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China suppress academics free speech

European researchers' freedom to challenge authorities and established truths will come under fire as we further expand on the already popular collaborations between European and Chinese universities. So says Dr. Edward Vickers, PhD in Educational Research from the University of Hong Kong. He has witnessed the effects of censorship himself.

13.06.2007 | majni

By Torben Clausen (toc@dpu.dk)

European universities scramble to establish collaborative agreements all over the world, and China heads the wish list. The country is enjoying an unprecedented economical growth, and the national authorities invest heavily in research and education as a means to international competitive power. The best Chinese students are awarded generous scholarships, and Chinese students comprise a vast and growing market.

But Western universities run the risk of entering a Faustian deal. The Chinese authorities maintain a strict control with the public debate and with what researchers say in public. Western researchers who offend official Chinese sensibilities may well find their opportunities to work with the Chinese severely limited, according to Edward Vickers, who is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Education at the University of London. In April, he paid a visit to the Danish University of Education to talk about cultural differences between Western and Asian universities.

"It poses very considerable problems which are often overlooked by Western universities who are falling over each other trying to develop relationships with counterparts in China. Often we are being naive," Edward Vickers warns us.

Normalisation equals censorship
Political censorship is the name of the game in China, and this more restrictive political climate has begun to affect Hong Kong since its return to China in 1997. Vickers witnessed this himself when he wrote his PhD-thesis at the University of Hong Kong shortly after the transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997. A sociologist working at the university had been pressured by the Vice-chancellor to abandon his work on surveys of public opinion that were demonstrating the unpopularity of the government. As it turned out, the political pressure came from a person who worked for the head of the Hong Kong government, and as a student representative on the university's Senate, Vickers initially felt pressure to rally in support of the Vice-chancellor.

In this case, the Vice-chancellor was eventually forced to resign. However, subsequent events have indicated that threats to academic freedom in Hong Kong have, if anything, worsened. Vickers' own PhD supervisor, Professor Paul Morris, has recently been at the centre of a public inquiry into accusations of government interference in the autonomy of the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

Self-censorship or culture?
With the increased collaboration between Western universities and China, the independence of Western universities could well come under political pressure. Western researchers might be reluctant to openly criticise the situation in China, because they would be afraid of ruining their chances of future collaboration with the Chinese. This has led to some debate among researchers about how to deal with the Chinese educational- and university system. On the one hand some scholars argue that the different rules for universities in different parts of the world are caused by deeper cultural differences, differences that have to be recognised and respected.

On the other hand you have researchers like Edward Vickers who hesitate to accept that argument and instead point to a universal and familiar phenomenon: Authorities' attempt to clamp down on criticism and free speech. Among the proponents for this viewpoint are many Asian researchers, who are often among the most vocal in the fight for free speech. One such researcher was the sociologist at the University of Hong Kong, who was forced to suppress his own research.

Therefore Vickers is vehemently opposed to Western academics that hold back from criticising the situation in China and use 'cultural differences' as their excuse. One among several such researchers is Canadian researcher Ruth Hayhoe, an internationally recognised and influential researcher, who is the former chairman of the Comparative and International Education Society in the United States. In her latest book, she presents twelve leading figures in twelve of China's leading universities. Edward Vickers criticise the book as being overly positive and for not giving sufficient mention to the problems in the Chinese educational system.

"She concludes that the experience of all these leading educators demonstrates the deep influence of Confucian values on their lives - Confucian values are taken as meaning realization of the importance of community, respect for elders, importance of the family - and how these are values we in the individualistic and decadent west have lost, and so we have so much to learn from these Chinese counterparts and so on. If you know anything at all about China you think: 'Bullshit!'"

According to Vickers, there are several reasons why the cultural argument won't hold up to closer inspection.

Firstly, the Chinese academics were taught either in the Soviet Union or in Western countries, which invalidates the argument that it is solely, or even primarily, Confucian values that guide them. Secondly, a brilliant career in China is never free from influence from the political system, and this part of the story should not be ignored.

"You don't get to be the leader of a Chinese university without compromising with the political authorities. These people have had to live through 40 or 50 years of communist rule in China which has inevitably involved them in many extremely nasty experiences and compromises."

According to Vickers, Hayhoe and others fail as academics when they refrain from criticising the Chinese educational system and the people in leading positions in this system with a reference to cultural differences. Researchers in the West who take this line risk becoming mouthpieces for the authoritarian regimes.

