top of page

How Beijing influences academic freedom beyond its borders

Academic Freedom team of the Human Rights Clinic (Ghent University)

The team is supervised by Dr Cathérine Van de Graaf and consists of Kawaar Mahmoud and François Dejemeppe. We examine violations of academic freedom in Chinese universities and the detrimental effect on Chinese students in the various regions of the PRC as well as abroad. The goal of our clinic is to draft a report, in the context of the 4th cycle of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of China. Our partner organization is Scholars at Risk, an international NGO advocating for protecting and promoting academic freedom where needed. Scholars at Risk monitors attacks on higher education communities worldwide and advises scholars who are deprived of their right to academic freedom of speech. 


Nowadays, it is widely documented that the Chinese Communist Party (hereinafter: CCP) violates academic freedom within China. However, the extent to which pressure is exerted on academic freedom beyond its borders is less well known. Yet, scholars and NGOs found that the CCP makes use of various strategies to implement its censorship in universities across Europe. Through pressure tactics, students and researchers are silenced and higher education institutions are influenced. Within several European universities, notably in Germany and the Netherlands, academic freedom has been compromised by Chinese funding. Dependent on the funds that had been allocated to them, they were inclined to do research in line with the CCP’s program. The Hong Kong National Security Law allows anyone to be charged who challenges China's national unity regardless of nationality or territory. One effect of this law is that it contributes to a climate of self-censorship among academics. Considering these interferences, there is a need to raise more awareness within the academic community and to address the problem head-on. This is all the more important as the CCP is not the only ruling party to use these tactics.

How China is threatening academic freedom abroad

It is not new that the pervasive atmosphere of fear and the culture of self-censorship has been the norm in Chinese universities. In recent years, China’s growing political and economic influence enabled Beijing to also exert control over academia across the world. In the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, over 300 Uyghur scholars are reported to be incarcerated in ‘re-education’ camps. In Hong Kong, the national security law silenced the universities and imprisoned scholars who are critical of Beijing, resulting in an immediate chilling effect. In an interview with CBC, the Executive Director at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies Kyle Matthews highlighted that authoritarian governments (like the CCP) are not just after academic freedom in their own countries, but they are now trying to obtain influence in Western countries as well. Students and academics (including China experts) are afraid of upsetting the CCP and face its retaliation, while many universities have developed an unhealthy reliance on Chinese students and party funding. 

Andreas Fulda and David Missal identify four main international threats to understand how the CCP is undermining autonomy in the context of German academia, which are also applicable to many other higher institutions across the globe. These threats include (1) the CCP’s global censorship regime, (2) the weaponization of informal Chinese networks, (3) questionable party-state funding; and (4) unhealthy dependencies on “official China”. 

Over the past decades, China has shown ambition in developing world-class universities. But with heavy state interference, Chinese universities remained instrumental in the spread of the party’s ideology. Since President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, the CCP has further dismissed the liberal values and comprehensively reshaped the Chinese higher education institutions inside its borders, while also showing aggression in influencing academic freedom on an extra-territorial basis. The CCP’s global censorship goes in line with restrictive practices in China. In 2013, an internal paper that codifies seven ‘false ideological trends’ is issued by the CCP, which came to be known as Document No. 9. Seven perils, including constitutional democracy and the universal value of human rights, are recognized as dangerous Western values and forbidden from teaching in any higher institutions. Academics are required more strictly to only teach in a permissible way, scholars are required to further align their academic output with party priority, and students are more strongly encouraged to report on anyone who does not comply, including the professors. These types of regulations and control create an atmosphere of fear and extend the culture of self-censorship to foreign institutions. In Australia, many students and academics report experiencing constant harassment from China’s global censorship efforts. Pro-democracy students, in particular, experience direct harassment - physical and psychological - after being identified as criticizing the CCP. They express fear that the Chinese authorities may retaliate by punishing their parents back in China, for what they have said or what activities they attended. This intimidation is particularly severe for Uyghur, Tibetan, and Hong Kong dissidents, who face even greater levels of harassment as part of China's recent crackdown in these regions, including losing contact with their families, being threatened, and even getting deported.

