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Friday, March 20, 2015

Is it legitimate to compromise on academic freedom abroad? The case of NYU in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi

Is it legitimate for an academic institution or individual to compromise academic freedom in order to gain access to a population otherwise controlled by an authoritarian regime? The question is posed not only by my own personal situation of teaching at NYU-Shanghai during this Spring Term but also by NYU’s public relations fiasco with Professor Andrew Ross, a sociologist who was barred by the United Arab Emirates from entering UAE to do research while on Spring Break at NYU-Abu Dhabi. NYU’s critics predictably used the UAE’s exclusion of Ross as a reason to castigate NYU for maintaining a campus in the territory of a regime that severely limits freedom of expression. (For Ross' views, see the Baffler. For an interview with Ross, see NY Magazine).

In my own view, however, the question of whether or not to compromise on academic freedom for the sake of a physical presence in authoritarian turf does not have any categorically correct answer. It all depends on what one must give up and what one gains. Insisting on academic purity unsullied by any compromise with repressive governments is like Pontius Pilates’ hand-washing: It may give its adherents a pleasantly self-righteous feeling, but the withdrawal from engagement with the real world may leave the world less free in the name of freedom. Indeed, if taken seriously, such zealous purism would bar NYU from doing business in any regime that protects freedom of expression less rigorously than the USA -- excluding NYU from launching a campus in (for instance) the UK or Canada.

In particular, it seems to me that NYU would be right to accept an “inside-outside” deal from the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai. Under such a deal, NYU’s faculty and students would be free to teach and learn whatever they please inside the classroom but they cannot lobby, kibitz, incite, persuade, organize, or otherwise participate in local politics outside on the street or in cyberspace. (Not being privy to the internal negotiations between the university and the Chinese authorities, I am not saying that NYU expressly struck any such a deal but only that this seems to me, based on my own experience, to be the actual ground rules practically governing students and faculty at NYU-Shanghai).

Why accept such a pact with the devil? Because such an agreement can enlarge the total amount of freedom above that which faculty and students would otherwise enjoy in the absence of compromise.

If NYU is able to offer Chinese nationals a freer education than that which they would otherwise have at a Chinese university, then NYU’s rigid refusal to compromise leaves those students less free. If NYU were to insist that its constituents must be able to pursue in Shanghai every expressive activity that they are entitled to pursue at Washington Square, then the Chinese government would simply refuse to allow us to teach in the PRC at all. Such an uncompromising posture would leave students worse off, depriving them of the benefits of an education that Chinese eagerly seek. Any theory of academic freedom that actually diminishes real freedom strikes me as a dogmatic pose, not a sensible policy.

How much of a compromise of academic ideals should a university or professor make to gain access to the territory controlled by an authoritarian regime? There is no easy answer to this question: It all depends on the details of the deal. Denunciations of NYU that suggest such an easy moral answer strike me as morally obtuse.

Individual professors agonize over these tough choices all the time, regardless of whether their home institution opens a campus abroad. Take, for example, academics’ decision about whether to testify about China before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. As Donald Clarke, an old China hand, has noted, some academics most knowledgeable about China decided not to testify in order not to offend the Chinese government and thereby lose their access to a visa to enter China. Are these silent professors guilty of some Faustian bargain? If their work is improved by their being physically present in China, then I say: Good for such Fausts. It is a tough balancing act to decide whether the price of a visa is too high, but the notion that one always strikes the right balance by straight talk that forfeits the visa at least needs some defense. What if such professors actually learn more and thereby provide more information to the world by maintaining contacts with the CCP at the price of keeping silent before the USCESRC? Why is it necessarily the right answer to uncompromising refuse to trim one’s sails, exclude oneself from China, and thereby deprive the world of the information that one could obtain by being more discrete?

