Bloomberg pulled some of its investigative reporting out of fear that it would be expelled from China if it exposed the lavish lifestyles of the families of senior Chinese officials. Bloomberg reports world financial news; it can't be a credible authority if it can't report from inside China. What a terrible dilemma. I feel sorry for any news organization today. There are only a few news organizations that have enough money even to try to operate multiple foreign bureaus. But China can credibly reason that Bloomberg needs China more than China needs Bloomberg. And no decision of this kind is ever black and white. In not publishing something that its investigative reporters uncovered, it is not withholding from its readers some essential news, some story of a major typhoon or a default on the US debt. Who would ever know the difference if it failed to publish a story that no other news organization even knew about?
I am afraid that American colleges are going to face similar choices. Plenty has been written about Yale in Singapore and NYU in Shanghai, and whether there can really be academic freedom without political freedom. So one set of risks is that the compromises needed to operate a pseudo-liberal arts campus in an authoritarian state will seem unproblematic, and could be imported seamlessly to the American side.
But there is another risk, that teaching controversial subjects will seem to the authorities in American colleges more trouble than it is worth if it seems likely to incite wrath from Chinese educational partners. For example, Harvard offers a freshman seminar on the Tiananmen massacre and its aftermath. I could imagine that this could come up as Harvard engages China in any of the various research and educational collaborations it is establishing with the mainland (which, happily, do not include any liberal arts campus). If the seminar quietly disappeared from the books, who could know why that happened? No one has a right to teach a freshman seminar. I'll bet it would actually have a large audience if it were offered as a General Education course. Would Harvard dare do that? No way to know, since there are plenty of reasons for a course not to be offered, other than reluctance to offend an important business partner. The screening for Gen Ed courses is vigorous, and Rowena He, who teaches the Tiananmen seminar, is not a ladder faculty member.
In recent years I have started to travel regularly to Hong Kong. I happened to fly from the mainland to Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the massacre--there was no notice on the mainland that June 4 was an unusual day, but I joined a rally in Victoria Park with tens of thousands of others remembering what had happened. Here is a photo I took.
The people of Hong Kong are much more acutely aware of the fragility of their liberties than Americans are of theirs. Could you imagine thousands rallying anywhere in the US to protest curricular changes? It happened a year ago in Hong Kong. Heck, in Hong Kong they even protest the paucity of television stations.
I don't know that any educational compromises are happening in American universities in order to facilitate international partnerships. We may be seeing in the skittishness of Wellesley College about its links to China an indication of what is to come. But that case involves a well known individual professor. What we teach--that is in any case subject to so many pressures and compromises and decisions taken for vaguely judgmental reasons of one kind or another, we might never know the difference between deference to authoritarian power and ordinary academic horse trading, unless the faculty remains vigilant and asks hard questions.