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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This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't. — DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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