China tightens its grip on freedom in academics

Scholars often debate risking their livelihoods and personal safety in order to conduct research in certain areas.

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  • Authoritarian governments that rely heavily on coercion must be more intrusive about how education shapes the personality and character of its members.
  • In China, there are topics that scholars know to avoid — especially, the Three Ts: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen Square.
  • While the majority of scholars are likely toeing the party line when it comes to their research, some are working toward encouraging academic freedom in the country, often at significant risk to themselves and their families.


In March of 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on Chinese educators to "nurture generation after generation [of young people] who support Chinese Communist Party rule and China's socialist system." What does this mean for the state of scholarship in China? Toeing the line between the right and wrong viewpoint is a serious matter for scholars in that country. It can be the difference between a fulfilling career and being barred from research, removed from the country, or even imprisoned.

This interconnection between government and education is ancient — think, Plato's "Republic." Any society needs to bring new members into conformity with the order that society aims at. In the U.S. this is called civics education and comprises understanding the rules under which our society is structured. These rules allow a wide degree of individual freedom rooted in individual rights. Citizens must understand those rights and how those rights constrain and protect us in our interactions with each other and the government. Traditionally in the US many of these rights are also not seen to be the sole privilege of citizens but what are owed to humans as many are extended to non-citizen residents and visitors.

Authoritarian governments that rely heavily on coercion must be more intrusive about how education shapes the personality and character of its members. The system erected by the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) rests on control by the party. As such, the government looks to prohibit thoughts and actions that would undermine party control.

Consider the case of Liu Xiaobo, the scholar and human rights activist who, along with more than 300 other Chinese citizens, signed Charter 08, a political manifesto demanding freedom of expression, human rights, and economic liberalism in China. According to Chinese officials, signatories of this statement were guilty of "inciting subversion of state power." Liu was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonment though he died of liver cancer after serving eight.

While this incident might have made international headlines, it is not a wholly unique one in the age of the internet garnering easier access than ever to liberal values. Scholars across China are regularly targeted for working on subjects that upset the CCP or are coerced into restricting their research to acceptable topics.

President Xi Jinping inspects the Chinese People's Liberation Army Garrison In Hong Kong.

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Lessons in the wrong ideology

In China, there are topics that scholars know to avoid. First are the Three Ts: Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen Square. There are also seven additional subjects that educators are forbidden from teaching that are listed in the so-called Document Number Nine, a document circulated amongst the CCP that was leaked in July 2013. These seven forbidden subjects are those that promote Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neoliberalism, Western-style journalism, "historical nihilism," and questioning China's reforms and socialist nature.

This document was first leaked in 2013, the same year that Xi came to power, and it is believed to have been developed or at least approved by Xi. Since its publication and Xi's assumption of power, the CCP has wielded increasingly forceful influence over what is and is not permissible in China's higher education system.

Being 'taken for tea'

While studying the actions of the CCP against scholars in mainland Chinese universities is challenging for obvious reasons, studies from universities in Hong Kong, Australia, North America, and other regions conducting research in mainland China have recently been published.

Chestnut Greitens and colleagues conducted such a study on over 500 researchers. They found that nearly 10 percent of their sample had been approached by authorities and "taken for tea," a euphemism for when scholars are interrogated and intimidated. As one scholar relayed:

Our research group, consisting of Chinese and foreign scholars, were conducting survey research in [redacted]. Some elements of the research topic were considered politically sensitive. We were contacted by the county government, spent a full day "having tea" and discussing the project, and finally asked to leave the county. We complied.

A further 12 percent said their Chinese colleagues had been approached and asked about their work, roughly a quarter were denied access to archival records, and 17 percent had interview subjects withdraw in a suspicious or unexplained manner. The primary concern of these researchers, however, was not their own safety but rather that of their Chinese colleagues or informants. Researchers recommended paying attention to how mainland Chinese collaborators reacted, as they were far more likely to face the consequences of any politically sensitive research project. One researcher said, "This is more important than your publication or your tenure or your degree. If you think in these terms and observe cues of whether people are comfortable or want to cooperate, you should be OK."

But these concerns can also persuade researchers to engage in self-censorship. In an interview with Big Think, Robert Quinn, the founder of the Scholars at Risk Network, discussed how researchers can be persuaded to do the CCP's work for them:

We don't understand how much our thoughts, our very thoughts and therefore our identities, are shaped by implicit permission to think that or ask that or say that. … When they come and haul away the professor in the office next to yours to prison, that affects whether you're going to publish the next article. How do we measure that?

The right to know: How does censorship affect academics?

Consequences for mainland Chinese scholars

While statistics on the nature of academic freedom within mainland China are limited, the Scholars at Risk network has assembled a report detailing the experiences of several Chinese scholars, titled Obstacles to Excellence.

The report describes several features of Chinese academia with chilling effects on research, such as the use of student informants. These informants report on other students' and teachers' comments and activities for the CCP. Dezhou University in Shandong Province reportedly issued a directive to set up a student informant network intended to "destroy the seeds of discord that may affect security and stability before they sprout."

Scholars that are perceived to sow "the seeds of discord" often face serious consequences. Some Chinese scholars reported having their travel restricted, being fired from their positions, being followed by plainclothes police, having their communications monitored, and having other measures taken up against them. For example, legal scholar Teng Biao, a signatory of Charter 08, was forbidden from publishing books and banned from teaching. In 2011, plainclothes police officers detained Teng, throwing a sack over his head, and held him for 70 days while he was beaten and tortured.

These actions by the CCP tend to be more severe in the more politically sensitive regions of China, such as Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. In the Xinjiang province, for instance, where the persecuted Uighur minority primarily resides, residents are made to install surveillance software on their mobile phones. The province also hosts a number of re-education camps where Uighur Muslims are made to eat pork and drink alcohol, recite CCP anthems, and attend indoctrination classes.

While the majority of scholars are likely toeing the party line when it comes to their research, some are working toward encouraging academic freedom in the country, often at significant risk to themselves and their families. For this reason, acceptance of scholars fleeing persecution is imperative for nations with more fortunate attitudes toward academic freedom. Even so, this fear of displacement will historically affect the scope of knowledge in a country like China, making the pursuit of academic freedom more important than ever.

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A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

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The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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