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Podcast Transcript for 'American Universities in China — Free Speech Bastions or Threat to Academic Freedom?'

A student walks past the entrance to New York University's Shanghai campus. (Eric Fish/Asia Society)

A student walks past the entrance to New York University's Shanghai campus. (Eric Fish/Asia Society)

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Reporter: Last year it is said you said textbooks with Western values are not suitable for classrooms. Can you please give us more explanations of what you mean by Western values because Marxism is also a Western value.

Eric Fish: That’s a Wall Street Journal reporter at a press conference in 2016, questioning China’s then-Minister of Education, Yuan Guiren. The previous year, Yuan had reportedly ordered university officials to disallow textbooks that “disseminate Western values.” Here was his answer.

Yuan Guiren: I don’t know if you are an American or if you are Chinese working here for The Wall Street Journal. Do you have faith in Marxism? The fact that Marxism is our guiding principle reflects the Chinese Communist Party’s spirit of openness. Once the philosophy is defined and determined, we will not change.

Eric Fish: Yuan went on for several minutes without ever really answering the question, but he also didn’t deny that he’d made those earlier remarks, which had been the subject of some speculation. It raised fears that an internal party communiqué leaked in 2013, known as Document 9, might start to be implemented in universities.

Orville Schell: Document 9 was a secret document that was put out by the central government

Eric Fish: That’s Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.

Orville Schell: And expressed a deep sort of suspiciousness as to the intentions of sort of liberal Western democracies in conducting their affairs and various kinds of exchanges with China. And I think sort of the hidden text was that China needed to be very careful because the intention of academic exchanges, even cultural exchanges, scientific exchanges, all of these kinds of civil society interactions could have a subversive effect on China's one-party political system.

Eric Fish: Document 9 instructed officials to stop universities and media from discussing seven taboo topics, including Western constitutional democracy, neoliberalism, universal values, press freedom, and past Communist Party mistakes. Since its distribution, in concert with wider crackdown on dissent, some Chinese professors have reported being pressured and even fired, for being critical of the government in class. Then earlier this year, it was announced that top Chinese universities would be subject to ideological inspections to make sure they’re towing the Party line.

Orville Schell: I think if you look back and compare it to the 80s, even to the 90s after 1989 as China slowly began to open up again and to liberalize in many ways, you would have to say there has been a chill and the fact that it has extended even to universities and academic exchanges, which were once considered sort of free and clear is I think very regrettable and worth noting.

Eric Fish: But against this backdrop, American and other Western universities have flocked in to establish a presence in China. Some schools, including New York University and Duke, have even set up full degree-granting campuses, which has raised concerns in the U.S. congress.

Chris Smith: The Chinese government and the Communist Party are waging a persistent, intense, and escalating campaign to suppress dissent, purge rivals from within the party, and regain total ideological control over the arts, media, and universities.

Eric Fish: That’s Republican Congressman Chris Smith from New Jersey, speaking at a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing he organized in 2015. The hearing’s purpose was to explore whether American universities are being compromised by China’s repression of academic freedom.

Chris Smith: Some may defend concessions as the cost of doing business in an authoritarian or dictatorship, such as in China. Maybe a university decides that it won’t offer a class on human rights in China. Maybe they won’t invite a prominent dissident, or a fellow, or visiting lecturer.

Eric Fish: Smith is hardly alone in these concerns. In addition to a political atmosphere conducive to self-censorship in Chinese universities, some critics hold that American universities accept funding and agree to terms of entry that make them vulnerable to the whims of Chinese authorities; and that they do so in part to make up for budget shortfalls back home.

Chris Smith: Which begs a very significant and important question: Are U.S. colleges and universities compromising their images as bastions of free inquiry and academic freedom in exchange for China’s education dollars?

Eric Fish: But those who are part of U.S. universities in China see things very differently.

Jeff Lehman: People who have not visited us in person occasionally suggest that NYU Shanghai should not exist.

Eric Fish: That’s Jeff Lehman, vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai, testifying at the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

Jeff Lehman: Sometimes they argue that American universities should stay away from any authoritarian country. Sometimes they say that China presents unique risks that render academic freedom impossible. While I appreciate the good motives of these individuals who speculate about our university from afar, I do not believe their conclusions are well-founded. ... Last weekend, I told a Shanghainese friend that I would be testifying here today. He asked why, and I explained that some people who value the free exchange of ideas believe American universities should not be present in China. His response was crisp and, I believe, quite apt. He said, "If someone is truly committed to the free exchange of ideas here in China, they should want to see more schools like NYU Shanghai, not fewer."

Eric Fish: The presence of schools like NYU in China raises some big questions: Why are Chinese authorities anxious to have Western universities come in at the same time they’re cracking down on so-called Western values? Can these schools really maintain complete academic freedom? And what mark do they leave on the young Chinese and foreign students that study there?

Jim Sleeper: Of course you're legitimating a regime by cooperating with it.

Rebecca Karl: It's quite clear that the Chinese have gotten what they wanted. It's an unholy alliance

Cheryl Li: Definitely Chinese students are exposed to more information.

Jerome Cohen: You could say it’s an effort to keep the candle of liberal thought going.

Kiril Bolotnikov: I would say I’m a completely different person from who I was when I first arrived.