Half of my students in my course at NYU-Shanghai on Constitutional Law are PRC citizens. The discussion in my class is uncompromisingly free. We hold weekly debates on politically sensitive topics like judicial review of legislation by independent courts or “shanggui” (the judicially unreviewed executive detention of party officials accused of corruption or other crimes). We all know that we cannot hold rallies on these topics outside on Century Avenue in Pudong, Shanghai. I would be deported, and they would be arrested. It strikes me as bizarre to suggest, however, that my students would be freer if I “self-deported” myself before even teaching the course by telling the Chinese authorities that I would insist on the same freedom of expression that I enjoy back in New York. Whose freedom, exactly, would be enhanced by such rigidity? My students would lose the classroom discussion but not gain the right to rally outside the classroom. Everyone would left less free, all in the name of freedom.

What is true of individuals also applies to institutions. There is no simple, bright-line formula defining whether to accept limits on what an institution’s students and faculties can preach on the streets as the price for freedom in the classroom. It all depends on what the institution gains by a physical presence in the territory of a repressive regime. I cannot speak for NYU-Abu Dhabi, but, after two months’ teaching in Shanghai, I can say that NYU-Shanghai has hosted a completely free-wheeling discussion among a multi-national student body and faculty about everything from Xi’s corruption purges to the Cultural Revolution. Should NYU sacrifice this boon to freedom because the students cannot hold a public rally outside the doors of 1555 Century Avenue? Why? NYU’s leaving would not enlarge the students’ power to rally: It would just prevent those who do not want to leave China of the ability to gain an American-style university education.

Taken to its logical extreme, rejection of all such compromise on freedom of expression would bar American academic institutions from ever sponsoring classrooms or research outside of the United States. No nation in the world constitutionally guarantees the level of free expression enjoyed in the USA. Canada’s laws censor hate speech, for instance, while the UK’s tort law classifies as defamatory statements that, if published in the USA, are immune from liability. Must NYU piously foreswear sponsoring any campus in Toronto because the students there cannot yell with impunity anti-gay epithets that are protected speech in NYC?

Such a posture is absurdly dogmatic to my mind. It assumes that freedom can only exist under American rules. Lots of regimes, however, protect lesser degrees of freedom. The restrictions such regimes impose do not vitiate the freedom that remains. From personal experience talking with Chinese academics and students not only at NYU-Shanghai but also at Tsinghua, Beida, and Fudan, I would say that “private” speech in China (that is, speech in the academic workshop, classroom, or café) is basically unfettered, even as speech on the street and in cyberspace is vigorously pruned and sometimes punished. What exactly is gained, as aside from a smug feeling of moral self-righteousness, by striking the pose of virtuous libertarians and piously refusing to join in the private conversation in China because one cannot hold a public rally?

The question of acceptable compromise strikes me as one of degree. It depends on costs and benefits, not rhetoric and postures. If China insisted – as it does not – that NYU endorse the Chinese regime, then the game might not be worth the candle: The marginal benefits for our Chinese students would be outweighed by the misinformation that NYU would spread through its coerced endorsement. Likewise, I would not teach constitutional law in Shanghai if the government could edit my syllabus to suit its ideological priorities: The students would gain little for yet another bland course that they could just as easily take elsewhere, and I would resent the interference more than the experience would be worth. China, however, leaves me free to teach what I please: Why, then, is it somehow an unacceptable price for a visa that I cannot also march up and down the streets yelling anti-government slogans?

Posted by Rick Hills on March 20, 2015 at 06:14 AM | Permalink


A VPN will provide access, but it will not preclude monitoring. Your students know this and it impacts what information they seek out.

Posted by: Ann Bartow | Mar 30, 2015 10:50:00 AM

You unlock a door, then crack it gently open, then open to let the air in, and then finally open the door. Then you walk through the door. This is how you open minds without jarring them so that they want to close the door again. Gentleness. Open, but gently so.

Posted by: Anonanon | Mar 24, 2015 12:19:41 AM

Let's be honest here, NYU's American campus is not exactly a bastion of free speech, even by private institution standards:


Posted by: twbb | Mar 22, 2015 10:07:16 AM

Steve, this will have to be my last go-around: I have to catch a 'plane back to Shanghai and prepare my students for a debate on whether Chinese courts ought to enjoy the power of judicial review. It takes me a lot of time to bone up on what my Chinese Communist Party masters want me to say.

But seriously, three points in your last response cry out for comment, because they suggest, I think, the depth of confusion in the USA about what it means to teach in China.

