Transnational repression undermines academic freedom in Western universities

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Luo Daiqing, a 20-year old Chinese student at the University of Minnesota, shared posts on his Twitter account while he was studying in the US. These tweets were later considered by a Chinese court as “denigrating a national leader's image and [containing] indecent pictures," which "created a negative social impact." The court sentenced Daiqing to six months in prison after he arrived in China. That tragic case confirmed two very serious issues. The first is the global reach of authoritarian regimes and the ways in which the impacts of their draconian laws go beyond borders to control students who are expressing their thoughts from 7,000 miles away. The second issue relates to the fact that Twitter is banned in China, meaning that those who reported Daiqing’s tweets to the government are part of a larger effort to monitor and surveil their citizens abroad, making the Chinese government the world’s leading perpetrator of attacks on dissidents abroad.

Around the world, authoritarian regimes are censoring knowledge production in academic institutions. Students, scholars, and academic institutions are among the primary targets of this kind of repression. In 2021 alone, Scholars at Risk (SAR) - an international network that seeks to protect scholars and promote academic freedom- documented 332 attacks on higher education communities (Scholars, students, and staff) in 65 countries. Among those attacks, there were 110 cases of forced disappearance, violence, and killing, 101 cases of imprisonment, and the rest were cases involving prosecution, travel bans, and other forms of restriction on free expression and wellbeing.

While international students and scholars abroad are constantly thinking about how they can transfer the knowledge and experience they receive from western universities back to their home countries, autocracies tend to see their students and scholars abroad as “the most dangerous group of emigrants”, as once described by Egypt’s immigration minister Nabila Makram. The same regimes that have intensified their repression against students and scholars at home have also sought to “transnationalize” everyday forms of censorship, control, and repression to students and faculty abroad. 

“Transnational repression” is the term used by several reports and scholars to describe how autocracies are using a wide range of tactics to harass, spy, threaten, and intimidate their citizens abroad in order to silence their criticism. By imprisoning our colleague Luo Daiqing, the Chinese government sends a message of terror and intimidation to all its citizens abroad, including students and scholars that their presence outside the Chinese borders does not mean that the long arm of repression could not reach them. Other autocracies have followed suit; since 2014 Freedom House has documented 608 cases of transnational repression. For example, Ahmed Samir, an Egyptian graduate student at the Central European University (CEU), was arrested during his vacation in Egypt and sentenced to four years in prison. This was based on a Facebook post he wrote while he was studying at CEU in Vienna, in which he denounced the Egyptian regime’s Covid-19 policies.

Another common tactic of authoritarian regimes to silence their students and scholars abroad is the use of intimidation, threats, and arrests of their family members. In the case of Zhihao Kong, a Chinese student at Purdue University in Indiana, his family called him and asked him to stop sharing anything that contained anti-Chinese regime rhetoric on social media after a visit by a state security officer threatening them. The Egyptian regime behaved in a similar fashion with Taqadum Al-Khatib, a post-doc scholar at the Free University of Berlin. The Egyptian police raided Al-Khatib’s family home in Egypt, confiscated many of their belongings, and threatened his family members after interrogating them with several questions about Al-Khatib. 

Another tool of transnational repression can be seen in these states’ expansive capacity to implement surveillance. An example of this is forcing students to report to their embassies in western countries. Many cases were documented where students from China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have had to report to their embassies about their academic activities and their colleagues. Recruiting spies and planting them in the academic community is another method. A graduate student at the University of Georgia was subjected to recruitment attempts by a Chinese intelligence officer. When the student refused to spy, his family was intimidated. 

State-funded scholarships, as well as scholarships from private institutions aligned with autocratic regimes, are another indirect tool to influence students and scholars abroad. Students receiving such scholarships are forced to avoid criticizing their home countries in their master’s or Ph.D. thesis or even in their classes to avoid suspension of their scholarship. Authoritarian regimes sometimes go even further,  asking their students abroad to promote a certain image of the country in their thesis. The Freedom House report monitored such a trend in relation to the Turkish and Kazakhstani regimes. 

International students and scholars are not only suffering from the transnational repression of their regimes, but also from the rise of racism in western communities which poses a threat no less dangerous than authoritarian repression. In 2018, under President Trump’s administration, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) launched the  “China initiative” program to counter the Chinese government’s economic espionage through theft of American secrets and technology. The program turned out to be a perpetuation of the “racial profiling of scholars of Chinese and Asian descent in the US and risks undermining academic freedom” according to an open letter by a group of 177 Stanford University faculty members to the US Attorney General, Merrick Garland. They also found that most of the allegedly reported crimes prosecuted under the China Initiative have “nothing to do with scientific espionage or intellectual property theft”. In February 2022, the DoJ declared it would end the program, as Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen has concluded that “this initiative is not the right approach", which raises the question of whether ending the initiative means an end to racial profiling. 

In its report “They don’t understand the fear we have“, Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigated how the Chinese government’s transnational repression undermined academic freedom in Australian universities. As can be gleaned from its title, the report referred to the gap between the rise of Chinese global repression targeting Chinese students, and the Australian universities administrations’ lack of understanding of the complicated and brutal nature of the transnational repression the students experienced. Many universities have thus far failed to take the needed measures to protect their international students and scholars. We can argue that this failure is endemic to most western universities, but the responsibility goes beyond those administrations to their governments which evidently have a lot to do to counter transnational repression and protect the academic freedom of all students. Countering transnational repression calls for cooperation between governments, universities, NGOs, and student associations, and it should be a top priority of any university administration.

International students and scholars may find themselves between the hammer of their own government's transnational repression and the anvil of racism against foreign students and scholars. These failures have led to a deepened sense of isolation and alienation on the part of this targeted community, forcing them to adopt many self-censorship measures to protect themselves and their families in the homeland. This has undermined academic freedom in western universities as students will be afraid to engage, write, and publish their opinions. The situation has inevitably led to financial precarity for these students and scholars, posing a threat to their career trajectory, and their mental health. These topics will be elaborated further in our next article. 

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