Eric Fish: In today’s episode, we’ll hear from professors, students, and administrators at Western universities operating in China, as well as long-time China watchers and critics, to give a deep dive into China’s higher education cooperations. We’ll zoom in specifically on the case of NYU Shanghai, and how it’s navigating China’s political environment. I’m Eric Fish and this is Asia In-Depth.


Mike Gow: We have a very fixed idea in quote Western countries unquote about what a university is.

Eric Fish: That’s Mike Gow, who studies Chinese higher education and runs a blog on the topic called The Daxue. He’s held research positions at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University and NYU Shanghai — both Sino-foreign joint venture schools.

Mike Gow: And we sort of reify the universities as independent from state interference, autonomous, exercising a huge amount of freedom, whereas in China they are very very closely related to the state. I think that this is something that's very important to get your head around when looking at higher education in China, is that the higher education sector is kind of run with an industrial policy. The purpose of higher education is not to show the world how clever they are. It's to serve the system and to act as sort of a catalyst for growth and creativity and innovation but also providing the resources, the human resources, and training the human resources to serve the wider economy. So there's a lot of throwback to the planned economy. It's one of the areas that's been least affected by marketization.

Eric Fish: The first American institution of higher education allowed to establish a physical presence in China during the Communist era was Johns Hopkins University. In 1986, it established a Center for Chinese and American Studies inside Nanjing University. This was early in China’s reform period when the country’s leaders were anxious to move past the long international isolation of the Mao era. Hopkins-Nanjing was intended to give Chinese and foreign students a bilingual education that would contribute to China’s relations with the outside world.

Robert Daly: So it was formed in the pre-1989 era, sort of a golden age for educational and cultural exchanges.

Eric Fish: That’s Robert Daly speaking by phone, who served as a Cultural Exchanges Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in the late 80s and early 90s. He was later American Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center from 2001 to 2007.

Robert Daly: The deal that Hopkins took then, which I think was actually a pretty good deal, was this: The Hopkins-Nanjing Center would have full American academic freedoms — freedoms of speech, research, freedom to debate, full academic freedoms in terms of speakers, conversations that would be held within the Hopkins-Nanjing Center — in exchange for which it accepted that the Hopkins-Nanjing Center could not evangelize for academic freedom. In other words, the privileges for academic freedom were for the Hopkins-Nanjing Center only — for its students and scholars within its walls. But the Hopkins-Nanjing Center would not, for example, be able to publish something that would otherwise not be able to be publishable in China.

Eric Fish: A few years ago, those restrictions were tested. In 2011, an American student at the center tried to start a journal that included papers on potentially sensitive topics. He intended to make it available outside the university walls but was reportedly told by administrators that that would violate the center’s rules. This was after at least one Chinese student had reportedly been persuaded by a Nanjing University administrator outside the center to withdraw their article. There was no evidence that government authorities had intervened in any way — the rebukes came from within the university. But the incident was widely reported in U.S. media and viewed by some U.S. academics as a cautionary tale about the threat of self-censorship and the limits of academic freedom in China.

Robert Daly: Again, you cannot have a publication, a journal that would go beyond the center. But I saw nothing in the reporting on that that suggested that Johns Hopkins had violated the commitment to academic freedom that it made.

Eric Fish: Since Hopkins Nanjing’s 1986 establishment, dozens of universities from around the world have established arms within Chinese schools under similar terms. Some are non-degree study centers, others are akin to subject-specific colleges within Chinese universities. But in 2003, the Chinese government began allowing foreign universities to take it a step further and form full joint venture universities, in which they team up with a Chinese counterpart to form a new, legally independent degree-granting campus. The first such school was the University of Nottingham Ningbo in 2004. Since then, six more have opened, all from the U.S., Britain, and Hong Kong, with two more under development from Russia and Israel. Over the past decade or so, Chinese leaders have recognized that the low-skill, low-wage manufacturing-led growth that’s long-driven China’s development is running out of steam as wages rise. In order to keep economic growth going, the country has to move up the value chain and become more innovative — much like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan did. We talk more about this more in a previous episode on China’s economy. Mike Gow notes that this desire to become more innovative is part of what’s motivated China to open its higher education sector to foreign universities.

Mike Gow: There’s many different reasons for it, but when you look at the flagship institutions like Nottingham Ningbo, Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool, new institutions like NYU Shanghai, and Duke is also setting up in Kunshan, these are experiments, and what they want to do is learn lessons from these world-class institutions to see how they can better reform their own system. So that's really why the Chinese have come up with these regulations in 2003 as part of WTO ascension. They have to open up their education to foreign competition, but they put very clear caveats inside.

Eric Fish: The caveats he mentioned are many. When a foreign university wants to set up a joint venture, the Chinese partner maintains 51 percent control, and at least 51 percent of the students must be Chinese. When they apply, Chinese students must also take the notorious gaokao college entrance exam — a stressful multi-day test that largely relies on rote memorization. And one of the most significant distinctions for joint-venture universities in China is that they are independent institutions. So NYU Shanghai, for instance, legally, is not a branch of NYU New York. It’s a standalone university that NYU technically has just 49 percent control of. The remaining 51 percent belongs to its Chinese partner: East China Normal University.

May Lee: Hi I'm May Lee and I was the vice chancellor for Asian Strategic Initiatives at New York University from 2010 to 2014.