1. Neville Chamberlain? Really? That's the analogy you're going with? Who or what, then, plays the role of Czechoslovakia here?
Yes, I know you are making a joke, but the humor reveals the source of a basic confusion. NYU's critics are implicitly accusing NYU of somehow being complicit in the CCP's misdeeds simply by teaching kids in Shanghai. Somehow, if I return to Shanghai from Hong Kong to referee a debate between my two debate teams of students ("Left Maoists" and "Western Liberals") on the Yu Qiling case, the CCP will get a little boost of strength.

I have yet to figure out the causal mechanism by which our being here in Shanghai makes things WORSE for the "Czechs" in your analogy (e.g., presumably independent trade unions, arrested feminists, Tibetans, etc.) I guess the assumption is that, by refusing to treat China as a pariah state and failing to boycott the entire nation, NYU is somehow conferring legitimacy on a regime that does not deserve it. I've heard that sort of guff about Cuba from some of my fellow Republicans, but, at least in the Cuban context, the pariah state at issue is a wee little island off our coast. Does anyone think that American universities can somehow muscle the largest nation on earth?

2. I have to thank you for one of your comments, which had me and my wife in stitches: "many if not most of the Chinese students who enroll [at NYU-Shanghai] come from party or elite families and are being groomed to take the reins of power." The spectacle of a professor at USC accusing a professor at NYU of teaching the children of elites is really too deliciously ironic -- a noble joust between the Pot and the Kettle. It was worth the trouble of this whole thread, really.

After wiping the tears of laughter from my eyes, however, I feel a duty to disabuse you of some basic factual mistakes. The Pudong and Shanghai governments cover most of the tuition of our Chinese students' education at NYU-Shanghai. Those students get much of the same generous deal that other Chinese students get in higher education. (If I might twitch my Neville Chamberlain mustache and wave my Munich umbrella for a moment: China's covering the cost of their citizens' college education is one aspect of Chinese educational policy that is considerably more egalitarian than American policy).

So let me reassure you: My Chinese students are most certainly far less "elite" than YOUR Chinese students at USC. One reason why the Chinese government is willing to pay for the education of their own citizens in a school run by NYU-Shanghai is that we are physically present here, in Shanghai. By contrast, the PRC kids admitted to USC routinely pay full freight. If grooming Chinese elites for political power is a crime, then American schools in the USA who accept PRC kids as students are every bit as complicit as NYU-Shanghai. Indeed, if the problem is, as you imply, that the PRC children are the scions of “elites,” then USC is far MORE complicit than NYU-Shanghai, because USC caters to the upper end of the Chinese market, profiting off of the sweat of hard-working parents' laboring at some Chinese SOE. NYU-Shanghai, by contrast, is educating the Chinese middle class with tuition taken straight from the Chinese government. You ought to thank us for exacerbating the Shanghai Municipal Government’s current budget woes: We are a veritable Fifth Column!

Of course, the children of PRC elites attending American-soil universities like USC do so to advance in Chinese politics: Why else would Xi Jinping send his daughter to Harvard?

So I guess that we pots and kettles should tone down the populist rhetoric. If I am Neville, you can be Daladier: We are both equally complicit in propping up the Chinese state, if that is what it means for us to do our jobs –- teaching -- whenever PRC kids are in the classroom. You USC profs just cater to the upper end of the market, whereas we here at NYU-Shanghai try to reach students who cannot afford American tuition without aid from the Shanghai government.

The logical implication of your attack on NYU-Shanghai’s educating Chinese elites is the absurdum of American universities' banning the children of any PRC citizens from attending university in the USA. After all, those kids use their American education to climb the economic and political ladders back in China. If we are going to sling the names of long-gone politicians from the 1930s, may I invoke the spirit of Senator Gerald Nye, “America First” isolationist? The attacks on NYU-Shanghai reek of old-fashioned isolationism – i.e., the idea that Americans are tainted simply by dealing with that corrupt and oppressive world across the ocean, regardless of the terms on which they deal.

3. One final point. You ask “how much coverage of the recent Hong Kong Occupy movement did you see on your most recent trip there? If any of your students wanted to conduct research on the internet about those events what would they find?”

