Rare debate and protest after authorities drop ‘freedom of thought’ from Chinese university charter

The replacement of “freedom of thought” with a pledge to follow the Communist Party’s leadership in the charter of Fudan University stirs rare debate and protest. Image: Reuters/Aly Song

DHARAMSALA, 19 Dec: The replacement of “freedom of thought” with a pledge to follow the Communist Party’s leadership in the charter of one of China’s top universities by the Chinese authorities has prompted a heated debate online and a rare act of student defiance in the campus, according to various media reports.

The changes made to the charter of Fudan University in Shanghai, considered one of China’s more liberal institutions, came to light on Tuesday when the education ministry said it had approved alterations for three universities, the Reuters reported.

The new charter reportedly declared that the university would “weaponise the minds of teachers and students using Xi Jinping’s socialism ideology with characteristics of China in the new era”.

Hours later, it became the subject of a heated debate among the Chinese netizens online on China’s Twitter-like Weibo social media platform with one hashtag viewed more than a million times, the report added.

“If I may dare to ask those who initiated the amendment of the Fudan University charter, how do you expect our generation of Fudan people to face our ancestors,” read the post of a Weibo user in the report.

The report noted that such post and many similar ones questioning the change were deleted by Wednesday afternoon with the discussion on the issue continuing in private WeChat groups, the report added.

A day later, a rare protest took place at the cafeteria of the university over the changes.

A video circulating on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon showed a group of Fudan University students singing their college anthem, which also includes the phrase “freedom of thought”, during their lunch break.

Student protests have been rare in China since the crackdown of a student pro-democracy campaign in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.

Like the official school charter, Fudan University’s anthem was also said to be changed to a new one celebrating Communist jargon. The school charter as well as the anthem, both predates the Communist Party of China.

Fudan University, ranked 109th globally in the Times Higher Education’s 2020 world university rankings boasts on its official website that it has the largest international student population among the Chinese universities.

however, the report noted that universities in China have long operated without full academic independence. Curricula are bound by Communist Party diktats and political norms that render certain topics or positions off-limits.

The 114-year-old university has maintained that the charter alterations had been made “in strict accordance with legal procedures”.

Meanwhile, two other universities have also made changes to their charters. Shaanxi Normal University and Nanjing University have approved the changes on 2  Dec. according to documents published by the Ministry of Education.

“Their revised charters similarly included references to strengthening the leadership of the Communist Party at the universities,” the report added.

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