On October 9, 2013 in Hefei, nine elite Chinese universities (members of C9, often acknowledged as “China’s Ivy League”) signed a statement with the presidents of the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Group of Eight (GO8) in Australia, and the League of European Research Universities (LERU), endorsing open inquiry, scientific integrity, and other academic values as the key components of a modern research university, and demonstrating an incipient effort to work closely with top universities in other parts of the world. This move is cherished by some as a bold step on the part of those Chinese universities to openly embrace academic freedom (the Statement describes the 6th characteristic of a modern research university as “exercise of academic freedom”), although this might be merely a small step forward from what was already framed in the National Outline for Medium- and Long-Term Educational Reform and Development (2010–2020), or the 2020 Blueprint.
Launched in July 2010, the 2020 Blueprint calls for, among other actions, introducing a modern university system on Chinese soil, that features professorial rule on academic affairs. The recent Hefei Statement appears to denote a step forward. While implying that a modern university system should embody such notions as academic freedom and university autonomy, the 2020 Blueprint tends to use more vague expressions such as furnishing “a friendly and relaxed academic environment,” giving professors “a full play in teaching, research and institutional governance,” and strengthening transparency of internal decision-making procedures. Eventually, such a system would retain “Chinese characteristics,” that arguably center on having “a governance system that holds the president responsible to Party Committee leadership” in all public institutions. In contrast, the Hefei Statement is more explicit in wording, conspicuously highlighting the notion of “academic freedom by faculty to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching and service without undue constraint.” Notwithstanding these expressions, this is perhaps only a small step beyond the 2020 Blueprint, i.e., it is still within the framework laid out by the latter. Notably, the adjective “responsible” has been added in front of “academic freedom” that hints at a kind of restriction that could be applied to academic freedom.
Others go to another end of the spectrum, claiming the Statement’s endorsement of academic freedom is largely rhetoric, and only there for practical reasons. Indeed, without inclusion of this part, it is hard to imagine that western partners would agree to be signatories and provide a great opportunity for top Chinese universities to align their names with international peers. This claim might make sense in that those Chinese universities often have their hands tied (by China’s party state), and can do little to protect their university autonomy and academic freedom if the government should intervene. Nevertheless, I suspect this cynicism underestimates the ambitions of those Chinese universities. This Statement represents their initial effort towards a more structured alliance that will allow them to collaborate with the Global Research Council, formed in 2012 by 50 government agencies around the world—the National Science Foundation among them. It is hard to believe that rhetoric can take them there.
As a matter of fact, this move was indicated in the 2020 Blueprint. In Chapter 21, Article 67, the policy document spells out a number of pilot reform programs to be undertaken in the years immediately following its promulgation, that include experimentation with installing university charters. With university charters in place, Chinese universities are supposed to be able to derive greater powers and authority in the administration of their own affairs, in particular in the terrain of academic administration. To facilitate this experiment, China’s Ministry of Education promulgated in January 2012 the Interim Regulations on Creating Charters for Higher Education Institutions, that assists Chinese universities in drafting and installing their charters. Twenty-six universities were selected to pilot this move, and, up to this point, only six have put their charters in place, while a majority are still struggling to discern the boundaries of their discretion. So, like the case of university charter, the Hefei Statement might better be seen as another experiment with the C9 universities. Yet, its effect remains to be tested, given the current politicized environment in which Chinese universities operate. As stated in the Hefei Statement itself, “in the absence of a supportive environment, research universities will be unable to impart the major competitive advantage and [achieve] global recognition.”