These questions reflect the patronizing attitude of Americans who, having spent no serious time in China, assume the role of the Great White Fathers towards benighted Chinese, who are presumed to be cowering ignorant and helpless behind a barbaric Great Firewall of China.
Do you seriously think that the Great Firewall keeps English-reading Chinese (at NYU-Shanghai or elsewhere) from reading about the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong? You really need to spend a month or two at any Costa Coffee in Shanghai, reading over a few shoulders at some iPads and laptops: From Hongqiao to Pudong, everyone’s reading whatever they please, using a variety of VPNs that the CCP pretends to disrupt. The CCP’s effort to cut off a few VPNs last Fall (e.g., Golden Frog, Astrill, etc.) just gave the VPN manufacturers a new opportunity to market their latest upgrades.

But, to answer your question, our students here at NYU-Shanghai have the same access to the internet through our VPN that the faculty enjoys. Yes, if they want to do research on the Umbrella Revolution, they can do so – far better than you or I can, by the way, because their Chinese language skills are better.

There are, of course, serious barriers to Chinese citizens’ getting information from abroad. One is lack of proficiency in English. Another is an educational system that emphasizes drill-and-memorize style of education over debate and inquiry. NYU-Shanghai is trying to reduce these barriers. What exactly is USC doing?

Posted by: Rick Hills | Mar 21, 2015 9:53:32 PM

I recently read an interesting book on a woman who taught English the elite in North Korea. She noted, e.g., her attempts to sneak in some Western ideas. I appreciate the two clashing views in the comments here.


Posted by: Joe | Mar 21, 2015 1:28:50 PM

Well if not Stalin how about Chamberlain? But seriously, you suggest I am "dogmatic" and I think you are living in a fantasy world. At best, there is a limited amount of "free" speech going in in the bubble the Chinese regime allows you to operate. I debated this issue with the labor education people at Berkeley when they first tried their experiment. (See LUN for my many blog posts about China.) They made all the same arguments you are making. And now they are persona non grata and their Chinese colleagues' labor program has been shut down.

The test of the value of your campus is its impact on the lives of the Chinese people. Otherwise why are you doing it at all? Just for the money? I suggest the impact will be minimal and limited to the elite. You admit you are not privy to the agreement between your employer and the regime so you don't know what compromises were made.

In any case I think it is a perfectly non-dogmatic position to believe that free speech for the elite is not really free speech or is free speech of a very limited sort. You charge Chinese students 100,000 RMB - 4x the average family income in China. My guess is that many if not most of the Chinese students who enroll come party or elite families and are being groomed to take the reins of power. I imagine you think they might actually help the regime liberalize.

Time will tell. But while we wait, one more question: how much coverage of the recent Hong Kong Occupy movement did you see on your most recent trip there? If any of your students wanted to conduct research on the internet about those events what would they find?

Posted by: Steve Diamond | Mar 21, 2015 1:16:24 PM

Steve, I think that you can leave Stalin out ot it. I’m using “dogmatism” in the old-fashioned sense of being the stipulation of terms and values in ways contrary to common usage without any defense or even explanation. You refuse to recognize that the classroom discussion of important issues is "anything resembling freedom" uness it is accompanied by the public organizing of resistance to the government. "Dogmatic" is about the most charitable thing I can say about such a posture. Of course, it would be better if the Chinese enjoyed both the power to talk and the power to organize resistance to incumbent officials outside of Party-controlled channels. But why would you assert that the former does not count as "anything resembling freedom"? That sounds pretty glib to me -- and to any Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution where the right to private opinions and discussion was egregiously trashed through "struggle" sessions and denuncations.

And, yes, NYU profs and students -- and the Chinese more generally-- routinely discuss all of the issues that you mention: forced abortions, maltreatment of prisoners, abuse of workers, confiscation of land by corrupt officials -- as well as other injustices like coerced confessions (a matter that the President of the Supreme People's Court has recently launched a crusade), and the corruptly selective prosecution of corruption. It is a testament to Americans' widespread ignorance about life in China that anyone would believe that any student in Shanghai would be fearful of talking about such stuff. (On the issue of corrupt confiscation of land, even staid party news services like Xinhua routinely publishes denunciations and discussions, and, last Fall, the US-Asia Law Institute sponsored a conference in Shanghai with Chinese judges and lawyers on protecting villagers from such corrupt land deals).

