What’s the right atmosphere?

The International Herald Tribune yesterday reported about China’s investments in their universities.

China is focusing on science and technology, areas that reflect the country’s development needs, but also reflect the preferences of an authoritarian system that restricts free speech. The liberal arts often involve critical thinking about politics, economics and history. The government has placed relatively little emphasis on achieving world-class status in these subjects. Yet, many Chinese say – most often indirectly – that the limits on academic debate could hamper efforts to create world-class universities

“Right now, I don’t think any university in China has an atmosphere comparable to the older Western universities – Harvard or Oxford – in terms of freedom of expression,” said Lin Jianhua, the executive vice president of Peking University. “We are trying to give the students a better environment, but in order to do these things we need time. Not 10 years, but maybe one or two generations.”

The question is: can China wait for two generations? Artists and academics are already raising their voices.

But the biggest weakness, many Chinese academics indicated, is the lack of academic freedom. Yang, the former president of Fudan, warned that if the right “atmosphere” was not cultivated, great thinkers from overseas might come to China for a year or two only to leave, frustrated. Gong Ke, a vice president of Tsinghua University, said universities had “the duty to guarantee academic freedom. We have professors who teach here, foreigners, who teach very differently from the Chinese government’s point of view. Some of them really criticize the economic policy of China.”

Li Ao, a well-known Taiwanese writer, called for greater academic freedom and independence from the government in a September speech at Peking University. The next day, after reportedly coming under heavy official pressure, he delivered a far tamer version of the speech at Tsinghua University, where media coverage was tightly controlled. The Chinese government also censors university online bulletin boards and discussion groups, and recently prevented students at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou from conversing freely with visiting elected officials from Hong Kong.

Students here are not encouraged to challenge authority or received wisdom. For some, this helps explain why China has never won a Nobel Prize in any category. What is needed most now, some of China’s best scholars say, are bold, original thinkers.

How long can a highly educated population be censored and restricted by government regulation? And can you have sustainable world-class universities without academic freedom?    

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