Eric Fish: May Lee represented NYU starting in 2010 when it was in negotiations with East China Normal University and the Shanghai government to establish a campus in China. She said that, miraculously, it only took three years from the first discussions to when the first batch of students began classes. And of all the contentious issues that came up during those negotiations, NYU being allowed to teach what it wanted and hire who it wanted without interference wasn’t one of them.

May Lee: For us, academic freedom is our professors, regardless of where they are in the world, must be able to teach in their classroom the same way. And so my feeling was that we were crystal clear with our counterparts that that kind of academic freedom must be allowed, otherwise, NYU could not in good faith and good conscience consistent with its own principles, continue. I do think that we didn't spend a lot of time talking about it because we all understood that that was a precondition.

Eric Fish: Then there’s the point of NYU Shanghai not being a branch of NYU New York, but rather, an independent entity that’s 51 percent controlled by its Chinese partner, although students still do receive the same NYU degree that they would in New York. When asked whether this distinction matters in practice or if it’s just something semantic to make the Chinese side happy, Lee said this.

May Lee: So, yes. In China I think that we say this to our freshman when they come which is that part of this education is to teach you to hold two seemingly disparate and contradictory ideas in your head at the same time and think about how to do that and still be able to speak about it coherently, which is why I answered yes. I mean as a real and practical matter, NYU Shanghai as an independent legal entity here in China. For legal purposes, for regulatory purposes, it is standalone. But for very real and all intents and purposes is also really a part of NYU's global network.

Eric Fish: John Sexton was president of NYU from 2002 to 2015, during which time he pushed an international expansion of the school, which included its Shanghai campus and a similar portal campus in Abu Dhabi. The NYU that Sexton envisioned was a global network where students enter one of the full campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, or Shanghai, but can then circulate between them and eleven other NYU sites around the world. Here he is in an interview in late 2015 shortly before stepping down as president.

John Sexton: You could view the global network concept as an extrapolation of New York City. So New York City is the first city in the world that has a neighborhood for every country in the world, which is inhabited by people that were born in that country, yet it works as an integrated city. It's a community of communities, and as a way to view the world potentially as that, we wish we could get to the point where we're operating as a community of humankind as well as New York City is operating, although New York City’s not perfect. If one is a university as NYU is, that is in and of a city like New York, then it makes sense to say to students or faculty or staff that want to come here to be part of our community, come here if you want to embrace the mission of creating a community of communities in the world, learn the skills, research the ways in which we can build bridges and tunnels and connections among the various manifestations of humankind around the world to perhaps create a whole that's better than the sum of its parts.

Eric Fish: But Sexton’s ambitious expansion plans didn’t sit well with many of his faculty in New York.

Rebecca Karl: I'm Rebecca Karl, I’m a history professor at NYU.

Eric Fish: In September of 2013, as NYU Shanghai accepted its first class of students, Karl, who’s been doing research in China since 1980, was one of five NYU professors to write an open letter expressing grave concerns over the new campus. The five signatories were all members of NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors ­— a national organization with the goal of protecting academic freedom.

Rebecca Karl: Our main concerns were several. One of the concerns is the very narrow reading of what academic freedom entails.

Eric Fish: She said that she and the other signatories had no doubt that NYU Shanghai students and professors are allowed to say what they want in the classroom. But that interpretation of academic freedom is too narrow.

Rebecca Karl: It's based upon the problem that NYU Shanghai functions as a bubble. In other words, that once you step out of that bubble of protection, whether that protection is geographical or geographically limited to the campus to the actual site of the campus or not, that we're unclear about, but the bubble being the problem of not being able to freely discuss and freely propagate knowledge beyond the university walls.

Eric Fish: The idea of NYU Shanghai as a free speech bubble, or an island, was a characterization repeated consistently by both supporters and critics of the school. The difference was whether they thought having that island is a good thing.

Jerome Cohen: We’re witnessing a movement toward a much less liberal society in China, and therefore it’s a climate that’s much more difficult for an academic institution to flourish in.

Eric Fish: That’s Jerome Cohen, an 86-year-old law professor at NYU in New York and an Asia Society trustee emeritus who specializes in China’s legal system. Over the past five decades, he’s been an advocate for legal reform and for a number of political dissidents persecuted by Chinese authorities. He said that it so far does appear that his colleagues in Shanghai are free to say and teach what they want, which raises the possibility that the school can provide a much-needed bastion for free speech.

Jerome Cohen: You could say it’s an effort to keep the candle of liberal thought going, and it’s a place where Chinese students as well as foreigners can come and have a free exchange of ideas at a time when regular Chinese universities are under enormous pressure about what to teach, what teaching materials to use, what professors and even students can write about. This is a very serious situation in China today. So it will be wonderful if NYU Shanghai can keep up the flame of freedom right within the heartland of a very dictatorial society.

Eric Fish: In contrast to the highly censored internet in the rest of China, NYU Shanghai’s internet is fitted with circumvention software giving everyone free reign to surf the uncensored web. And in interviews with some two dozen students and faculty, nobody reported ever feeling constrained in what could be taught or discussed. Students recounted class discussions that had critically explored just about every sensitive issue one could think of: Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, Xinjiang, Falun Gong, and some topics you might not even think of.

Sam Chen: For example, like I said in the U.S. constitution class, we were really using U.S. constitution like only a framework.

Eric Fish: That’s Sam Chen, a junior from Shanghai majoring in politics and history at NYU Shanghai.

