China Halts U.S. College Freedom at Class Door

Ann McClure's picture

In the 25 years Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University have run a joint campus in China, it’s never published an academic journal. When American student Brendon Stewart tried last year, he found out why.

Intended to showcase the best work by Chinese and American students and faculty to a far-flung audience, Stewart’s journal broke the Hopkins-Nanjing Center’s rules that confine academic freedom to the classroom. Administrators prevented the journal from circulating outside campus, and a student was pressured to withdraw an article about Chinese protest movements. About 75 copies sat in a box in Stewart’s dorm room for a year.

“You think you’re going to a place that has academic freedom, and maybe in theory you do, but in reality you don’t,” said Stewart, 27, who earned a master’s degree in international studies this year from Hopkins-Nanjing and now works for an accounting firm in Beijing. “The place is run by Chinese administrators, and I don’t think the U.S. side had a lot of bargaining power to protect the interests of its students. At the end of the day, it’s a campus on Chinese soil.”

The muzzling of Stewart’s journal exposes the compromises to academic freedom that some American universities make in China. While professors and students openly discuss sensitive subjects such as the Tibetan independence movement or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests on the Hopkins-Nanjing campus, they can’t do so in the surrounding community. Even on-campus protections only cover class discussions, not activities typical of U.S. campuses, such as showing documentary films in a student lounge.

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