Cornell cuts ties with China over academic freedom

Cornell halts China university ties over academic freedom

Source: Financial Times (10/27/18)
Censorship: Cornell halts China university ties over curbs on academic freedom
US institution says Renmin punished students for supporting workers’ rights
By Yuan Yuan in Beijing

Cornell University of the US has suspended two academic exchanges and a research programme with China’s Renmin University because of concerns over academic freedoms, the first case in years of a foreign university halting a partnership with a Chinese counterpart for such reasons.

The move came after several students of Renmin, a top ranked Chinese institution, said they were punished by the school for speaking out online about workers’ rights and for supporting workers’ attempts to unionise in the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen this summer, Cornell told the Financial Times.

Although nominally Communist, China’s ruling party has little tolerance for student groups speaking out on labour issues, and has painted such groups as part of a foreign-influenced attempt to sow discord.

“The myriad actions Renmin has taken against their students for speaking up on labour issues were too grave a violation of academic freedom,” said Eli Friedman, Cornell’s director of international programmes at their school of industrial and labour relations (ILR).

Cornell’s ILR school began its partnership with Renmin’s school of labour in 2014, and the two are often ranked as the best such schools in their respective countries.

But, Mr Friedman added: “The research we want to do is not possible any more. You’re not allowed to talk about labour issues. Foreign universities need to re-evaluate how we engage in China.”

Renmin did not respond to requests for comment.

Although workers’ protests are becoming common as China’s economy slows, student involvement in such demonstrations is highly sensitive, partly because of the historical echoes of student unrest in China. The party’s own roots lie in the May Fourth student movement.

Relations among foreign and Chinese universities have been strained over the past year as the party tightens its control over education and public discourse.

Chinese regulators closed down more than a fifth of partnerships between local and foreign universities this year. International academic publishers have admitted to facing pressure from Beijing’s censors to block access to papers from within China.

Renmin’s actions against students come after a summer of student solidarity protests with workers. Students from universities across China went to Shenzhen to support workers trying to organise a union at Jasic Technology. Workers trying to organise a union clashed with management and the ensuing local row quickly snowballed into a national political issue.

In July, police detained about 30 workers in the biggest such arrest since 2015. In August, police in riot gear stormed a student dormitory and took away about 40 students who had been supporting the workers, according to witnesses.

Yang Shuhan, a third-year undergraduate, wrote in an open statement that Renmin had forced her to withdraw from school for a year as a result of supporting the Jasic workers. Zhang Zihan, a second-year Renmin undergraduate student, wrote that teachers criticised him in front of his entire year of students for posting pro-Jasic social media posts on WeChat, and demanded that he delete the posts.

Earlier this academic term, Peking University had threatened to shut down its student Marxist society, which had been conducting workers’ rights investigations on campus. Although the university group was eventually reinstated, Renmin has taken similar actions against its own workers’ rights student society, Xinguang, threatening it with de-registration.

Additional reporting by Archie Zhang

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