The School of Industrial and Labor Relations suspended its exchange program with China’s Renmin University on Oct. 20 because of Renmin’s growing academic freedom restrictions.
Last summer, students from Renmin University were arrested for protesting in support of workers’ rights, according to Eli Friedman, director of international programs at ILR. Friedman said in an email he posted on Twitter that he believes Renmin University failed to protect its students when they were arrested by the police and also issued punishments to students who protested. Over the years, Friedman has also noticed significant restrictions on academic freedom in Renmin University. After consulting Cornell faculty and administration, Friedman decided to suspend the exchange program.
“Once it became clear that [Renmin] had been taking some actions that were quite obviously counter to the principles that Cornell holds, the question was, what could I do?” Friedman told The Sun. “I decided that doing nothing was not an option.”
Academic freedom, according to Friedman, is slightly different between students and faculty. For students, it means “learning without fear” and being able to have an opinion. For faculty, it means talking about and researching conflicts. Friedman thinks the Chinese Community Party restricts both to the degree that academic freedom in Renmin University no longer exists.
“Now, for labor [research] as well, you’re explicitly being told ‘That is not a valid question. Here are the questions that are valid. Here are the types of conclusions that we determine to be valid.’ And they all have to be sort of in line with the politics that Xi Jinping has been advocating,” Friedman said.
Friedman said that Renmin University isn’t the only Chinese research institution restricting academic freedom and that Cornell isn’t the only foreign institution grappling with this problem. Other universities deal with restrictions in a “quiet diplomacy”, hoping that in the future, Chinese universities will have more academic freedom.
“But that strategy has failed,” Friedman told The Sun.
The exchange program sent eight to 10 students each summer to Beijing to study at Renmin. During the school year, the ILR school typically accepted two to three students from Renmin for a semester.
“While my experience at Renmin was a transformative month of intensive language learning and a renewed appreciation of Chinese history, the current acts of suppression against Renmin’s students cannot go unanswered,” Cameron Dunbar ’21, who participated in the program, told The Sun in an email.
The current Renmin University exchange students at Cornell won’t be affected by the program’s suspension and will be able to continue as Cornell students for their semester, according to Friedman.
The Renmin students at Cornell this semester declined to comment on this story.
Weifeng Yang ’20, a Chinese international student, observed that Cornell’s Chinese international students were largely indifferent or in support of the ILR school’s suspension. According to Yang, his mother sent him a screenshot of a WeChat group chat of around 500 Chinese parents where one criticized a Chinese news article about the suspension. Yang said the parent argued that the article failed to properly support its arguments or explain why the partnership ended. Yang supports the suspension.
“In many ways Cornell students when they go to Renmin University are basically fed propaganda,” he told The Sun. “Academically speaking, this program is also not worth continuing.”
Friedman thinks the suspension will make an impact on other foreign universities’ relationships with China. Since the Financial Times broke the story last Sunday, Friedman has received messages from “a flood” of academics across the world, with one from a U.S. university, telling him that their university is reviewing its relationship with China as a result of the suspension.
“I was a little surprised, I thought that I would announce this and I thought maybe there would be one small article buried in a newspaper somewhere and that would be that, but it has clearly struck something of a nerve,” Friedman said. “Whether it leads to the desired result … remains to be seen.
Two prominent newspapers in China, Global Times and People’s Daily, wrote articles about the program suspension. Global Times wrote that the decision was “part of unreasonable changes in U.S. engagement with China.” The Cornell Alumni Association in China also released a statement yesterday, which Yang believes played down the significance of the suspension.
Friedman first contacted Renmin University about these concerns on August 30 and formally suspended the program October 20. Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the Global Times, incorrectly tweeted that Renmin had only received news of the suspension through the Financial Times story. Friedman responded with a screenshot of his email to Renmin. Renmin officials did not respond to requests for comment by any news sources outside of China, including the Financial Times and the New York Times.
Cornell is not completely cutting off ties with China. The Cornell China Center, which aims to foster a collaboration between Cornell and China through research and education, is continuing its development in China. But the Cornell faculty was concerned even before the ILR school announced its suspension. The East Asia Program held a meeting among faculty a couple weeks ago about this issue, according to Friedman. For now, the program has decided to remain in cooperation with other Chinese universities.
“The Cornell China Center is devoted to supporting the commitment that the university has, for a long and rich history, to continue and further develop meaningful collaboration with Chinese partners, of which Chinese universities are an important part,” Ying Hua, director of Cornell China Center, told The Sun in an email.
The current suspension is not permanent. If Renmin University changes and begins to support academic freedom, Friedman is willing to reconsider the suspension. Renmin University’s restrictions on academic freedom is not the university’s fault, but rather the fault of the Chinese Communist Party, Friedman said. These restrictions occur in all Chinese research institutions.
“Cornell has really put itself in a position to lead on this question of academic freedom in thinking about how to maintain our commitment to academic freedom and those sorts of principles as we engage in China,” Friedman said.