Excerpt: New Threats to Academic Freedom in Asia

New Threats to Academic Freedom in Asia

We are pleased to share an excerpt from the introduction of the latest Asia Shorts title from AAS Publications, New Threats to Academic Freedom in Asia. Edited by Dimitar D. Gueorguiev (Syracuse University), this collection originated with a May 2021 workshop supported by the Open Society Foundations and hosted by the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs at Syracuse University. The resulting volume includes six essays in which authors examine questions of academic freedom in locations from India to Japan, using cross-national data and in-depth case studies to shed light on the multifaceted nature of academic censorship and provide reference points to those working in restrictive academic environments.

Print and e-book copies of New Threats to Academic Freedom in Asia are available for order through Columbia University Press, the distribution partner of AAS Publications, and the volume is also available in open access format at the AAS website. Register now to join an AAS Digital Dialogue session about the book on Wednesday, November 30 at 7:00pm Eastern Time.

Introduction: Progress Under Threat — Academic Freedom in Asia

By Dimitar D. Gueorguiev

Asia at a Crossroads

In few places is the tension between a desire for academic progress and the threat to academic freedom more pronounced than it is in Asia today. On the one hand, countries in Asia have been keen on growing their intellectual footprint, both as a way of contributing to national development and security strategies as well as a means of retaining their most talented young minds who are otherwise likely to seek education and employment abroad. This push has manifested in several ways, including increased spending on higher education as well as schemes for repatriating and attracting talent from abroad.

Thanks to these investments, universities in Singapore, Japan, and China have joined the ranks of the world’s top schools.Asian researchers are also making their mark across disciplines in the sciences and the humanities, contributing an ever-growing share of global patents and publications. Across the region, higher education is increasingly seen not only as a tool for development but also as an instrument for garnering international prestige and bolstering national soft power. In short, Asia’s universities are contributing to and symbolizing the region’s growing influence.

At the same time, threats to academic freedom in Asia remain prevalent and widespread. These threats run the gamut from state repression to informal societal pressure; they even include betrayal in the classroom. Some threats, like the risk of losing state funding or promotion, are common and familiar across the region. Others, like Pakistan’s brutal anti-blasphemy laws, are concentrated in parts of Asia where scholars already work under dire conditions. Across the region, new laws against spreading rumors and misinformation on the Internet are cropping up, offering authorities novel and often unchecked power to suppress and sanction critical perspectives.

In terms of size, scope, and depth, academic freedom has arguably suffered the greatest under China’s authoritarian leaders. China’s uncomfortable relationship with academic freedom is nothing new. The Great Firewall has long been a barrier for Chinese scholars and students seeking to access global knowledge sources, including academic search engines like Google Scholar. Yet, under the current Xi Jinping administration, the space for international collaboration and foreign scholarship has been greatly diminished, authorities have issued blanket warnings against critical scholars, and regime leaders have called for thorough campaigns and party building on university campuses. Increasingly, Chinese censors have sought to assert their weight more globally, pressuring international publishers to edit content if they want access to the Chinese market while intimidating teachers and students, both in and outside the PRC, with laws that criminalize sensitive discussions on China.

While foundations for academic freedom are considerably stronger in the world’s largest democracy, the current leadership in India is widely seen as hostile to critical scholarship and free expression. More frequent use of India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, alongside limits on international collaboration, has substantially curtailed the space for scholarship that is critical of the regime and its policies inside India. Indeed, the broad scope of these measures impacted the production of this volume as well, with an important chapter on India being withdrawn late into the review process due to a steadily worsening situation on the country’s university campuses.

Across the region, academic freedom is also under threat from ultra-conservative elements within domestic society who have trained their sights on liberal and outspoken academics, often with active complicity or quiet acquiescence from university administrators. In Thailand, royalist groups openly harass students and academics they see as antimonarchy. Japanese historians critical of the country’s wartime experience have long been the target of conservative activists. Meanwhile, a rising Hindu-nationalist movement has pitted far-right groups against liberal intellectuals and students on campuses in India and abroad. Conservative groups in Indonesia have become increasingly brazen in their attacks on liberal scholars across a wide range of issues, from religion and communism to those issues related to the LGBTQ community and climate change.

