The Concerning State of Academic Freedom Across East Asia
In the classical literatures of East Asia, it is not hard to find stories of morally upright scholars remonstrating with princes or pushing against the scholastic orthodoxies of their time. Yet before the appearance of democracy in the region, the lot of those scholars was an uncertain one. With no conception of civil rights or of constitutional limits on sovereigns to protect them, they sometimes had to count on the forbearance of rulers and the goodwill of patrons to escape recriminations.
East Asia’s turbulent 20th century, with its revolutions, wars, and authoritarian-led industrializations, proved especially inhospitable for the welfare of outspoken scholars. Some were lucky, like the Confucian reformer and intermittent democracy advocate Liang Shuming, who endured a terrifying denunciation in 1953 from his former friend Mao Zedong — and lived. Many others of his era were not as lucky.
The diverse political systems of 21st-century East Asia present more varied prospects for the freedoms of unorthodox, outspoken scholars. In 2021 Freedom House placed Japan and Taiwan in its top 10% ranking for political rights and civil liberties, scoring 4 out of 4 for academic freedom. South Korea’s ranking tied with that of the United States at 83%, with its academic freedom rated at 3 out of 4. China and North Korea, meanwhile, were in the bottom 10%, with academic freedom for both assessed at 0 out of 4.
The nations of East Asia, with their shared nominal GDP of $27.5 trillion, collectively exert tremendous geopolitical, economic, and research and development heft. China, Japan, and South Korea respectively rank second, fifth, and eighth in Nature Index’s table of leading countries for research output. China is one of the top nations for research collaborations with the United States, and in 2019-2020, 372,000 Chinese students were studying in U.S. universities. It is therefore important for American and Anglosphere academia to get a grip on different trends affecting viewpoint diversity and open inquiry in East Asia’s higher education sectors, for these trends have global ramifications. I will briefly overview some of those trends here and conclude with potential remedies.
China: Scholars Under a Reptilian Gaze
China’s vast expenditures on higher education reform over the past three decades are bearing fruit. Its expanding higher education sector saw an increase from more than 5.5 million graduates in 2010 to nearly 8 million graduates in 2020. Investments in elite-level universities are also yielding results, with six now appearing in the top 100 universities of the QS World University Rankings. Academic research by Chinese authors accounted for 37% of total global citations of scientific papers in 2013, and scientific papers coauthored between American and Chinese scientists increased from 3,412 to 5,213 between 2015 and 2020.
Such successes present an acute dilemma for a regime that is still Marxist-Leninist in the machinery of its governance and in its outlook on power. Engagement with global capital, collaboration in global knowledge production, and institutional rationalization are essential to the industrial, technological, and military development, and to the wealth creation now considered essential to regime security. Yet these same engagements and reforms have exposed growing numbers of Chinese people to dangerous “heterodox” political and civic ideas that threaten the regime’s sense of its security.
With China under Xi Jinping’s personalized rule since 2013, the resolution to this dilemma has been an incoherent turn against openness, and its effects are being felt around the world. Precariously achieved academic freedoms face accelerated attrition, the incipient civil society that could have buttressed them is shutting down, and rigid state orthodoxies are intruding into university classrooms.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long relied upon a vaguely defined system of censorship, with ambiguously drawn and arbitrarily enforced “red lines” whose effect is to keep academics in a constant state of self-censoring wariness. The American sinologist Perry Link has captured this sense of wariness vividly with his metaphor of an “anaconda in the chandelier.”
That wariness has escalated on Xi’s watch. One direct threat to open inquiry has been the Great Firewall’s limits on access to global internet sites, including academic search engines such as Google Scholar. A more recent threat has emerged in efforts to compel international academic publishers like Springer to block China-based scholars’ access to articles on “taboo” topics. Widespread unofficial VPN usage by researchers and students gets around these potentially crippling barriers in spite of a 2018 ban on unauthorized VPN use that is occasionally and arbitrarily enforced.
