Illustration of a Chinese student under the outline of a thought bubble (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

One of China’s most prestigious universities has removed “freedom of thought” from its charter.

Fudan University in Shanghai recently replaced the phrase with language that promotes “Xi Jinping Thought.”  This action appears to be part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) efforts to deepen its influence in Chinese society.

Multistory building in China, shown against a blue sky with clouds (© Aly Song/Reuters)
The academic building of Fudan University in Shanghai (© Aly Song/Reuters)

Already, the CCP strictly censors speech, even banning words in newspapers and social media. But changes to university charters — like what Fudan and two other Chinese universities in Nanjing and Shaanxi recently did — are part of a larger trend of tightening academic control under General Secretary Xi Jinping’s leadership. The party has also fired academics who criticized it.

In a tweet posted by Radio Free Asia, a small group of students at Fudan University gathered in the university cafeteria to protest this change to the charter. The students sang their school anthem, which contains a reference to “freedom of thought.”

The students risked punishment for speaking out against the charter change. In 2019, the Communist authorities detained and harassed 50 students and recent graduates advocating for better worker rights in Beijing, according to the 2019 annual report of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, part of the U.S. government, released January 8.

Such efforts to control students are especially sensitive in China, since students have previously led significant protests, including those in Tiananmen in 1989 and more recent demonstrations in Hong Kong.

“Since the Tiananmen crackdown, the Chinese government and Party have expanded a costly and elaborate authoritarian system designed to intimidate, censor, and even imprison Chinese citizens,” the commission’s report says.

The Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on freedom of thought and political expression is not limited to Chinese universities. Through Confucius Institutes and Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, the Communist Party works to censor students and academics around the world. The party has even tried to threaten Western academic journals when they publish on sensitive topics, such as Tibet.