What does China gain from U.S. universities?

Higher Education
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 6/29/15, 02:38 pm

WASHINGTON—In 2012, New York University (NYU) set up a degree-granting campus in Shanghai—one more American university stringing into China’s educational system.

But does China’s communist government really give American universities academic freedom? One NYU official told members of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Thursday that NYU makes its own decisions. But a Chinese witness at the same hearing believes the Chinese government is taking advantage of the universities.

“I have tremendous respect for these professionals and the pride they take in their work, but their naiveté about the modus operandi of the Chinese Communist Party is astounding,” said Yaxue Cao in a written statement to U.S. lawmakers.

Thursday’s hearing marked the first time any NYU official has appeared before the House to talk about China, despite 16 requests. NYU Shanghai Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman assured lawmakers the Chinese government has stuck to its side of the deal.

“I insisted I be given full control over the school’s curriculum and faculty arrangements, and that the school operates under the fundamental principles of academic freedom,” Lehman told committee members. “If it were to become impossible to operate without academic freedom, NYU will close down its Shanghai campus.”

But Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., argued pressure from the Chinese government might not be felt fully because American universities self-censor their faculty and curriculum.

“The slow drip of self-censorship is the most pernicious threat to academic freedom,” Smith said. “Self-censorship is the reason why NYU terminated the fellowship of a world-class human rights activist and hero, Chen Guangchen.”

Chen, a Chinese civil rights activist, said NYU was forcing him to leave its campus due to pressure from the Chinese government. NYU denied the allegation.

“We may never know if NYU experienced persistent and direct pressure from China to ask Chen from his NYU fellowship, or whether they sought to isolate him in order to keep Chen’s story out of the 2012 presidential elections,” Smith said. “Or maybe there was no pressure at all and just self-censorship to keep in Beijing’s good graces.”

Chinese students comprise 29 percent of foreign students in America. They also make up half the population in American universities in China. The idea of an educational relationship with another country seems beneficial, but at the hearing, Cao said she worries more about what American universities are giving up. She added she wished the schools saw how they fit into China’s big picture.

“I have no problem with free exchange of knowledge and technology,” Cao said. “But I have a problem with freely providing knowledge and technology to the communist regime in China, which has no other effect than to strengthen it and its grip on power.”

But Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., believes the relationship also comes with benefits.

“I think American universities in China are doing a better job of honoring American values of free speech than in any other campus in China,” he said. “So our presence there does raise the standard to some degree.”

Lehman agreed.

“I believe in my heart that this is a noble project,” he said. “It is not without risk but it has the potential to benefit all of humanity.”

In order to keep the benefits going, Smith made a request to the schools: “We’re looking for complete and total transparency, and we ask all universities and colleges to make their agreements with the Chinese government public.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

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