The attempted narrowing of access to outside information has coincided with increasing top-down guidances on ideological education. A 2013 CCP directive fulminated against the promotion of western ideas such as “constitutional democracy,” “universal values,” and “civil society.” This was followed up by the Education Ministry’s calls for bans on university textbooks “promoting western values,” warnings to lecturers not to discuss or research “taboo” political or historical ideas or perspectives, and demands for more classes on Marxism and socialism. Elite institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University have set up research centers devoted to the study of “Xi Jinping Thought” ideology. University teachers have been employed by the Education Ministry to write high school science curriculum guidances mandating teaching compliance with Xi Jinping Thought.
The agents for enforcing this political orthodoxy vary. They include student and faculty informants, online brigades of hypernationalist “little pinks” who rapidly spread and amplify denunciations on social media, university administrations, state media, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), and the self-censoring instincts of scholars themselves.
The means for penalizing intellectual heterodoxy are just as varied. They have intensified under Xi’s rule and made themselves felt in foreign universities where lucrative research collaborations and revenue from fee-paying Chinese students supply leverage for enforcement. Within China, notable dissident academics like Ilham Tohti and Xu Zhangrun have been imprisoned or placed under house arrest. Dissident Hong Kong scholars are facing jail sentences under the city’s repressive new National Security Law. Numerous other academics have suffered dismissals following student informer complaints and social and state media campaigns against their “unpatriotic” or ideologically suspect statements. In one such case in 2021, Shanghai journalism lecturer Song Gengyi was dismissed over classroom remarks encouraging students to adopt a more critical perspective on official narratives of the Nanjing Massacre. A schoolteacher who spoke out online in her defense was detained in a mental institution, and a human rights lawyer was subsequently detained for trying to assist the teacher.
The CCP regime’s efforts to police adverse opinions in foreign universities have also caused alarm in recent years. In Australia and the United States, where enrollment fees for Chinese students generate billions of dollars in university revenues, questions have been raised about university administrations’ willingness to tackle threats to academic freedom.
Such threats have been more or less explicit. Some Chinese and Hong Kong students in Australia have expressed fears about surveillance from other Chinese students. Australian and Hong Kong student activists were assaulted during a confrontation with Chinese students at one anti-CCP campus protest in 2019. A Chinese consul-general publicly praised the “patriotic behavior” of those students; he was also an honorary professor at the same university. Chinese students at Australian and American universities who participated in dissident activities have reported harassment from Chinese student associations and threatening phone calls from police in China. Police sometimes threaten family members back home, inducing them to contact students and ask them to give up their activism.
Academic research on China is also at risk. Sinologists and émigré Chinese researchers abroad investigating “taboo” topics have been targets of intimidation and social and state media harassment campaigns. A few scholars have been detained during visits to China on trumped-up spying charges. Other foreign researchers working in social science fields have had visa applications to China denied or experienced growing difficulties obtaining them. As a result, concerns about self-censorship among China scholars are on the rise.
South Korea: Be Careful When Mentioning the War (or North Korea)
South Korea’s hard-won constitutional democracy, boisterous civil society, and relatively robust academic freedoms strike quite a contrast with the repressive Xi Jinping regime. It is also worth noting that the South Korean government had invested an impressive 4.5% of its GDP in research and development and higher education by 2018.
Yet South Korea’s Japanese colonial and autocratic postcolonial legacies are bitterly contested by its conservatives and progressives, and their conflicts have spilled over into its academic life to the detriment of open inquiry. Two pieces of Cold War era legislation pose legal risks for academics affected by these disputes: the National Security Law (NSL) and criminal defamation law.
The NSL, passed by the authoritarian Syngman Rhee regime in 1948, includes broad provisions for imprisonment or fines for anyone praising or participating in “anti-government organizations” or acquiring, distributing, or selling literature relating to them, or attempting to foment rebellion against the state. NSL defenders will argue that North and South Korea are still technically at war with each other 69 years after the Korean War armistice, and South Korea has endured limited military attacks, subversion activities, and espionage from the North during that time. However, NSL enforcement has extended beyond justifiable state security concerns to red-baiting persecutions of left-wing activists and suspected supporters of North Korea. NSL prosecutions increased nearly threefold under conservative administrations between 2008 and 2013.
