Students in Fairfax County, Virginia, use their online textbooks in class.
FILE - Students in Fairfax County, Virginia, use their online textbooks in class.

WASHINGTON - With many American universities holding online courses this semester because of the pandemic, faculty members at Princeton, Harvard and other elite schools are looking for ways to protect the privacy and identity of students logging in from Hong Kong and China, where they are subject to China’s repressive rules on self-expression.  

The Hong Kong National Security Law that passed in June allows Chinese authorities to prosecute any foreign institution, organization or individuals, regardless of their location, if they are involved in any action deemed to be a crime. Legal scholars say the law opens the door for a wide range of political prosecutions.  

Samuel Chu, a Chinese American originally from Hong Kong, could be one of the first prosecuted. He faces an arrest warrant after he lobbied the U.S. Congress to punish China for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

Faculty members at several top universities want to protect those taking their courses from ending up in a similar position. They are proposing options for students who may be concerned about being punished for their personal views.  

In a recently published article, faculty from Harvard University, Princeton University, Amherst College, Syracuse University and Texas University at Austin proposed allowing students to opt out of class discussions without affecting their grades and enabling students to participate anonymously in virtual classroom discussions.    

'Warning labels'

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that a professor at the University of Pennsylvania is considering incorporating “warning labels” for potentially sensitive information into the class syllabus. 

The moves are raising concerns that China’s new expansive security laws are eroding academic freedom in the United States.   

“I think it is very troubling that they would, for instance, place warning labels on classes that Beijing might consider sensitive,” said Christopher Balding, an associate professor at Fulbright University Vietnam who also taught in China for nine years. 

“That is indicative of a creepy censorship by Beijing. Even if it's not explicit, even if it is not mandated by law, it is very clearly indicative of the influence that Beijing censorship is having in the United States,” Balding said.  

Aaron Ach, a member of the Princeton class of 2019, wrote a thesis on China’s foreign policy. He told VOA that that open conversations with his Chinese classmates were vital to his work. 

“So, while I don't think it's necessarily an overreaction, I am concerned that universities’ efforts to anonymize classroom participation in light of this national security object directive, rather, is a signal from highly respected, highly globalized elite U.S. universities to Beijing that Beijing can have its way,” Ach said. 

VOA contacted Harvard Business School, Amherst College and Princeton University about their official policies on protecting the identities of students and faculty but has not received a response.  

In an email to VOA, Meg Rithmire, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the co-authors of the article, noted that the measures can be implemented in a targeted manner without disrupting non-sensitive classroom discussions.  

“The important thing … is not just letting anyone 'opt out' of any conversation,” she wrote. She said there should be ways to allow “conversations on issues the Chinese government (or other governments) deem out of bounds while protecting legal risks to students.” 

Missing opportunity?

Some also argue that by taking the additional measures, universities may also be missing an opportunity to speak out against Beijing’s national security law, or even are giving tacit support to China’s censorship.  

“The U.S. government and U.S. universities have a unique opportunity right now … to condemn a Chinese foreign policy that not only threatens the well-being of Chinese students who are seeking an education in the U.S., but also that threatens to undermine the academic missions and the liberal arts foundations of elite U.S. institutions,” Ach said. 

Balding said that although the universities’ desire to protect their students is reasonable, the schools also have rarely spoken out against Beijing’s policies in the past, which makes their recent actions more troublesome.  

“(American) universities have absolutely no track record of speaking out about China. They have no track record about how they have sought to address historical concerns about Chinese behavior,” Balding said. “And they appear intent on engaging in a series of practices, such as accepting Chinese money and hiding it in violation of U.S. law, as well as other practices such as arguing against reasonable visa restrictions against PLA graduate students in science programs in the United States.” 

This year, the Department of Justice has announced a series of prosecutions against academics who hid ties to Beijing, as well as Chinese funding.  

Ach, now a cybersecurity professional, said the problem of protecting academic freedom from Chinese surveillance is becoming much bigger than just a few university courses.  

He said that ultimately, both the U.S. government and universities must keep China off their networks in the first place. 

“That will mean not only hardening cyber defenses and spending more on security, but it also means that the U.S. government and U.S. universities will have to work together and go to greater lengths to protect the Chinese, and frankly, other students who are apparently of interest to the Chinese state,” he said.  

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