"The idea of a set of certain identifiable and unchanging 'Asian characteristic' is an idea authoritarian regimes in Asia use to pursue illiberal policies," Vickers note.

When Western researchers are reluctant to criticise the Chinese outright, they may have fallen prey to a desire to demonstrate 'cultural sensitivity' towards the Chinese and the Chinese viewpoints. This, in Vickers' interpretation is nothing but misguided political correctness and misplaced loyalty.

Another possible explanation could be the potential advantages for the researcher and the institution in not being too outspokenly critical:

"These Chinese educators and their universities nowadays often have huge rewards to bestow on scholars who are seen as friendly. For western scholars there is a temptation to sell your soul in return for access to lucrative research grants and studentships. There is a potential for the Chinese to use their resources to corrupt Western higher education," Edward Vickers warns us.

Autonomous researchers
According to Vickers, there is, however, one vital difference between the universities in much of Asia and those in the Western world, and that is their relation to the state. In the West, universities traditionally strive to maintain a certain distance from the political scene, and researchers are free to explore philosophical issues without committing to this or that social agenda. This is not the case in China, where researchers traditionally step up for the authorities as historians and consultants and play the role as intellectuals to the public.

"It is quite legitimate for western academics to reject all that and sit in the ivory tower. Chinese academics could do that as well but would feel somehow incomplete in terms of their role as scholars. The idea that universities should keep themselves at a certain distance from the state is not regarded as a crucial part of the identity of the university in East Asia."

This is a problem for the Chinese researchers in today's political climate, because involvement in political issues has to be in accordance with the party line. The consequence is politically motivated and weak research in both the social and humanistic fields, and therefore the current debate in China revolves around increasing the degree of freedom the researchers have. On the other hand, Western researchers could maybe do worse than to learn from their Chinese colleagues, who are generally highly respected because they continuously aim to show how their research is relevant for society.

"In a society like Britain academics, particularly in the social sciences, are often not accorded particularly high respect by the general public, because their work is not seen as particularly relevant to anyone. In China and in Asia in general, scholars are generally accorded a higher degree of respect. Perhaps Western academics need to become more politically and socially engaged and Chinese academics need to become less socially and politically engaged," Edward Vickers closes.

Public inquiry into dismissal of critical Hong Kong academic
A public inquiry is underway to determine whether the Hong Kong government has secretly attempted to interfere in the academic freedom at the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd). The centre of the controversy is Paul Morris, who was Edward Vickers' PhD supervisor. The case began in January, when the Government-appointed Council of the institute informed Morris that his contract would not be renewed when it expires this September. Following the announcement, Professor Paul Morris' deputy, Bernard Luk Hung-Kay, went public with claims that a senior official at the education ministry had pressured Morris to sack four academics who had criticised Government education policy.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen, who heads the Government, felt compelled to establish a public inquiry. However, this has not been without complications. Initially a pro-establishment judge, Justice Woo, was appointed to head the inquiry until the revelation of his close working relationship with one of the accused officials forced his resignation. Since then local press reports have mocked the apparent inability of government witnesses to recall key conversations and incidents. And while witnesses opposing Morris and Luk are having their legal expenses paid by the Government or by their institutions, the two academics will have to pay their own legal bill – estimated at almost £300,000.

Some of the most vocal critics of the Hong Kong government's education policy in recent years have been academics based at the HKIEd. However, particularly since the appointment in 2002 of Arthur Li Kwok-Cheung as Education Minister, the Government has sought to curtail the autonomy of the HKIEd. Li, formerly vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has vigorously pressed for a merger between the institute and his former university. This has been resisted by the vast majority of staff and students at the HKIEd.

Read more about the inquiry at the Commission of Inquiry's official homepage or at the website Academic Freedom in Hong Kong set up by Hong Kong academics.

Edward Vickers
Portrait of Edward VickersEdward Vickers is a senior lecturer in Comparative Education at the University of London. He wrote his PhD-thesis at the University of Hong Kong. He has lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for twelve years.

Visit Edward Vickers personal homepage.


Edward Vickers

Read more about Edward Vickers

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"There is a potential for the Chinese to use their resources to corrupt Western higher education."
-Edward Vickers

Critical academic dismissed

Academic freedom and political power is colliding in a public inquiry in Hong Kong.

The author

Contact info for Torben Clausen

22:News, 53:Tema: Uddannelsespolitik