The increased fear and censorship among scholars in foreign institutions are achieved through China’s informal networks overseas, which leads us to Fulda and Missal’s second point. It has been widely reported that China-sponsored and directed institutions such as the China Student and Scholar Association and Confucius Institutions function as oversea monitoring mechanisms that aim to suppress independent academic activity that is not in line with Beijing’s preferred narratives. The Confucius Institutions, for instance, participate actively in tracking Chinese students abroad and reporting them for exercising their academic freedom on campus. The embassy-funded Chinese student unions in each university also function in a similar way, where pro-democratic students express concerns about ‘being caught’ while expressing their thoughts that are deemed critical of the CCP. They experience intimidation, reporting, and even intense bullying by those networks, in various environments, including online, in-person, on and off campus. Further, those informal networks also monitor and report professors for their critical comments, and pressure them into apologizing for their academic activities. As a result, both Chinese students and academics became extremely cautious about their actions and words to avoid retaliation. 

In addition to silencing independent scholars, higher education institutions abroad are also being targeted and pressured by China, which is linked to the third pillar identified by Fulda and Misal - suspicious party-state funding. In 2017, the University of California San Diego invited the Dalai Lama to speak at its commencement ceremony. This move triggered outrage among pro-Beijing Chinese students and led to organized demonstrations. In response, Beijing froze its funding to Chinese scholars attending UCSD and halted the processing of applications from scholars who wished to study there. China’s funding arrangements imply possible academic dependence, and the increasing tendency of universities to have an ‘excessive concentration’ of Chinese students implies undermining of universities’ financial resilience. In 2020-2021, China-domicile students constitute the highest of all non-EU international students in UK universities, which means that some universities would even have to close the courses if China ‘blocks’ its citizens from studying in the UK. Furthermore, the Leiden Asia Centre has highlighted that the strong dependency on Chinese students’ tuition fees is connected to the self-censorship of scholars in Western universities. This is due to the CCP’s ability to prevent incoming Chinese students from attending universities that publish critical research on China. Therefore, it is crucial for Western institutions to engage in ethical due diligence and create greater transparency and accountability about Chinese party-state funding, to avoid depending on a single source of income from China. 

Most China specialists experience the conundrum of having to choose between funding - to collaborate with China with strict self-censorship, or academic integrity - to bear with the risk of losing access to China. The sanctioning of German scholar Adrian Zenz - who has extensively published on the Uyghur crisis; the Swedish scholar Björn Jerdén - Director of the Swedish National China Centre, as well as the entire institution; and the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), are very good examples of how China scholars are facing retaliation as a result of public comments that are critical of the CCP. Thus, the fourth pillar identified by Fulda and Missal - the unhealthy reliance of China scholars on ‘official China’ - appears present. It appears to be the fact that most sinologists found their way of staying low-key, if not silent, on critical issues that will offend the CCP, while continuing to be a ‘China expert’ at home. By not choosing a side, they are choosing to comply.  

Extra-territorial effect 

The Hong Kong National Security Law is one of the clear examples of how China exercises extraterritorial effect. The National Security Law criminalizes academic freedom of speech outside the territory of China. According to Article 38, ‘the Law applies to offenses committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.’ Therefore, the Law confers criminal liability to individuals undermining national unification by promoting secession, regardless of nationality or territory, meaning that Chinese criminal law applies extraterritorially. Incurring criminal liability can be extremely broad, it could also apply to researchers debating concepts such as separatism. Accordingly, scholars outside Chinese territory writing in favour of Hong Kong’s right to self-determination, including their historical and cultural identity, can be accused of secession (a crime under Article 20 of the Law). To put the Hong Kong National Security Law into perspective: an individual exercising their freedom of speech according to the domestic legal order of a European country could incur criminal liability by advocating for a free and democratic Hong Kong. This is certainly contrary to the constitutional traditions of most European countries, which fundamentally protect academic freedom. As such, it is found that the Law, and specifically Article 38, impinges on academic freedom of speech through a chilling effect, compelling critics of the CCP into self-censorship. 