Sam Chen: The topics will be like should China adopt some form of judicial review, which we currently don't have, and should Party and state power of interrogation over corruption suspects be defined by law and confined by courts? So you can see these are really like sensitive issues and we get to talk about that. These things wouldn't even be talked about in the press. But we have that freedom to talk about it. We have complete academic freedom as long as we hold that within the bubble of NYU Shanghai.

Eric Fish: He said that he had qualified to attend Shanghai’s Fudan University — one of the most prestigious schools in China — but the greater political freedom he expected to get at NYU Shanghai made that his ultimate choice.

Sam Chen: Ever since like middle school we were required to take a course called politics. Namely, it's called politics but it’s actually like Maoism. “The ruling of the Communist Party is the choice of history.” Like I don't even know what that means but you have to recite that and memorize it and write it down in the exams. So for about eight years we've been receiving that kind of education and if you go to a Chinese college, you will continue to learn that stuff, and even in graduate school, you are required to study those things. But in NYU Shanghai you don't have to and I actually got to learn the real Marxism, which is really cool. But the Chinese universities just aren't going to teach you that.

Eric Fish: Chinese students are required by law to get a political education in universities, which in Chinese schools usually consists of classes in Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping theory, Marxism, Morality, and modern Chinese history — all taught through a Communist Party-friendly lens. NYU Shanghai is still subject to this law — professors and students said that all these topics are touched upon — but they’re taught by foreign professors, and in a very different way than in Chinese universities. Here’s May Lee again.

May Lee: In this sense, we really were fortunate to follow in the footsteps of other joint venture universities, most notably Xizhao-Liverpool and Ningbo-Nottingham, and we learned quite a lot from how they navigated these requirements. Technically speaking, we actually did devise courses that broadly would actually fulfill the requirements of the Ministry of Education, which as you point out includes certain courses on politics. The ministry is surprising, actually if you look at the rules and at what they ask for, they're again quite broad in the description, and so we actually, in theory, fulfill those requirements. But I don't think that foreign students necessarily had to fulfill those, but Chinese students certainly did, and we wanted to make sure that we had one curriculum that all the students took.

Eric Fish: One of the more noteworthy contraventions of what might be considered the Party line at NYU Shanghai that students mentioned was something that happened in 2014. In September of that year, pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong against mainland China’s meddling in the territory’s electoral process. It became known as Occupy Central, and later the Umbrella Movement. It was aggressively censored in the mainland and dozens of people were arrested for expressing support for the protests. But NYU Shanghai held a public forum to debate the unfolding events.

Cheryl Li: China is blocking the whole thing.

Eric Fish: That’s Cheryl Li, a 20-year-old junior at NYU Shanghai from Taiyuan, China.

Cheryl Li: Most of my other friends back in high school didn’t know about this, but we have the chance to actually talk about this in our school and know different opinions from students from all over the world and professors. … I think it’s a very good chance and we are also surprised by each other’s opinion. I don’t think anything is blocked in our school. When we’re talking about sensitive topics, they will just ask you not to record it, but we’re definitely allowed to talk about it.

Eric Fish: As she noted, restrictions were put in place to make sure the contents of the forum weren’t allowed to leave the campus grounds. It raised another question: What if word did get off campus and back to Chinese authorities? Is this something Chinese students or professors worry about? Does it ever lead to self-censorship? She didn’t seem to think so.

Cheryl Li: If we’re specifically asking about Chinese students, I feel like most people cherish this opportunity where they can speak whatever they want and they can get a lot of information that was censored before. We cherish this opportunity very much, so I don’t think we’ll self-censor or something because you have to know, this generation of China, this young generation, is very rebellious. And for professors, I think they will hesitate at first but then I feel like gradually during the school year they realize there’s actually not much to concern about. … About this self-censor thing, I think that’s a very unfair way to put it, because why do you think Americans will think absolute freedom, why would you think Americans are also not self-censored in some way?


Eric Fish: Coming up in the second half, we’ll look at the issue of self-censorship and how an uncensored environment with students from around the world influences Chinese students at NYU Shanghai.

Cheryl Li: The weird thing is after they come to this school they become more patriotic.

Eric Fish: And we’ll also look at what happened when NYU was brought to testify before Congress.

Chris Smith: Is it possible to accept lucrative subsidies from the Chinese government and operate campuses on their territory and still preserve academic freedom?

Eric Fish: When we return 


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Eric Fish: One of the major concerns regarding American universities in China is one that plagues Chinese universities. It’s not that police or government officials will overtly try to influence what happens in the classroom. But on occasion they have retaliated against outspoken students and professors, and there has been strong rhetoric against Western values from many corners of China’s government, which might lead people to subconsciously censor themselves. Most of the students and professors interviewed from NYU Shanghai acknowledged that self-censorship happens at the school, but nearly all of them also challenged the premise that it’s much different there than it would be in New York.

Lena Scheen: Let me first say self-censorship, and this is not a way of justifying possible self-censorship, self-censorship is anywhere.

Eric Fish: That’s Lena Scheen, an assistant professor of Global China Studies at NYU Shanghai. She’s from the Netherlands.

