.
"It took so much effort to say even one phrase. You had to pay attention to people's expressions. One person might hear me and agree. But another person might hear me and report me. I could not give lectures in such circumstances, short of simply reading from the textbook," says You Shengdong.
You, an economics professor, was sacked in 2018 from Xiamen University, he says, after unknown students reported him for criticizing slogans used by Chinese leader Xi and the growing role of inefficient state-owned enterprises in the economy. Administrators, threatening to draw on footage taken from cameras installed in his classroom, sided with the students who reported him.
Notices at Shaanxi Normal University, one of the three universities that publicly changed their charters to reflect party loyalty in December, detail the responsibilities of student spies, or "information officers," as they are officially called. These informants must possess "a certain level of political sensitivity," the notices say, and must report on student and teacher opinions regarding school and national policies as well as any "major social events."
"We simply keep an eye on things," says an undergraduate information officer at Peking University who declined to be named because of the political sensitivity of this work.
December's anthem-singing protest at Fudan University illustrates just how such a monitoring network can mobilize to quickly control small-scale incidents.
A student who created the chat group to organize the protest deleted the group from WeChat, a popular Chinese social media app, in the early morning hours before the event, after his school counselor got wind of the scheme and pressured him to withdraw.
University counselors assigned to students are responsible for their "political thought education," to make sure they are both on track academically and also steering clear of political activities, according to university hiring notices.
The day after the singing protest, members of the party youth league at Fudan University posted a prewritten statement on WeChat: "The school anthem remains the same. Not only does Fudan have academic independence and freedom of thought, but it also educates the country's future leaders, strengthens the university and protects the country. The determination that led us to Fudan in the first place hasn't changed. If given a second chance, I'd still choose Fudan." Professors who posted veiled statements of support for the protest on WeChat were told to take their posts down.
"I thought Fudan was relatively free. But oftentimes, what the students are told has already been censored from above," says the Fudan student protester.
"How can innovation happen in a society like this?" asks Shi Jiepeng, a classical-Chinese expert who is now a visiting scholar at University of Tokyo. Shi was also singled out by party inspectors three years ago because of remarks he had made about deceased Chinese leaders such as Mao and Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty.
Anonymous calls from people allegedly offended by his comments also began pouring into his department's office phone. Online trolls heaped abuse upon Shi on WeChat and another popular social platform, Weibo. Shi was eventually fired in July 2017 from his position as assistant professor of classical Chinese at Beijing Normal University.
He says his managers had received numerous complaints from students about remarks he had made in lectures in previous years, but his managers only quietly reprimanded him before dismissing the claims. "The problem is not that Chinese students and colleagues are reporting their professors. That phenomenon has always existed," says Shi.
But now, Shi says, China's political environment has changed in such a way that university administrators are receptive to such complaints and are pressured to take immediate action. "The problem is that the political winds have shifted at the top," Shi says, "and that shift has been orchestrated by the political leaders themselves."
Yuhan Xu contributed research from Shanghai.
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