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US: Is academic freedom threatened by China’s influence on American Universities?

US Parliament has recently drawn its attention on the academic overseas ties with countries like China and their pressure on foreign academics and institutions. On 4 December a US House of Representatives sub-committee began a hearing questioning whether American universities and schools are accepting restrictions on foundational principles of American academic freedom in order to be able to build campuses in China and to attract Chinese-government entities on their campuses. The witnesses speaking at the hearing denounced different sort of problems. 

First, the risk of self-censorship of China scholars, who are likely to avoid politically sensitive topics for fear to be barred from China and to lose access to libraries, archives and other research sites in the country. 

A second controversy regards Confucius institutes, the Chinese-sponsored language and culture centres. As part of the effort to expand China’s diplomatic and cultural reach, there are already 97 Confucius Institutes on American campuses. Although there has been little evidence of direct meddling by the Chinese government, the American Association of University Professors and the Canadian Association of University Teachers have pushed back against the institutes, pointing out at the risk of becoming dependent on Chinese funds and susceptible to pressure from Beijing to stifle speech it opposes. 

Finally, the trend of many American universities’ partnerships with China - for academic exchanges or to establish there transnational programmes or satellite campuses - raised the question about whether such universities can work in authoritarian countries without compromising their academic integrity. Rep. Chris Smith, chairman of the subcommittee that organised the hearings, said that the US Congress could decide to withhold money for the Education Department or for State Department exchange programs if it was decided that the Chinese-sponsored efforts are compromising academic freedoms.