Lena Scheen: Of course there's a huge difference between the topics between like why are we self-censoring ourselves and on which topics. Then of course in China this is an extremely important and extremely severe issue. However, there is no place that we are more conscious of our self-censorship as China. When I’m working in the Netherlands, when I’m working in the U.S., I don't force myself to think about, reflect about topics I’m actually avoiding, and they are there. When I'm in China, the list of topics is clear and we reflect on that. I just had a guest lecturer and I told her three times there's nothing you cannot say in class, and just before class started, she said, “Like, so can I really mention Tiananmen?” And I said it three times. This wouldn’t happen, if I say in the Netherlands, I say you can say anything, people will say, "Oh ok." So people still cannot believe. So first of all, in this building there is no censorship, there is no self-censorship different from any form of self-censorship you might have in any other place.

Eric Fish: She added that self-censorship among China-focused academics who want to maintain access to the country is a very real issue, but NYU’s presence in China does little to affect that either way.

Lena Scheen: If I’m going to publish something, is that going to hurt me? Should I self-censor myself? There is no difference between me being in the U.S. or being here, or being in Amsterdam, because if I’m in Amsterdam and I publish. let’s say an article about an extremely sensitive topic in China, I might not get a visa anymore to go to China. So I might choose to self-censor myself, I might choose to take that risk. That's the exact same choice I have here.

Eric Fish: If it’s true that students and professors have total freedom and don’t hold back any more than they would in democracies, then what effect does that have on the Chinese students, who are presumably encountering information and ideas that they wouldn’t in domestic schools. Is it making them more critical of China’s system? This is where things get a bit complicated. Here’s Cheryl Li.

Cheryl Li: Definitely Chinese students are exposed to more information, but actually the weird thing is I’ve heard some Chinese students talking about, after come to this school they become more patriotic. It’s probably too simple to describe this, but they will think more about their political views, because before there’s this weird trend in Chinese teenagers — it’s like no matter what the government said, we will like immediately go against it. But when I get into this environment where people just give very unfair, very biased comment about China I would actually think about these things in a more all around way. This totally has changed some of my way of thinking. But still, I gotta say this, I feel like sometimes American students will be like raised in a way where they’re very confident about the American way. They naturally think this is absolutely right, what their culture has told them.

Sam Chen: Through this kind of discussion most Western students will think democracy is the only choice of humanity. It’s all going to end up that way.

Eric Fish: That’s Sam Chen again.

Sam Chen: But after taking those courses I kind of hold back a little bit, because in high school I was really thinking that way: “Oh democracy is the best and China is going to be like that in the future.” But for the U.S. constitution course, using the framework of U.S. constitution, we were looking at Chinese constitution. Before that I thought, Chinese constitution is just crap like we don't even quote that in the court, but later on I kind of figured out the fact that we are different doesn't mean that we are not correct, that we don't have our reasoning. It's just a different kind of thing. By taking those courses they actually got me hold back and become less I guess blindly liberal. You become more objective about things.

Eric Fish: Several Chinese students had similar feelings — that they actually came to see their government more sympathetically while studying at NYU Shanghai, which is consistent with what often happens among Chinese students studying in America. After perhaps coming in with romanticized images of the West, they start to learn more of its complications. They’re also often put on the defensive by American students who aggressively challenge them on political topics. Kiril Bolotnikov, an American senior student at NYU Shanghai, said that looking back at when he first arrived at the school, he recognizes some of this in himself.

Kiril Bolotnikov: I did have a discussion with my roommate freshman year. It's a little obnoxious but I think sometimes like to challenge Chinese people and ask their opinions of Taiwan and about Taiwan as a province or as its own country. And I mentioned this and he tried arguing with me about it for a little bit and I just wouldn't back down and finally he stopped and said this is why my father told me not to talk politics with Americans.

Eric Fish: Joanna Waley-Cohen, the provost of NYU Shanghai and professor of Chinese history, teaches a course at the school called the Concept of China, which can yield interesting class discussions, especially when touchy subjects on historical issues and human rights come up.

Joanna Waley-Cohen: I felt tension in this way: that American students in particular because, and I think this is actually American students more than international students in general, have a lot of preconceptions about China and they tend to want to tell the Chinese students about China — it's very polluted, very corrupt, it's communist, it's all these things — in rather un-thought out ways and that really bugs the Chinese students. But over the course of a semester each of them comes from a position that they started out with to a much more nuanced position.

Eric Fish: Junior Ben Zhang from Shanghai resisted the idea that schools like NYU might serve to liberalize Chinese students’ thinking and ideology.

Ben Zhang: An arrogant opinion I would say, because NYU Shanghai is not only for Americans or not only for spreading American ideology or American ideas and that’s also how a couple Chinese governors think. The head of the educational department, what Yuan Guiren mentioned, was pretty narrow-minded. No matter where you are, in the States or in China, you should provide a space, an open area for the conflict or communication. It doesn’t matter which country you’re from, or what kind of ideas you have, we just learn from each other.

Eric Fish: This is how a lot of the foreign students felt too. Sometimes students shift their opinions, sometimes they become more entrenched. But the international environment forces people to reconcile their beliefs with those of the peers that they see every day. And most people, even if they don’t end up agreeing with each other on a lot of issues, end up being able to at least sympathize and better work past the differences.

Kiril Bolotnikov: I would say I’m a completely different person from who I was when I first arrived.

Eric Fish: That’s Kiril Bolotnikov again.

