Unchartered Territory

Charter changes illustrate the tightening restrictions placed on academic life in China

by Emily Rust

Illustration by Liana Chaplain

published February 15, 2020


Toward the end of 2019, three Chinese universities made international headlines for an event that some deemed a matter of semantics and others saw as an encroachment on the fundamental rights of students and teachers. On December 17, the Chinese Education Ministry announced that it had approved new charters for Shaanxi Normal University, Nanjing University, and Fudan University. Prompting both outside observers and members of the universities to raise concerns about academic freedom, the new charters now include more language that insists on loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Although a great number of revisions were made in the university charters, the change most highlighted on Chinese social media and by foreign media outlets was the Fudan charter’s removal of “思想自由” (freedom of thought). The coverage has focused on Fudan in part because many see it as an unexpected move for that school in particular. Not only one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, Fudan is known to be liberal for a university operating in China. According to the Hong Kong Free Press, Fudan’s student body is “proud of its reputation for relative academic freedom.”

The reach of the CCP, China’s sole governing party, has increased across China's society since leader Xi Jinping came to absolute power in 2012. In addition to the removal of “freedom of thought,” over 40 revisions were made to Fudan’s charter—many of which involve the addition of more bureaucratic, Party-centered language. In line with Xi Jinping’s goal of increasing Party influence, certain sentences that previously suggested institutional independence were changed. The word “independently” was removed from the sentences “the school independently and autonomously runs the university” and “teachers and students independently and autonomously conduct academic studies while abiding with the law.” In another significant, but predictable, revision, the charter now states that the university must “equip its teachers and employees” with “Xi Jinping Thought.” This political theory, developed by the Chinese leader, was enshrined in the Party constitution in 2017.

The charter changes are part of a greater trend in recent years signaling the Party’s increased omnipresence in civil society. Over the last few decades, but especially since 2012, Chinese universities have not operated with academic freedom. The charters' claims of the opposite do not reflect reality—they are more like aspirational mission statements. In China, there are often wide gaps between what is happening on paper and what is happening in real life: the Party insists on being referred to as communist, for example, despite the Chinese economy’s blatant capitalistic aspects. With the CCP’s tightening control over Chinese academic life, the fiction of academic freedom has become too inaccurate to maintain. The active decision to remove the aspirational character of the charters makes explicit the intellectual repression that has been obvious for a long time.




Virtual and physical forms of resistance to the charter revisions were quickly stifled. On December 18, a day after the revisions were announced, a small group of Fudan students gathered in the university’s cafeteria to sing the school’s official anthem in protest of the changes. The initial charter’s heavily discussed term “freedom of thought” originally came from this anthem’s lyrics. Although fewer than 25 students showed up, the group received widespread recognition and support from Chinese citizens after a video of the protest was posted online.

Those involved in the protest had organized over the messaging app WeChat, which—despite common knowledge that it is closely surveilled by authorities—became the site of other forms of protest in the aftermath. In a letter circulated on the messaging app, an anonymous Fudan alum expressed their hope that the university be “less groveling, flattering, ingratiating.” Needless to say, the letter was swiftly removed. A user of the platform Weibo asked in a post, “If I may dare to ask those who initiated the amendment of the Fudan University charter, how do you expect our generation of Fudan people to face our ancestors?” Similarly, a hashtag relating to the school’s charter change garnered over a million views before it was censored.

The announcement of the charter changes came six months after the beginning of the Hong Kong protests, which were first triggered by a proposed extradition bill that would have increased the Chinese government’s control over the territory. Students and campus spaces have played a prominent role in the protests—a connection that reached a climax in mid-November, when police besieged the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University after protesters occupied the campuses. While the process of revising the charters began long before the eruption of the Hong Kong protests, it is difficult to separate the Party’s tightening grip on mainland universities from its feeble control over students in the semi-autonomous territory. Mainland publications have pinned the origins of the protests on the Hong Kong education system, blaming textbooks and curricula for “brainwashing” young Hongkongers.