Academics therefore have to tread carefully in accessing officially blocked North Korean state and media websites for their research. They are also at risk of prosecution if they have radical left-wing interests or affiliations. In 2012, a graduate student bookseller was convicted for the sale of books on Marxist and North Korean topics, even though they were all accessible in public libraries. In 2009, a retired economics professor was among nine people convicted with suspended sentences for being members of a small, nonviolent Marxist activist group.
South Korea’s criminal defamation law provides for both prison sentences and fines for statements with proven intent to defame rather than to serve the public interest — even if the statements are true. This law has been weaponized by both progressive and conservative administrations to intimidate critics, including journalists. Progressive South Korean civic groups have also used this law to secure prosecutions of academics they accuse of having “pro-Japanese” historical perspectives, which allegedly insult victims of the Japanese colonial and wartime regime.
The comfort-women controversy — over the Korean, Japanese, and other East and Southeast Asian women recruited (with varying degrees of deception or coercion) into indentured sexual labour and sexual servitude for the wartime Japanese army — is a particular flashpoint issue. In 2018 a Sunchon University professor was dismissed, prosecuted, and imprisoned for six months for insulting former Korean comfort women during a lecture. Sejong University scholar Park Yu-ha was fined in 2017 for false defamation of comfort women in her book Comfort Women of the Empire. Retired Yonsei University scholar Lew Seok-choon is currently on trial after complaints from civic groups that he had insulted comfort women during a class.
This censorial climate has assisted the popularization of what historian Sarah Soh has termed a “postcolonial and ethnic nationalist” orthodoxy on the Korean comfort women’s wartime experiences. Under this orthodoxy, the comfort women symbolize the victimization of the Korean nation under Japanese colonial rule. Its assertions about their wholesale sexual enslavement and oppression have also shaped international discourse about the comfort-women issue.
Cancel Culture in Democratic East Asia and Its Civil Society Remedy
I will conclude by discussing some trends in Japanese and South Korean higher education that parallel the course of “cancel culture” affairs in the United States, involving scholars whose employers are pressured to dismiss them over their heterodox beliefs. Much like in the United States, there has been a prolonged history war in Japan over its national past, waged by conservative politicians, historical revisionist groups, and networks of far-right online activists against historians, teachers, and journalists they accuse of being left wing, pro-Korean, and anti-Japanese. We have seen that the comfort-women issue is a flashpoint for South Korean nationalists. It is also a flashpoint for Japanese nationalists seeking to defend Japan from perceived Korean attacks on its honor and to uphold a “lost cause” justification for Japan’s 1937-1945 war.
One journalist and adjunct lecturer, Uemura Takashi, has been the target of Japanese right-wing hostility since the early 1990s, when he wrote influential news articles about the wartime Korean comfort women. In 2014 he and his family were subjected to a vicious harassment campaign, and his employer, Hokusei Gakuen University, was flooded with threats and complaints demanding his dismissal.
In South Korea’s variant of this trend, my colleague Joseph Yi was recently exposed to adverse national media attention, dubbed a “Jap money professor” by a nationalist YouTuber, and subjected to a campaign for his dismissal from Hanyang University over classroom remarks and published commentary on the comfort-women issue.
Yet in both countries — and in the United States — there are effective civil society remedies to these conflicts. The common lesson here is that peer and civic solidarity can effectively counter cancellation campaigns. From Japan and from abroad, academics have pushed back against Japanese nationalist distortions of history. Uemura’s supporters and academic peers formed a civic group to support him and his university, which finally resolved to renew Uemura’s contract in spite of the rightist campaign against him. Meanwhile, Yi also retains his job, thanks to the support of his university and colleagues.
In such instances, there is vindication for the belief that heterodox scholarship be adjudged in the courts of peer and public opinion — rather than by courts of law, social media mobs, or the arbitrary fiat of dictatorships. And that belief, after all, has equal application in East Asian and North American settings.
Your generosity supports our non-partisan efforts to advance the principles of open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement to improve higher education and academic research.