Leading universities have removed vows to uphold freedom of thought from their charters and added instead pledges of fealty to the ruling Chinese Communist party, sparking a backlash from students and professors.
Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University’s decision to revise its charter provoked fierce online criticism this week from academics, alumni and students, which were swiftly deleted by China’s censors.
Students of the university also staged a rare demonstration in a cafeteria on Wednesday to sing the university’s anthem, which includes a line that academic freedoms should not be restrained by politics.
Fudan released a statement on Weibo, a social media platform, on Wednesday night saying the charter revision “reflects the spirit of the 19th Party Congress” and “further stresses the party’s overall leadership of university work”. President Xi Jinping’s ideology or “Thought” was added to the party charter at that congress two years ago.
Similar revisions have also been made by a handful of other universities in recent months, including Beijing’s respected Renmin University.
Since Mr Xi took power, higher education institutions have been targeted repeatedly in an effort to strengthen party control and ensure absolute loyalty to the leadership among China’s intellectual elite.
Scholars who have been critical of Mr Xi and the imposition of strict ideological controls have been stripped of their positions, while student Marxist activists who challenge the party’s leadership over workers rights have been detained and expelled.
Academics at Fudan and Renmin University, who asked not to be named because they feared repercussions, said that the charter revisions revealed how far the political environment had shifted under Mr Xi.
“Party control has invaded every aspect of university life,” said a Fudan academic. “There is a strong sense of following the party line within the academic community.”
As part of reforms to strengthen party control, university academics have been required since last year to sign an “ethics” form.
Fudan’s previous charter, approved by the Ministry of Education in 2015, had taken four years of debate by academics and a public review before completion, according to staff at the university
At the time, a student wrote on Weibo: “When it comes down to it, the charter is just the words ‘academic independence and freedom of thought’ — can you deliver?”
One Fudan academic said that officials in Beijing determined what should be added to the charter, but that university administrators decided what to delete.
“University leaders are so keen to self censor that they didn’t bother to think about the public response,” the academic said. The academic added that the new content about party control would provide a “weapon” for the university to use against political dissent in the classroom.
“We are entering a new norm,” said the academic. “It would be unusual [now] for a university not to stress party leadership in its charter.”