The three universities, geographically dispersed, are not related in any significant way. Fudan University and Nanjing University are considered to be elite schools; Shaanxi Normal University is lower on Chinese rankings. What the three do have in common—along with all Chinese universities—is their supervision by the CCP. Though it has always been in the background, the Party was not seen as running universities in the early 2000s. After Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, however, the government tightened its grip on academic life. All Chinese universities are overseen by a local party committee, which is in charge of monitoring campus activities. This increased ideological control of Chinese campuses in the last decade has made the notion of academic freedom obsolete.

In recent years, students and professors have become exasperated by the Party’s politicization of universities. Some academics feel that the excessive bureaucracy under the current system is an insult to their intelligence—that too much of their energy goes to ticking off boxes that prove their compliance with Party values. When planning a conference or an event, faculty members have to apply for approval from the university’s Local Party organization months ahead of time. In 2018, Chinese authorities announced the renewal of “patriotism education,” making it mandatory for academics to attend so-called “patriotism-themed activities.”

Those defending the new charters argue that, from the outside, the revision process looks more top-down than it actually was. Highlighting that university charters are neither obligatory nor legally binding in China, they make the point that it was in fact the universities that rewrote and submitted the new charters. The CCP, according to university administrators, merely approved the revisions. A Fudan academic told the Financial Times that the Party decided what to add to the charters while university administrators selected what to delete. This would mean that the strikethrough of “freedom of thought” did not actually come from the Party.

Additionally, supporters of the charter changes have blamed Hong Kong for the media attention, suggesting that it only became news because of the protests. A similar charter change at Renmin University last June, they point out, went relatively unnoticed. Although it is difficult to determine the accuracy of this claim, one cannot deny the impact of the Hong Kong protests. While university administrators, Party officials, and others in favor of the charter changes see the Hong Kong protesters as a nuisance, dissidents of the recent revisions draw a tangible sense of solidarity from them. Universities on the mainland have gradually been stripped of their “freedom of thought”; Hong Kong students are striving to keep the phrase as part of their realities.

A possible hypothesis about the charter changes, suggested by an anonymous source, is that the universities—particularly Fudan—made extreme revisions to their charters to get the Party off their backs. In other words, the administrations might have made such comprehensive revisions to their charters—stressing Party loyalty above all else—for cover. In the current climate, universities like Fudan that are known for their openness are scrutinized by the CCP. By bowing down to the government’s wishes on paper, academics associated with the universities would get more leeway to operate as they wish. Regardless of who initiated them, however, these revisions illustrate the increased politicization of academic activity on the Chinese mainland.




The CCP’s nearly hundred-year history has consisted of a rocky relationship between academic institutions and the state. The Party itself originated in the student-led protests, which became known as the May Fourth Movement and took place in May 1919. This movement is recognized as an intellectual turning point in China and is directly linked with the establishment of the CCP two years later.

Between 1966 and 1967, the first stage of the Cultural Revolution witnessed the Party acquire a less friendly, more complicated relationship with student movements. University and high school students mobilized and formed paramilitary units that persecuted, tortured, and killed millions of Chinese civilians—intellectuals in particular—at the behest of Chairman Mao. Although the Cultural Revolution swept across Chinese society as a whole, these so-called Red Guards committed the fiercest violence of the time period.

Twenty years later, in June 1989, students found community and momentum in a political movement that worsened their relationship with the Chinese government: the Tiananmen Square movement. These protests, which called for greater transparency and democratic reform, became the fiercest challenge to one-party rule since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. On the night of June 4, the protests were brought to an end through the army’s massacre of thousands of civilians. This coldblooded crackdown—ordered by the Party—speaks to how vulnerable the Chinese leaders felt in the face of student solidarity.

In the decade after the Tiananmen protests, campuses remained relatively quiet. Toward the early 2000s, however, the Party’s grip began to loosen somewhat. To the surprise of many, campus spaces became slightly more permissive of sensitive debates that might otherwise have been avoided or shunned. Certain campuses, like Fudan, became especially known for their “relative academic freedom.”

