Need Some Cheese With that Whine? Western Academics Influenced By China.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 20:31
Posted in category The Big Picture

Regardless of whether or not you believe NYU’s side of the story, one of the most interesting debates that has come of the entire Chen debacle has been the influence of China within foreign academic systems.  It is something that has certainly been seen on other global stages, and I am certainly not surprised that NYU would come under pressure to keep a lid on its left wing, but I have to admit that I am a bit taken back by the size of the problem as it is being presented in some circles.

Inside Higher Ed’s   Does China have too much influence over academe in the West? lays out the conspiracy:

Chen wrote: “The work of the Chinese Communists within academic circles in the United States is far greater than what people imagine, and some scholars have no option but to hold themselves back. Academic independence and academic freedom in the United States are being greatly threatened

“I think that’s basically right,” said Perry Link, a professor at the University of California at Riverside who is among the China scholars who have been blacklisted from obtaining visas to conduct research in China. “It happens when scholars are induced, whether for fear of not getting visas or because of the lure of getting money, to censor themselves and not raise questions that they otherwise would raise and to speak using words that they know would be acceptable in Beijing rather than words they would view as being more accurate,” said Link


“Chen is absolutely right when he says that the Chinese government has influenced intellectual freedom in the West,” said Maochun Yu, a professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. “On the other hand, this is not NYU’s problem. It’s a larger problem.”

“A lot of American universities want to have broader contact with China in terms of academic exchange, in terms of getting more Chinese students to pay full tuition to American campuses. They want to keep the Chinese government in good graces. They don’t want to offend the Chinese government,” Yu said

“Universities are really concerned to give their students an international education and China is regarded, perhaps erroneously and perhaps prematurely, as a country we really need to get to know a lot better because of the way its economy is growing and because of the influence it has on the environment. So you don’t want to be shut off from China and you want your students to have these experiences with Chinese students and of learning the Chinese language and if you see that jeopardized by something you don’t have to do anyway

The WSJ’s article NYU Case Spotlights Risk of China Tie-Ups also had a couple interesting passages worth pulling out

Other U.S. schools with a presence in China include Harvard, Columbia, Duke and George Washington University. Some have limited programs in conjunction with Chinese schools, mostly for the study of Chinese or a year abroad. But others, like NYU, are pushing for a larger footprint.

[…[ In several cases, Western scholars have lobbied against such tie-ups, expressing concern that the Chinese would use them to pressure academics into toning down criticism of Chinese policies in sensitive areas.

Looking at the passages above, I think it goes without saying that IF there is any “influence” coming from Beijing on academics, it is in the areas of sensitive topics.  Prof Link is a specialist on a certain topic, which recently celebrated an anniversary, and is not necessarily on Beijing’s side of history.  so, it should come as no surprise that he would find it difficult to get a visa so that he could conduct more research.

Taking a step back here, what I find funny about this entire debate is the fact that you have some of the world’s most prestigious schools “bending” to china’s demands because they are worried about losing support for their Chinese programs.  Programs that no doubt make a lot of money, but these are schools that don’t need the money any more than China “needs” their campuses or foreign student tours.

Which is perhaps the greater point that I would like to pull out.

Yes, China is a massive source of funds for many universities.  It is the the largest source of foreign students to the US right now, while at the same time hosting hundreds (thousands) of student tours.  Tours that are very lucrative for universities.  BUT, if a University is so bothered by the “constraints” that China puts on them, then perhaps they would be better off maintaining their integrity, staying out of China, and being public about it.

Seriously, China really doesn’t need another sponsored trip, and if a University like Harvard is giving away free scholarships to Chinese because it is afraid of China’s response, then perhaps Harvard would be best to focus on giving scholarships to students from the U.S. who are in “greater need”. Many will say that this is not the way the world works, but what strikes me about this entire debate is how similar it is to the debate that many “companies” have when they were comign to china.. and the discussions they now have of what success they have ultimately found.

That is not a slam on China, but for many firms (and academic institutions), they would have been far better off staying at home than trying to enter this market. Which is to say that this story for me is less about China’s influence, and more about academia’s willingness to be influenced.

Were academic institutions driven by standards, vs money and the need to expand, they would be less likely to be influenced.  Something that I think the restrictions at Yale’s investment in Singapore supports.

Wanna play ball on their field?  Play by their rules…. without whining about it.

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6 Responses to “Need Some Cheese With that Whine? Western Academics Influenced By China.”

  1. Steve Barru says:

    June 19th, 2013 at 10:05 am

    The people “whining” are generally not the people at US academic instititions who have made the choice to get involved with China, often at the expense of standards, as you rightly point out.

    The “whiners” are for the most part scholars who work for institutions involved with China. They did not necessarily ask to “play ball on their field”; their employers made the decisions about China. It seems more than a little inappropriate to call these folks whiners. In fact, the questions they ask about what it means for academic freedom to be involved with China seem well worth asking and deserve more than an offhand, snide dismissal.

  2. Rich says:

    June 19th, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    Steve – If academic freedom is a core value to you/ organization, it is your (individual/ organization) choice to bend.

    If you make that choice, don’t complain about it later.

  3. Steve Barru says:

    June 19th, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Of course the issue is choice. Perry Link chose a long time ago to continue speaking out and publishing about a certain “incident”, I’m sure knowing full well there would be consequences. He has continued speaking out to this day. And good for him.

    Others find themselves employed by institutions that they believe are compromising too much to be involved with China. Are they guilty by association and therefore complaining inappropriately?

  4. Rich says:

    June 19th, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    @Steve – Link has stuck with his topic. China is not suppressing his institution. They are suppressing HIM.

  5. Steve Barru says:

    June 20th, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Actually, I think we agree on most of this. My issue is this: Univ X makes a deal of some kind in China. Prof A works at Univ X, among other things publishing, lecturing and researching, say, Han Chinese immigration to Western China and some of the problems this has caused. Most of what Prof A says is sure to ruffle feathers in Beijing, something that is actually very easy to do. China talks quietly to Univ X about the value of friendly cooperation and so on, and Univ X quietly asks Prof A if he could be a bit more China friendly or at the very least less contentious. Is Prof A “whining” if he goes public with this?

  6. Rich says:

    June 23rd, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    @Steve. That is where I more look at the institution. I have seen this happen several times in my time in China, as a part-time academic, and when shifts (overt or covert) happen you tend to see profs jump ship.

    What I would be interested in seeing is the reaction of a tenured professor to the pressure of administration officials should they bend to requests. Part of the reason why tenure exists is so that profs can tell their deans to stuff it w/out risk to their positions.