Kiril Bolotnikov: Not just in the way that I regard American-Chinese relations, but just in the way I regard internationality, globalization, what it means to be a "global citizen." NYU Shanghai surrounds me with so many people from so many different cultures and mindsets. I think you have to be a very closed-minded person to not come out a very different person. ... One memory that stands out to me is the time that I came home at 2:00 in the morning from doing homework and thought I was going to go pass out and instead ran into a group of people sitting in the common room and ended up spending the next two hours discussing religion and politics and the role religion should play in politics with a Nepali, an English-Spaniard who'd gone to school in Bosnia, a Pakistani, an Egyptian, a Chinese guy, and that was a really special moment to me and one that I think was representative of my overall experience at NYU Shanghai.

Eric Fish: Former NYU President John Sexton said that stories like these are a big part of why he wanted to put NYU all over the world.

John Sexton: If one discharges students like that into society, if one assembles faculty or thought leaders in their respective fields on the great issues of the day, then one increases the likelihood that humankind will advance, and that the societies in which we're present will advance. But they won't advance in lockstep according to some ideology that we impose. We’re not there at missionaries, we're there with a mission and our mission is to educate young people and conduct research for the advance of society.

Eric Fish: But critics of schools like NYU Shanghai say that opportunities for multicultural interaction and other advantages over local universities are beside the point.

Jim Sleeper: I think my main concern is with institutional joint ventures.

Eric Fish: That’s Jim Sleeper, a Yale political science professor who’s published a number of articles critical of Western universities that set up campuses in authoritarian countries. He’s been particularly concerned with a collaboration between his university and the National University of Singapore called Yale-NUS College.

Jim Sleeper: I’m certainly not at all concerned at all about scholars having exchanges and people coming here and there and conferences, the whole thing, that's wonderful. That should go on and to the extent that it can be facilitated more and funded better, God bless. But when an American institution’s trustees and administrators decide to attach its name to a formal standup institution, that's a joint venture, with an illiberal regime, I don’t think that many of the regimes that I’ve written about or I’ve studied a little bit are really looking for anything like the type of liberal education that American colleges have been justly famous for nurturing for hundreds of years.

Eric Fish: He said that one big draw of Western universities for governments in countries like China and Singapore, is that they can help to stem the brain drains that they’re experiencing.

Jim Sleeper: Singapore doesn't want its kids going to MIT and not coming back, so if it can get MIT's name, as it now has, and Yale's name and a lot of other names, onto buildings and campuses, and even granting degrees on its own shores, of course they're eager to do that. So I think that it's a combination, and I think in China's case it's more a question of wanting certain knowhow that they associate with American universities. And I think that's an instrumental reason it doesn't go to the core of what a liberal education is. The last thing I would say on that, I think a liberal education's mission is not just to facilitate the global economy or business as usual. It does that, creatively, but its other side of its mission is to interrogate those things. And if you have state capitalism of any kind that is basically funding and controlling the institution, whether here or there, you're not getting quite that freedom of interrogation. Or so I worry.

Eric Fish: His mention of funding is another common concern among critics, for various reasons. Chinese students, who usually pay full-tuition, have become big business for American universities, which are increasingly struggling to make up for budget shortfalls. So it begs the question of whether American schools are going to China to get closer to the action. But conversely, there are concerns that some schools are draining money and resources from their home institutions by setting up in China. NYU Shanghai says that it’s "a tub on its own bottom," in that it’s financially self-contained. No funding flows to or from the New York campus.

John Sexton: One thing that's been true from beginning, it was one of the baselines we set, was that not a penny of financial resources from New York would be diverted to anything in the global network university.

Eric Fish: John Sexton again.

John Sexton: In the case of both Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, they're tremendous resource providers in a way. For example, there's a huge amount of faculty research that's subsidized in NYU Abu Dhabi, there's a huge amount of financial aid that's provided for students at NYU Abu Dhabi, and similarly at NYU Shanghai there's a huge amount of faculty research that's supported, a huge amount of financial aid for students that's provided either by philanthropy in China or by our government partners.

Eric Fish: The exact details of NYU Shanghai’s funding structure, and for that matter, the overall agreement, is confidential. The same is true for Duke-Kunshan. But it is known that both schools rely heavily on private donors — who aren’t identified — and local Chinese governments. In NYU Shanghai’s case, the Shanghai government donated the land, the building, and substantial subsidies for Chinese students’ tuition, which allows them to pay on average less than half of the roughly $46,000 per year that International students pay. This sort of reliance on the Chinese side is precisely what makes some people nervous. Here’s Rebecca Karl, the NYU New York history professor.

Rebecca Karl: The joint venture nature of it which gives the Chinese a 51 percent stakehold, I don't think that's a model that ought to go forward. I mean I think having study centers in China, along the model of what Columbia does, what University of Chicago does, those are not joint ventures. Those are study centers for actual research, for maybe study abroad, for kinds of intellectual and academic exchanges and so on. A full blown joint venture puts NYU, which I say has a privileged position as a private university that it can dictate to a great extent its own policies and its own attitudes towards certain key issues in academic and intellectual life globally, puts NYU at the mercy of a foreign government.

Eric Fish: She believes that world renowned schools like NYU and Duke in China are essentially feathers in the Chinese government’s cap. That it was able to dictate the terms of entry requiring a joint venture with the Chinese party maintaining control made it an attractive proposition.