Alongside President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in the last decade, however, this limited freedom has once again diminished. In November, the New York Times published a report on the increasing number of Chinese universities that recruit students to act as informants against their peers and teachers. Activism that should, theoretically, go hand-in-hand with Communist Party ideology—such as labor organizing—has resulted in arrests and censorship. Many universities have established research centers devoted to “Xi Jinping Thought.” There is also a greater trend of universities firing dissident professors, such as Qinghua law professor Xu Zhangrun last year.

December’s charter changes are part of a trend of Xi Jinping and his allies tightening their grip on all sectors of society. The battle for ideological control in university spaces is not over. For now, however, CCP ideology and bureaucracy is making it increasingly difficult for universities to operate as universities—institutions devoted to critical thinking and learning.

Had it not been for student activism, the May Fourth Movement would not have happened. Unsurprisingly, contemporary CCP members are not thrilled that their origins are based in radical student organizing. Last May, Xi Jinping celebrated the centennial of the May Fourth Movement by politicizing it as a movement of patriotism and obedience—essentially the opposite of what the students stood for a hundred years ago.




Fudan administrators have emphasized that the charter changes will have no practical implications for how the university operates and that the changes are merely an adjustment of the document’s language. Reducing these sweeping changes to a matter of semantics seems dishonest. Yet, ironically, perhaps there is some honesty to be found in such an argument.

Qiao Mu, who formerly taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, encapsulated this idea in an interview with NPR: “I think it is a good thing that the charters now reflect reality more accurately...Why include all this pretty language about democratic freedom and freedom of thought if there is none of that?” In an interview with the New York Times, Sun Peidong, an associate history professor at Fudan, expressed a similar sentiment: “We don’t have to pretend anymore.” Although the charter changes are alarming—and should be scrutinized—the revisions themselves are less alarming than the backdrop they can be understood against.

That said, these changes will have practical implications, many of which are, paradoxically, more immediately detrimental to the government than to Chinese academic life. Although Chinese students certainly bear the brunt of the charter changes, the revisions do more to formalize than alter the state of affairs. The Chinese government, on the other hand, is bound to face more direct ramifications.

In the 2010s, new ideas emerged in China regarding education. The CCP devoted a significant stream of investment toward making Chinese universities competitive on the world stage. This mission was achieved to a significant degree—several of China’s universities can be found on world college rankings. Experts like Harvard professor Elizabeth Perry, however, see the Party’s increased infiltration of universities as  backtracking on this progress.

As other countries tune into events like the charter changes and perceive them as infringements upon the rights of students in China, foreign universities increasingly develop reservations about entering into partnerships with Chinese universities. In addition, the revisions serve as a signal to academics that outspokenness will continue to be punished. This alienation of China’s academic community will lead more professors, such as the above-quoted Qiao Mu, to emigrate to other countries in order to avoid the choice between self-censorship and a jail sentence.




In a speech held at an education symposium in March 2019, Xi Jinping stated that “the Party must cultivate generation after generation of talented young people that support the Communist Party of China’s leadership and the socialist system.” This concern for young people’s political leanings makes sense upon examination of the CCP’s history. From the formation of the Party in 1921 to the Tiananmen protests in 1989, student organizing was a key feature of the Chinese 20th century. In only the past 20 years, Hong Kong students have already left their mark on this century. The CCP has repeatedly learned that student activism has the power to weaken government authority.

The new charters serve the purpose of further consolidating Party influence—top leaders evidently view education as essential in their maintenance of legitimacy. Although one can imagine hypotheticals in which Fudan administrators revised their charters to acquire an alibi rather than to institute pragmatic change, the updated charters ultimately send the message that the Party dominates China’s educational system. According to a Fudan academic, China is “entering a new norm.”

In December, the fictional promise of academic freedom at Fudan, Nanjing, and Shaanxi was formally broken. These three charter changes merely represent the first wave of an impending deluge that is likely to continue in coming years. At Fudan, the aspirational quality of the former charter provided some hope. Although the charter changes themselves are less concerning than the trend of societal chilling that has produced them, there is nothing reassuring in this instance of the government’s deepened commitment to honesty.


EMILY RUST B’22 is in the process of developing Emily Rust thought.