Across much of Asia, these societal forces operate with tacit support or coordination from political parties and government agencies. Hindu nationalists, for instance, emboldened by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governors and their student-led branch, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), now have a presence across Indian universities and even some foreign campuses. In Japan, conservative groups are intermeshed with elites in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as well as those holding the keys to research funding and major media outlets. In mainland China, and even in classrooms abroad, student informants, loosely tied to Chinese Communist Party organizations like the United Front, are tasked with observing and reporting on their teachers and peers.

Increasingly, attacks on academic freedom are aided by the removal of legal protections. In the Philippines, former President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration revoked a long-standing prohibition against security forces on university grounds. Academic freedom is also being curtailed by new laws, such as online “fake news” restrictions, that give the state sweeping prosecutorial powers. As noted earlier, Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL), adopted in June 2020, gives Chinese authorities a legal framework for encroaching on academic freedom in an extraterritorial manner that puts both scholars and students at risk, irrespective of their location or their citizenship.

Despite these disturbing developments, Asia is also unique insofar as threats to academic freedom have been prosecuted in ways that help preserve academic prestige and institutional ranking in some areas, even as basic freedoms are denied in others. As such, the subversion of academic rights in Asia represents an existential test of whether academic freedom exists as an immutable concept for all or as a piecemeal offering granted to some disciplines and topics but not to others.

Asia’s Academic Freedom Trajectory

Taken together, the chapters included in this volume reveal a complex environment where formal and informal rules about academic rights and responsibilities often stand in opposition to one another. Each of the country cases covered in the volume has constitutional provisions that purport to enshrine and protect academic freedom, yet in each case, we also see instances in which these provisions are either ignored or superseded by new laws and regulations aimed at promoting political and national priorities. This tension is reproduced throughout the region. Take, for instance, Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of speech and inquiry, but the Universities and University College Act gives the government control over student enrollments, staff appointments, educational programming, and financing, while also forbidding students and faculty from getting involved in political activities or trade unions.

Across cases, we see governments actively undercutting academic freedom and institutional autonomy, as in the case of China, Japan, and Singapore, but also passively not intervening when societal forces threaten and harass scholars who are working on unpopular topics, as in the case of Indonesia. These patterns are unfortunately replicated in neighboring states. In Myanmar, military authorities invoked security provisions to arrest and suspect thousands of students and teachers who took part in or expressed support for anti-coup protests in 2021. In India, the BJP government has repeatedly opted not to investigate or prosecute right-wing groups, like the ABVP, for attacks on university campuses in broad daylight.

In most cases, university administrators sit in between external pressures from the outside and internal pressures from their faculty and students. When universities are given the autonomy to stand up and defend their communities, academic freedom, as shown in [Katrin] Kinzelbach’s cross-national study, is often advanced. Even so, administrators, whether it is due to political or financial interest, can themselves become a source of pressure and intimidation. In many parts of Asia, rising corporatization, alongside dependence on state funding, means that university administrators are poorly incentivized and often underpowered to stand up and defend academic freedom.

The broader academic community looks at instances of academic suppression and intimidation with concern and outrage. Yet, it is unclear how much is being done in response. At the very least, global rankings for institutions of higher learning ought to penalize those institutions that fail to provide an open scholarly environment, even if they are well endowed and they turn out top-notch graduates. This, however, is not the case. As George et al. argue, world university rankings are themselves embedded in a monetized system that affords blind spots for the academic freedom shortcomings of otherwise elite institutions. Until measures like the AFI are incorporated into ranking systems, censorship, intimidation, and harassment will continue to carry relatively few costs.

When academic freedom is violated, the scholarly community cannot and must not look away. Those fortunate to live in open societies with robust legal and institutional support for free speech and free academic inquiry must show solidarity with colleagues abroad who lack those protections. They should also monitor their own institutions and hold their administrators accountable for the academic freedom standards they are tasked with upholding. As with any principled position, commitments to academic freedom cannot and should not be compromised, nor should they be taken for granted.