Rebecca Karl: I have no doubt that the university feels sort of NYUish when you go there. But again it's quite clear that the Chinese have gotten what they wanted which is an acknowledgement that their illiberal version of things is quite compatible with liberalism. It's an unholy alliance...for us. It's a holy alliance for them if they believe in divinity, which they don't.

Eric Fish: This brings us to another criticism of these ventures: that, even if they do have complete academic freedom, their very presence is akin to making a deal with the devil. As China cracks down on its own universities and Chinese professors are repressed, American institutions in the country have no real right to speak out against these things publicly. So setting up shop in a sense legitimizes them. John Sexton responds though that NYU doesn’t legitimize some of the deep flaws in the American system by its presence in New York, which stretches back to 1831, when the United States had a host of laws that most people today find repugnant.

John Sexton: No human context is perfect, and we don't view our presence here in New York as ratifying the death penalty or ratifying the concentration of wealth that one sees in American society or the degradation still hundreds of years later of blacks in the society, or poverty. We don't ratify any of those things by being in New York and we don't ratify the things that we would criticize in China or in Abu Dhabi. One could flip the whole point and say that in the long run this could be a very positive force against some of the very problems that the critics tend to say we embrace. We don't embrace them.

Rebecca Karl: I mean there's no doubt that there's no perfect academic freedom anywhere.

Eric Fish: Rebecca Karl again

Rebecca Karl: That doesn't exist, so this isn't a critique of China with the idealized view that the United States is somehow perfect. There’s no perfection anywhere, but we as a U.S. institution or an institution in the United States and an American institution, can exert pressure in the United States, whereas we have no capacity to exert pressure in China other than a moral high ground. That's not a political position that I endorse.

Eric Fish: The reliance of American schools on Chinese government organs is part of what captured the attention of Congressman Chris Smith, who’s held dozens of congressional hearings related to human rights in China. In 2014 and 15, he held two specifically on China’s influence over American universities. Here he is at the second hearing.

Chris Smith: Is it possible to accept lucrative subsidies from the Chinese government, or other dictatorships, and operate campuses on their territory and still preserve academic freedom and other values that make America’s universities great? I am sure there are those here today who say they can and reference an oral assurance they receive from the government or any agreement they sign, which is often kept secret with the host government. The real answer appears to be much more murky.

Eric Fish: Smith raised several of the issues explored so far, as well as a few curveballs, like when the vocally pro-life congressman asked Jeff Lehman whether NYU Shanghai is complicit in forced abortions. The answer was no. There was another issue Smith raised though that has been a point of concern for universities in some authoritarian countries.

Chris Smith: Maybe they won’t protest when a professor is denied a visa because of his or her work that is critical of a dictatorship.

Eric Fish: This became an issue in 2015 when NYU Philosophy Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah was planning to give a lecture at NYU Shanghai, but was denied a Chinese visa. On his blog, he guessed this was because he’d repeatedly denounced Chinese government policies in a number of media outlets and was involved in nominating imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize. He did appear for a lecture at NYU Shanghai via video link, which was reportedly marred by technical difficulties. His visa denial echoed that of Andrew Ross, an NYU sociologist who’s done research critical of labor conditions in the United Arab Emirates. When he went to catch a flight to NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus in 2015, he was told he was barred from entering the country. Ross was also one of the five signatories to the open letter expressing concern about NYU Shanghai’s campus. I raised the issue of visa denials with John Sexton.

John Sexton: First of all, the mobility of people around the world is something that government's handle and there are a lot of people I’d like to have come into the United States that don't get into the United States and people don't expect a red line there. It’s not the function of NYU to ensure that borders be completely porous, indeed borders shouldn't be completely porous and that's a governmental issue. I may express an opinion on particular cases privately but it's not my function as president of NYU to be involved in what the state department and our government does.

Eric Fish: One of the key themes of Chris Smith’s congressional hearing was the larger environment for academic freedom in China and whether it would be possible for foreign universities to remain immune to political events unfolding outside their walls. One of the witnesses was Robert Daly, the former U.S. Embassy official and Hopkins-Nanjing Center director we heard from earlier. At one point he addressed the infamous remarks by Education Minister Yuan Guiren instructing universities to resist Western values.

Robert Daly: I would argue that there is a way forward under the current set of circumstances. Now, circumstances could change, and there is definitely a time to pull out tent stakes and say that, yes, while the perfect may be the enemy of the good, China is imposing conditions on American universities that they cannot meet, as you mentioned. There could be a time to leave, but we are not there yet. And the reason, I think, is that, despite Xi Jinping’s ideology campaign and despite the political character of Chinese universities, American universities have been able to find ways to interact with Chinese counterparts that do not threaten academic freedom. Xi Jinping’s campaign and Yuan Guiren’s pronouncements against American textbooks haven’t meant much in practice yet on campuses. Many Chinese students and scholars within China, furthermore, question and mock openly Yuan Guiren’s call to restrict Western textbooks, and they do this in state-run media. So it’s hard to keep track of what all this means in China.

Eric Fish: In a later telephone interview, Jeff Lehman similarly made the point that there’s often more than meets the eye behind the big pronouncements at the top of China’s government. They’re often motivated by internal party dynamics and have limited impact at the ground level.