Posted by: Rick Hills | Mar 21, 2015 12:05:47 PM

Of course they value your class, Rick. You are training the next generation of party and entrepreneurial elites who have to manage a complex and unruly society of a billion people. They need new ideas and they need "space" to think them through.

In fact, this is in some ways the origin of what we take for granted as "academic freedom" - universities were established to protect the ability of monks and priests (once a part of the elite) to develop ideas without outside intrusion.

But over time the real test of the "cloistered" version of free speech is whether or not your students can put that newly experienced freedom into practice. Is that practice going to be circumscribed by the needs of the Chinese elite? Or is it going to be available to the wider population in order to promote democracy and a genuine rule of law?

I wonder, for example, how far NYU's on campus discussions flow - do you touch on labor organizing? on the policy of forced abortions? on the land grabs from the peasantry by greedy Communist party backed speculators? on the impact of unsafe working conditions on hundreds of thousands of young workers? on the detention of hundreds of thousands in the Lao Gai prison complex?

The U.C. Berkeley experiment attempting to train labor organizers suggests that when threatened the regime reacts harshly as they do with so many human rights activists. (Details here: http://redflag.org.au/article/chinese-state-cracks-down-workers-keep-fighting)

The recent experience of your colleague Andrew Ross points to another version of the problem - he was prevented from traveling to Abu Dhabi to investigate labor rights abuses on your new campus there. I view it as a good sign that your incoming new president suggested this troubled him.

I am not necessarily opposed to setting up these campuses but these experiences should cause us to be very cautious about what can be achieved by doing so and I am reluctant to agree that anything resembling freedom (a notion that predates America's experience with the idea, as I am sure you know) is really what is going inside them.

Why this line of argument strikes you as "dogmatic" is an interesting question - "dogmatic" being such a favorite buzzword of stalinist regimes over many decades.

(Full disclosure: our law school operates several summer programs in authoritarian Asian countries and my concern extends to them as well. We recently awarded the blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng with our school's major human rights award. His speech to the campus was quite moving.)

Posted by: Steve Diamond | Mar 21, 2015 12:14:31 AM

Steve, I think that the crux of our disagreement is that you believe that "freedom is only meaningful if it threatens the [CCP's ] regime," and I believe that there are other forms of meaningful speech freedom. If you believe that educational freedom is worthless unless such speech topples the CCP, well, then, you would be correct that NYU makes no contribution by its presence in China. This sort of argument-by-stipulation, however, will not be persuasive to anyone who believes that there is more to freedom of speech than regime change.

I imagine that many people value speech because it enriches their lives even when such speech does not cause Zhongnanhai to quake. Even though they cannot use my class to stage a rally, my students seem to value the opportunity to speak openly about the demerits and merits of executive discretion, whether preached by Hobbes or practiced by Xi. Maybe you feel that educational freedom of this sort is valueless: If so, I guess I am left, well, speechless. What exactly is the basis for this odd dogmatism, aside from your say-so?

NewYorker, aside from simple West Vilager style paranoia, I am not quite sure why you attribute to me or anyone else the view that NYU ought to enjoy exclusive rights to educate the Chinese. Plenty of other universities are open for business in China. I'd let a thousand flowers bloom, to coin a phrase.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Mar 20, 2015 9:50:05 PM

What is it exactly about NYU that makes it the appropriate institution to teach an ever larger fraction of the world's people? Is it simple empire building, or is there some principle behind the inexorable growth? And is there any limit or does NYU intend to grow until it takes up the entirety of the island of Manhattan (and maybe Singapore and UAE too)?

Posted by: NewYorker | Mar 20, 2015 6:02:05 PM

You can imagine a free speech environment if you want but the reality is the moment that freedom is meaningful, i.e., the moment it threatens the regime, it will disappear. As one example see the recent story about UC Berkeley's labor education effort in China abruptly shuttered by the government without notice or explanation much less due process.

Posted by: Steve Diamond | Mar 20, 2015 1:33:46 PM

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