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Chinese universities ordered to spy on staff, students in ideological crackdown

Dmitry Medvedev meets with students and faculty at the University of Science and Technology of China. (Kremlin/Released)
April 10, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in China are stepping up monitoring of staff and students at the country’s higher education institutions through the use of personal data, surveillance cameras in classrooms, and student informants who are the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s eyes and ears on the ground.

Student informants are continually being recruited at China’s universities and typically report back to the authorities around once every two weeks, according to online documents.

At the Wuhan University of Science and Technology, such informants are usually recruited from among the highest-performing students, taking both academic grades and ideology into account, according to a document seen by RFA.

Their duties include: “Collecting and collating a wide variety of information on teaching and teaching management activities, promptly reflecting students’ opinions and suggestions on teachers’ attitudes, as well as class content, teaching methods, marking … and extracurricular tutoring.”

“The student information officer fills in a teaching information feedback form every two weeks,” the document said. “[University staff] should also take responsibility for the confidentiality of students who provide such information.”

Song Yongyi, a historian at UCLA, said the use of student spies in China isn’t new.

“This is the same culture of spying that has always been part of the Chinese Communist Party,” Song told RFA.

“The party often recruits and develops spies directly from among the student body,” he said.

But he said the practice is on the increase under President Xi Jinping, who is engaged in a nationwide ideological clampdown involving all aspects of life in China.

“Now, they are using student informants on a very large scale,” Song said. “In the past, party organizations in universities and high schools were very loyal and would immediately report remarks made by people there.”

“Party organizations in colleges and universities are not so obedient, so the party is training agents to act as informants,” he said.

Climate of fear

Veteran U.S.-based rights activist Liu Qing said the use of informants is calculated to create a climate of fear in academic circles, which have seen the demotion or firing of several professors in recent months.

“According to information leaked online, these informants are connected to spy agencies,” Liu said. “[Their activities] are outside the control of their schools.”

Tan Song, an associate professor at Chongqing Normal University business school, who was dismissed for publishing a book on land reform, said the system of ideological control in higher education has intensified under Xi.

“Since Xi Jinping took power, we have seen the installation of surveillance cameras in higher education in 2013, while they started to recruit informants in 2014,” Tan told RFA. “The informants were hidden from view before, but now they are employed openly.”

“They have their visible and invisible aspects, so the university will issue a document saying it is setting up an informant system, which is public,” he said. “But covertly, the operative is kept in the dark; they don’t even know who their handler is.”

“I have a friend who is a party branch secretary, and he told me himself that [student informants] are run by state security and regular police,” Tan said.

Requests for data

Meanwhile, students are reporting growing requests from college authorities for their personal data, including social media accounts.

A graduate of the Beijing Broadcasting Institute told RFA: “When I was a sophomore and a junior, a counselor posted a form in the class group chat, telling everyone to fill in their WeChat, QQ number, email address and other information.”

Online comments expressed anger at being forced to submit social media information.

Weibo @qiangqingci wrote in a comment: “The last time they wanted our WeChat, which was already a red line. I’m determined not to give them my Weibo account this time around.”

Another user, @yiliutuitangguyanzoujia, wrote: “I can’t understand why a college would repeatedly ask students for their WeChat accounts. Aren’t students entitled to privacy?”

U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said students shouldn’t have their privacy invaded by universities and schools.

“Personal social media accounts and identities are private,” Teng said. “Schools don’t have the right to ask for this information.”

“This is a way for the authorities to strengthen controls on speech and thought, especially in educational institutions,” he said.

At the Anhui Mechanical and Electrical Vocational and Technical College, party propaganda officials recently issued a notice calling students to register details of their public and private accounts on WeChat and QQ.

The college was also ordered to designate an employee who would be responsible for supplying the data.

Independent Chinese journalist Deng Nizi said the “responsibility system” is a way to put pressure on institutions to self-censor.

“Setting up the responsibility system places the onus [elsewhere] so that the ‘responsible person’ has a sense of fear and responsibility, and will act more forcefully to control the speech and attitudes of others,” Deng said.

“Responsibility is a new way to maintain stability.”

Reported by Xi Wang and Han Jie for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Lau Siu-fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.