Jeff Lehman: The Communist Party has a huge ideological range within it, there’s kind of a Tea Party wing, which would be the extreme left, and then there is a progressive wing, and then there's a center.

Eric Fish: He said that these different branches and factions of the government often send out conflicting messages, so he tries not to get worked up either way — whether the signals seem to be promising or ominous. He added that two weeks after Education Minister Yuan Guiren made his remarks about resisting Western values, he actually ended up sitting next to him at a dinner in Beijing, and got a very different impression.

Jeff Lehman: So I asked him how he felt about NYU Shanghai, and he could not have been more enthusiastic about what we're doing and he said, "Absolutely, you're doing great, keep up the good work, keep going, we watch what you're doing and we're very very grateful for the work that you're doing." So you know, you have to be measured in your reaction when you read things that are alarmist.

Eric Fish: In late 2016, current Chinese Education Minister Chen Baosheng met current NYU President Andrew Hamilton, wherein he reportedly praised NYU Shanghai as a model for Chinese higher education and pledged to fully support its growth. But since that time, the environment for higher education in China has seemed to deteriorate in several ways. On January 1st this year, a new NGO law came into effect that, at least on paper, could severely limit the activities of foreign organizations in China, including universities, and put them under tighter control of the Ministry of Public Security. After the law was first drafted, 13 American universities with a presence in China, including NYU and Duke, wrote a letter of concern to the Chinese government saying the law was overly broad and ambiguous. More recently though, an NYU spokesperson said that the school’s legal status as a Chinese controlled joint-venture means it won’t likely be affected by the law. There was another ominous signal this past December, when a high level education conference was held with a wide array of education, propaganda, and military officials, as well as President Xi Jinping and three other politburo members. It reiterated rhetoric about resisting western influence in higher education, and in February, it was announced that ideological inspection teams would be dispatched to top Chinese universities. A few students and faculty said privately that they do worry about a worsening political environment in China eventually seeping into the so-called bubble of foreign universities. But so far, relatively liberal sectors within the Chinese government, like the Ministry of Education and local governments in cosmopolitan cities, have gone to bat for these schools. But that could change, which Lehman alluded to in his congressional testimony.

Jeff Lehman: China is a constantly changing place. As Mr. Daly testified right now, there are mixed signals all around us. We hear different voices all the time. And so we don’t know what tomorrow will be like, but I would be very surprised if the government of Shanghai were to say, well sorry, we don’t want you anymore. But they could, that’s their prerogative. Conversely, they could try to go part way and say well we want you but you can’t have academic freedom, and if they did that then NYU would leave.

Eric Fish: There were a few things that emerged from these congressional hearings that would likely lend to the concerns of critics. In a written testimony, the president of Fort Hays State University discussed her school’s partnership with Shenyang Normal University. In one section she wrote that Tiananmen Square is the only topic their faculty has chosen to avoid, not because anyone asked them to, but because it’s believed to be too sensitive in China. Another thing to come out of the hearings was the commissioning of an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, an investigative arm of congress. It looked into 12 American universities with branches in China — both joint-ventures and smaller operations within Chinese universities. The resulting report, released in 2016, did seem again to affirm some of the concerns of critics. For instance, only three of the 12 schools provided uncensored internet access, and the student handbook at one school warns students that browsing illegal websites according to Chinese law is forbidden. An administrator at one school even said that the government required them to track and keep records of what websites staff and students visited, though no official had ever actually asked for the records. The report didn’t specify the schools in these cases. Faculty members from several schools also reported that some Chinese students know or suspect that they have classmates who report back to unspecified government authorities about university activities and classroom discussions. The report concluded that most of these institutions do include language in their agreements with Chinese parties to protect academic freedom, but the degree to which that actually plays out in the classroom varies. And it said, “Given that motivations to self-censor can be deeply rooted in individual concerns and shaped by long-established conditions in China, universities have limited ability to prevent self-censorship in the classroom or on campus.” Professor Jerome Cohen said that issues like these that were highlighted by Chris Smith’s hearings are serious and are certainly worth tracking closely. But as an old China hand who’s lived through five decades of ebbs and flows in the country’s political environment, he said ties between Chinese and American scholars and students can help the long-term trajectory go in a positive direction.

Jerome Cohen: Congressman Smith has done some remarkable work in being sensitive to some of the adverse developments in China. At the same time however, he isn’t much aware of the ferment in China and the need not to abandon all these people who hunger for contacts with the West. When you say we cut off our universities in China, think what you’re doing to hundreds of thousands of people potentially who’ll be deprived of the chance to study Western versions of Chinese history in China and the opportunity to learn about all the great achievements of other countries as well. It’s not so easy to be dogmatic and to be against compromise. I don’t see major compromise yet on the part of NYU Shanghai, if I did I’d be among the first to criticize it. So I’m not worried yet, but it’s a daily challenge.

Eric Fish: Thanks for listening. We do want to say that we reached out for comment from Congressman Chris Smith’s office as well as the Chinese Ministry of Education, but got no response from either. If you want to hear more episodes you can go to, where we also put some related links to this episode. You can also subscribe on iTunes or follow us on Facebook and Twitter @AsiaSociety. Our music is by Thiri Maung Maung and his ensemble Shwe Man Thabin Zapway. They were performing live at Asia Society in New York as part of a season of Myanmar. I’m Eric Fish and we’ll see you next time on Asia in-depth.