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Academic freedom, globalised scholarship and the rise of authoritarian China

Scholarship has become globalised, as transnational networks of collaborative research, communication, and exchange have expanded. Many universities in liberal democracies have responded to this new environment with internationalisation strategies. In this context, academic collaboration with authoritarian China plays a unique role. Chinese universities now compete in excellency rankings with the world’s leading universities in the US and Europe.

Universities in liberal democracies have been eager to establish academic exchange and joint research programmes with universities and other institutions in China.They also attract large numbers of students from China to their taught programmes. Chinese universities, in turn, are promoting internationalisation by engaging in collaborations and by publishing internationally.

Yet, Chinese research institutions are fundamentally different from universities in liberal democracies, because they operate within a repressive Party-State that provides no safeguards for academic freedom. In recent years, the restrictions on research and teaching at Chinese universities have become more and more severe. Chinese universities and the Party-State controlling them have also intensified control over Chinese scholars and students abroad, partly by incentivizing them to report on each other, and on foreign academics who are critical of the Chinese Party-State. This is in line with the Party-State’s efforts to coordinate all its international activities with its external propaganda organs.

This research project asks:

  • What does the rise of authoritarian China mean for the integrity of the global academic community, and the values underpinning its role, in liberal-democratic societies?
  • How do universities and other relevant higher education actors in the UK and Germany react to authoritarian pressures?
  • What norms and principles of rule of law and liberal democracy and what social and cultural features of institutionalised academia are engaged in this context?
  • And how can academic freedom and related values be protected against undue authoritarian influence?

These questions motivate the proposed research project, which rises need for studies linking empirical observations with theoretical accounts of authoritarian rule and spelling out the applicable liberal and democratic legal norms that must be protected when entering research collaborations with institutions in a repressive, one-party system.

Our project studies and theorises the perspectives, decisions, and choices of UK and German actors engaging in academic collaboration with authoritarian China, as well as the perspectives, decisions and choices made by Chinese students and academics in UK and German universities when faced with pressure from the party state. We also seek to develop a more systematic understanding of relevant norms and available responses to safeguard academic freedom.  

The project is led by Prof. Dr. Katrin Kinzelbach, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität (FAU) Erlangen-Nürnberg, and Eva Pils as co-PIs. It is supported by Dr Christelle Genoud, postdoctoral research associate at King's College London, and Dr Eva Seiwert, postdoctoral research associate at FAU.