National security law adds new risks to higher education in the United States as schools prepare to kickstart the new semester remotely

As universities in the United States prepare to begin a new semester under an unprecedented condition, teaching all classes remotely, some instructors of courses related to China worry that students and themselves could become the target of the national security law in Hong Kong, as China tries to highlight the law’s extraterritorial jurisdiction over the last few weeks. Sheena Greitens, an associate professor at the LBJ School at the University of Texas, shared her views on how academics and higher education institutions in the United States can prepare for the challenges that might come with the national security law.

Question: As almost all classes are expected to remain online in the coming academic semester for higher education institutions in the US, conducting classes online carry an additional layer of risks for students and instructors, which might lead to them being targeted by the national security law imposed on Hong Kong in July. What are some of the top areas of concern for instructors teaching courses related to China in the coming semester?

Sheena Greitens: The central issue that instructors face is how to address concerns about student safety/privacy and maintain free discussion in a context where two major changes have occurred: the switch to remote teaching as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the passage of the national security law, which has some pretty sweeping provisions that could apply both in and outside the People’s Republic of China.

It’s the intersection of the two that has more people worried. Although it’s not entirely clear what content might be deemed subversive enough to warrant actual attention from the authorities, the definition looks to be pretty broad, so it’s clear that most Chinese politics courses would contain at least some content that could meet that definition, as would China-focused classes in sociology, law etc.

Virtual education, where courses could be accessed by non-participants, or recorded somehow and shared, heighten the risk that such content would actually make it to the consideration of authorities inside China who are likely to feel political pressure to do something about it.

Question: Dr. Rory Truex and other academics mentioned some strategies that they plan to adopt to minimize the risk of exposing students to the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the national security law, including blind grading, anonymous class participation and adding a reminder on the syllabus. How do you think academics can ensure their practices will protect students and themselves while avoiding self-censorship?

Sheena Greitens: There are a number of strategies instructors can adopt to mitigate risk and protect students’ freedom of speech, such as those discussed in the Wall Street Journal article and the ChinaFile discussion.

But ultimately, I think we need to be honest that nothing an individual instructor based in the US can do will completely remove the risk itself, because at a fundamental level, the risk is generated by People’s Republic of China’s national security law and an apparently-heightened willingness of Chinese authorities to apply that legal framework in extraterritorial contexts.

Question: One of the surveys that you have conducted shows that academics teaching subjects related to China often have to rely on themselves to deal with the challenges and risks that come with teaching more sensitive topics. What should universities do in order to ensure they have provided the necessary support for their staff?

Sheena Greitens: Our survey found that researchers who encounter repression from China during the course of their research typically deal with these challenges without much involvement or support from their home institutions.

I think universities need to think carefully and comprehensively at this point about the range of China-related activities they engage in — partnerships, research projects, exchanges, fundraising, etc. — so that they have a coordinated and proactive strategy based on fundamental academic principles such as free inquiry and safety for members of the campus community.

They should gather information and coordinate to make sure the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, so to speak, and take advantage of in-house expertise to identify and manage risks. Universities should also discuss elevated or unique risks with faculty whose research and teaching center on China, and be ready to offer some flexibility to address their concerns.

Question: At a time when tension between the US and China continues to rise, how important it is for academics teaching subjects related to China or conducting research about China to be able to keep doing their job without too much hindrance or concerns?

Sheena Greitens: I think it’s imperative for researchers who understand China and Chinese politics to be able to continue their work, especially as Chinese law, domestic politics, and foreign/security policy are changing rapidly and are increasingly important to the United States and to the entire world.

And it’s important that those who teach are able to present as comprehensive and accurate a picture of China as possible, so that citizens and students can understand this major global player and the challenges for national security and global policy that it represents.

This interview was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.