This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Dozens of Chinese students staged a rare protest on a university campus in Shanghai after their school amended its charter to remove references to academic freedom and replaced them with a pledge of loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
At least three top Chinese universities have edited their charters since the beginning of December, with Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University removing references to “freedom of thought,” prompting the daring clap-back on social media from students.
A video posted to Twitter showed a group of Fudan students singing the college song during a flashmob protest. The song includes a reference to freedom of thought.
China’s ministry of education said Nanjing University and Shaanxi Normal University had also submitted amended versions of their charters to the ministry, which had approved all three.
Fudan ranks 109th in the Times Higher Education’s 2020 World University Rankings, and the changes to its charter prompted millions of retweets and comments on social media platforms inside China.
The revised charter instead refers to “patriotic dedication,” and states that the ruling Chinese Communist Party committee is “the core of the university,” and will be responsible for setting its direction and making decisions.
The university will also “weaponize the minds of teachers and students through Xi Jinping’s socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era,” a reference to the president’s personal brand of political ideology.
A reference to “independence” was deleted from the section on academic research.
Other universities will soon follow suit
Wu Qiang, former politics lecturer at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, said other universities will soon follow suit.
“This is going on across the country in batches: the constitutions of all the universities are being revised,” Wu told RFA. “Since the Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th Party Congress … universities are being turned into strongholds of political and ideological education.”
The move comes after a number of Maoist students from top universities flocked to the southern city of Shenzhen to support workers at Jasic Technology in their bid to set up an independent labor union.
Dozens of students were detained and arrested, while some remain incommunicado to this day.
“This is systematic action being taken by the authorities to comprehensively strengthen ideological control over teachers and students,” Wu said. “Any remaining liberalism among university teachers is being completely eliminated through institutional intervention.”
“It was precious to see Fudan University students protest by singing the school song, persisting in that tradition of academic independence and freedom of thought, much like Peking University students participating in the labor movement,” he said.
Since taking power in 2012, President Xi has launched an unprecedented set of ideological controls and boosted the institutions needed to enforce them.
Xi has repeatedly warned members of the political class not to go off message in public, and set up a nationwide monitoring agency to supervise and detain anyone remotely connected with the government, including civil servants, teachers and academics, journalists, and contractors.
The authorities 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, as well as via 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.
In October 2018, Beijing appointed its own representative to head Peking University (Beida), one of the country’s most prestigious schools.
The personnel changes to a position that is ranked similarly to a provincial governor in China’s government and party hierarchy came after the university was dogged by a campaign from its own students to find out the truth behind a decade-old student suicide as part of the #MeToo movement.
Xi’s approach stems from a 2013 article titled “Improving Ideological and Political Work Among Young Teachers in Colleges and Universities,” and from his reiteration of the “Seven Taboos” that mustn’t be discussed in public by servants of the state, including teachers.
The seven banned topics are: universal values of human rights and democratic, constitutional government; press freedom; civil society; citizens’ rights; the historical mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party; the financial and political elite; and judicial independence.