Attacks against Uygur Scholars Outside China: Case of Rukiye Turdush 

Uyghur scholar and activist Rukiye Turdush is among the many academics who have felt the long arm of the CCP in Canada and abroad. At McMaster University, Turdush criticized the CCP’s treatment of the Uyghurs and consequently, her speech was disrupted by Chinese students she presumed to be under the instruction of the Chinese Consulate. In this context, Canada’s former Ambassador to China, David Mulroney, accused Chinese diplomats of intimidating Uyghurs on Canadian territory – including scholars like Turdush. Scholars at Risk have correspondingly stated that the CCP’s long arm systematically intends to silence academics speaking on the theme of “The Genocide of Uyghur Muslims” - as they did at McMaster University. In this case, academic freedom was under attack on Canadian soil by Chinese individuals linked to the CCP. Canadian citizens of Uyghur origin, including the son of Turdush, are now being inspected and targeted by Chinese students in Canada with connections to the CCP, simply for speaking out against the conduct of the CCP in relation to the Uyghur population. 

What can we do about it? 

In recent years, some of the above-mentioned institutions used as oversea monitoring mechanisms have been banned or otherwise sanctioned. Confucius Institutes have been banned from various university campuses, including - among others - Stockholm University, Stuttgart Media University, University of Lyon and Free University of Brussels. Other universities have revoked the status of the student society of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association. Nevertheless, these measures were most often taken following serious events. Overall awareness about the issue still seems to be lacking and so does an institutionalized response. For this reason, the proposed code of conduct Resisting Chinese Government Efforts to Undermine Academic Freedom Abroad drafted by Human Rights Watch starts by setting out the need to affirm the importance of academic freedom and to record violations of academic freedom by the CCP. Other provisions of this proposed code of conduct provide that all institutions of higher education should refrain from hosting Confucius Institutes on their campuses, monitor all institutions that receive support from the CCP, and disclose all the funding that they receive from the CCP. Other initiatives have emerged at national and regional levels. In the United Kingdom, a group of experts proposed the model code of conduct ‘Protection of academic freedom and the academic community in the context of the internationalization of the UK HE sector’. This initiative could be a source of inspiration for other countries wishing to limit foreign interference with freedom of expression. At the European level, the European Commission published a “toolkit” for universities. In this regard, scholar Ingrid d’Hooghe warns that it will not be sufficient as it is a non-binding instrument.

Given the scope and importance of the issue, legislators should adopt binding rules to limit foreign interference with academic freedom. The adoption of balanced rules would allow for appropriate action to be taken when concerns about academic integrity are raised. Such rules would also have the added value of reintegrating Chinese nationals into international research programs by removing the mistrust that may exist.


While China has become a major player in terms of research and knowledge advancement, the CCP exercises a type of censorship that is unparalleled internationally. Through informal means, such as mobilizing Chinese networks abroad, or formal means, such as repressive legislation, the CCP tries to impose its narrative on the rest of the world and manages to do tremendous harm to academic freedom in the process. Yet, it is important to mention that China is not alone in this. The tactics it uses to reach its goal are also adopted by many other (authoritarian) states.

The Human Rights in Context Blog is a platform which provides an academic space for discussion for those interested in human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. We are always interested in well-written and thoughtful comments and analyses on topical events or developments. Scholars from all disciplines, students, researchers, international and national civil servants, legislators and politicians, legal practitioners and judges are welcome to participate in the discussions. We warmly invite those interested in writing a post to send us an e-mail explaining briefly the relevance of the topic and your background as an expert. We will get back to you as quickly as we can. All contributors post in their individual capacity, and their opinions do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Rights in Context, or any organisation with which the author is affiliated.


bottom of page