Instruction Under Surveillance

One minute the class looked like any online session, neat boxes framing the faces of students and their professor.The next, some of those faces disappeared, replaced by avatars, pseudonyms, and shots of the ceiling. The reason: Discussion in the course on Chinese society had turned to politics, and students in the class from China had pulled out of the conversation, afraid that their government could be listening in.The incident was reported last spring at Emory University, part of a survey of Chinese students and instructors at the private college about their experience with the shift from in-person classes to online.On top of routine headaches like spotty Wi-Fi and the adjustment to asynchronous learning, students in countries such as China must worry about censorship and running afoul of local security laws. As remote learning stretches into fall and beyond, they may find themselves pursuing an American education without the benefit of academic freedom and open discourse. Meanwhile, their large presence may undermine those very principles at American colleges. Faculty members face tough choices teaching in newly global virtual classrooms: Do they change their courses to eliminate potentially contentious topics, or create two sets of materials, one for students in the United States, another for those abroad? Or do they stick with their original lesson plans, potentially putting their students at risk? Do they say to students, Sorry, this class is off limits if you’re studying from China?These challenges are not limited to courses in directly related disciplines, like modern Chinese history. Subjects like gender, LGBTQ rights, international relations, and economic theory also can trigger sensitivities.Sarah McLaughlin, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said professors risk importing more-restrictive attitudes toward campus speech from abroad into American classrooms. “A professor in Minnesota shouldn’t remove material because it might offend students in a few countries,” she said. “The worst thing we could do is to make Chinese laws applicable around the world.”

The worst thing we could do is to make Chinese laws applicable around the world.

Concerns about security and privacy aren’t unique to China. Countries including Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia also have stringent censorship laws and monitor the internet.But China looms large because of the size of the Chinese-student population in the United States. In the 2018-19 academic year, 370,000 Chinese students were enrolled in American colleges, one of every three international students. While most of those students stayed in the United States as the coronavirus pandemic spread — the Institute of International Education reports as many as 90 percent of current international students chose not, or were unable, to return home — many did not. And with consulates shuttered and borders closed, almost all new students must study remotely.The Chinese government has long limited speech in its own university classrooms and online, with students and instructors reporting on one another for expressing taboo opinions. Perry Link, a China scholar and a professor of comparative literature at the University of California at Riverside, once famously compared the fear of saying something forbidden to an anaconda in a chandelier, a threatening presence keeping the Chinese people in line.Under President Xi Jinping, those restrictions have markedly tightened. In June, China’s National People’s Congress passed a new national-security law for Hong Kong that makes speech it deems critical of the Hong Kong or Chinese governments unlawful — regardless of the citizenship or location of the offender. Exactly what speech is problematic isn’t defined, leading to fears the law could be broadly interpreted.The extensiveness and the ambiguity of the new law could chill speech in American classrooms, said James A. Millward, a professor of Chinese and central Asian history at Georgetown University. “Now we all have to worry about the anaconda even when we’re dialing in from somewhere else,” he said.The rise of online teaching during the pandemic compounds the problem. Not only are students in China at potentially greater legal jeopardy, but videoconferencing applications like Zoom used in remote instruction are vulnerable to Chinese government surveillance and data collection. Zoom came under fire in the spring for temporarily shutting down user accounts outside of China at the Chinese government’s behest, but the company said it has changed its policy and increased data protections.Alarmed, Millward and a group of scholars of Asian studies drafted a statement and a set of recommendations for teaching remotely about China and students studying there. In it, they warn about the risks of requiring students to download readings that may be prohibited locally and of recording class discussions in which students are easily identifiable. “Such files can be duplicated and could potentially pose a risk to class participants years after the class has finished,” they write.Students are already aware of the hazards. In the Emory survey, one student reported being nervous when a professor played a song during class that is banned in mainland China, said Hong Li, a professor and the former director of the Emory College Language Centerand one of three researchers who conducted the study. The student was afraid a neighbor might report her to authorities for listening to forbidden music.Another student chose not to return to China when the Emory campus closed. Her family lives on a military compound, she told the researchers, making it impossible to discuss sensitive topics when studying there.One solution could be to use a virtual private network, or VPN, which allows users to navigate around internet firewalls to obtain blocked content. Websites frequently used in classroom settings, such as Google, YouTube, and The New York Times, are banned in China.Academics traveling to China have long made use of VPNs, but unauthorized internet connections are now illegal in China as well as in Russia, said Aynne Kokas, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.

We shouldn’t be urging students to commit a crime.

While the ban is not regularly enforced, students caught using a VPN could have the infraction on their records for life, and it could have repercussions for their families. “We shouldn’t be urging students to commit a crime,” Kokas said.Instead, professors could use homegrown Chinese platforms in their courses or opt for Western ones that are accessible in China. College IT departments can also provide technical assistance to professors, such as helping them find online platforms that work overseas or that have greater security measures. Because colleges are such significant users of videoconferencing platforms, they also could band together to push providers to increase security protections, Kokas said.Alibaba, a Chinese online provider, has been marketing its services to Western universities, saying that it can get around strict internet controls. While the partnership had raised fears of Chinese interference, British officials who were part of a pilot project said that students in China were able to access the same course content as their classmates in Britain.But the answers aren’t always technological. Professors could offer individual or small-group tutorials to students in China and similar countries to limit their exposure. They could allow students to opt out of controversial discussions without penalty to their grades or to take part in classes anonymously.While it should be up to individual faculty members to decide how to navigate these sensitive issues in their own courses, college administrators can provide important support. For example, they can set a strong campuswide policy against students recording class sessions, said Kerry Ratigan, an assistant professor of political science at Amherst College. “That has more teeth.”Some faculty members have suggested that students wait until they are back on campus to enroll in certain courses. But Yingyi Ma, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University and the author of Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese Undergraduates Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education, said that while instructors are well-meaning, they could have the effect of limiting academic options for Chinese students alone. “I worry that this potentially undermines Chinese students’ learning opportunities,” she said.Meg Rithmire, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, collaborated with several other China scholars, including Ratigan, to draft a set of strategies for instructors and institutions. In her own course syllabus, she is upfront with students about the content of the course, the expectations for discussion, and the potential risks associated with the security law. Some students will steer clear, while others still sign up.“The responsibility of the instructor is to communicate risk and to, as much as possible, provide a safe environment,” Rithmire said. “It’s not to not teach certain things.”Gwendolynne Reid teaches first-year writing courses to international and multilingual students at Emory’s Oxford College; about two-thirds of her students this fall are Chinese. When Reid realized that many of her students would be studying online from China, she thought long and hard about her approach.She decided to allow students to take the lead. During the initial class sessions, they talked about the challenges of open discussion and together developed a set of ground rules so that students can indicate when they are uncomfortable with a certain topic. Likewise, she decided to allow students to choose their own topics for papers and to make their own assessment of risk. She didn’t want to be “complicit in government censorship of my students,” she said.“These are their choices,” she said. After all, her students have a more sophisticated understanding than she can of the social and political limits they’re up against.

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