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Pushing For Academic Freedom In China


We've been spending time in two places at once. We're meeting people with a foot in two countries, the United States and China. In days to come, we'll hear their voices: students, educators, immigrants and executives caught in growing tension between two giant rivals - tension over trade, national security, rival visions of the world. We felt that tension when our reporting team walked into Duke University.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do we have everyone?


Not the Duke campus in Durham, N.C. Duke's satellite campus, Duke Kunshan, in a suburb of Shanghai, is 7,600 miles away.

Wow. When you step in here, you see what an impressive facility this is with buildings arranged around this artificial pond.

We crossed a causeway.

There's even, like, a little marshland over there.

And university spokesman Craig McIntosh led us by a glass-walled building in the center of the pond.

CRAIG MCINTOSH: This is the water pavilion. This is our central feature of the university. It's so serene when you're there. It's lovely to be.

INSKEEP: This new campus, with its American name, is inspired by ancient Chinese water towns, where the streets are rivers or canals. At the far shore of the pond, we entered the cafeteria and met a Chinese student named Maxine (ph).

Why choose an American-affiliated university?

MAXINE: Duke is very famous, and I like basketball. (Laughter) So I...

INSKEEP: You like basketball?


INSKEEP: OK. We also met a student from the U.S., Spencer Reeves (ph) of Connecticut.

SPENCER REEVES: I'm planning to major in global China studies and political science right now.

INSKEEP: Political science, an edgy topic in China, where the Communist government opened up the economy but not political thought.

You're in a country where there is not academic freedom as we would understand it in the United States.


INSKEEP: How do you manage that?

REEVES: Well, the nice thing about being here is that we do have access to an Internet proxy and a VPN provided by Duke.

INSKEEP: These tools escape China's Internet censorship, the Great Firewall. They allow free access to the Duke library back in North Carolina - usually.

REEVES: There have been a few times this year where there have been big events, and our VPN doesn't work for a few days and we can't really explain it. But you can just assume that the Great Firewall has shut the door for a little bit.

INSKEEP: Duke opened this campus in 2014 as a joint venture with a Chinese university. It's still under construction and expanding, even as the U.S. and China seem to pull apart.

DENIS SIMON: Hi, everyone.

INSKEEP: Hi. How are you?

SIMON: Hi. Denis Simon.

INSKEEP: To find how it all works, we walked upstairs. And university Vice Chancellor Denis Simon met us in a conference room. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked grassy lots where more university buildings are planned.

SIMON: By the time this is all done, probably the investment will be greater than a billion U.S. dollars.

INSKEEP: Simon has been in and out of China for 38 years. He became fascinated with the country when growing up in New York.

SIMON: China was going to build a new socialist economy, an egalitarian society. And I was a 17-, 18-year-old young guy, and it just really enthused me that there was an alternative to what was going on in the West.

INSKEEP: China's alternative proved to be state-directed capitalism that often drew on American knowledge. Many Chinese studied in the U.S., and China is now importing American schools. Duke's China campus has grown, even as China has further restricted free expression.

Have you ever seen it as your mission to encourage more democratic thought within China?

SIMON: It depends how you use the word democracy. OK? I've thought it's been my mission to encourage more openness and more awareness of the world.

INSKEEP: Chinese universities live under what are called the seven no-mentions, sensitive topics that are not supposed to come up on campus. But the vice chancellor says to be an accredited American University, Duke Kunshan must have freedom to debate them. Let's name some of them. Universities are not supposed to discuss historical mistakes of the Communist Party in China. You can do that, or not?

SIMON: We can do that.

INSKEEP: Freedom of the press.

SIMON: We can do that.

INSKEEP: Universal values.

SIMON: We can do that. We do that all the time.

INSKEEP: So long as it's done carefully.

SIMON: We've adopted a rule here on campus - no cellphone recording or video recording in classrooms.

INSKEEP: So that students don't have to worry their remarks will appear on the Internet.

Tomorrow, June 4, is the 30th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square massacre. The crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations is taboo in China. The vice chancellor says the massacre might well come up in a classroom discussion, but the university is unlikely to hold a public forum that might provoke the government.

SIMON: We have faculty who are asking us - you know, what if I write an article and the Chinese government doesn't like the article? What's going to happen to me? And I say, well, look. I don't want you to pull any punches. And if you feel you need to write something, then you go ahead and write it. Duke is committed to protecting your rights as a professor here, but don't forget we're not the Chinese government. We don't issue visas. We're not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of State Security or the Ministry of Public Security. So we can protest all day long, but it's not going to make a difference.

INSKEEP: Students at this American university do have to make certain accommodations to their Chinese hosts.

RACHEL DARIUS: My name is Rachel Darius (ph), and I plan on majoring in media and arts as a creative practice.

INSKEEP: Oh, cool.

She's a freshman from New York. She wanted to start a Christian club on campus but was told anything religious is frowned upon. And then...

DARIUS: Recently, there was the incident with the global China and the world class presentations.

INSKEEP: That's a class everybody takes, which includes a project in which groups of students imagine what China will be like in 20 years. Some Chinese students had a very specific future vision of their country taking control of an island off the coast.

DARIUS: They wore, like, Chinese military garb to the presentation. And they had, like, the whole banner that said, the 10th anniversary of Taiwan's return to China. And that was, like, a big deal for the Taiwanese students. They were, like, extremely upset over it.

INSKEEP: Because they don't want to return to China.


INSKEEP: The exchange made Rachel Darius uncomfortable, but she is learning about mainland China. She also learned what some Chinese students think of the United States when a professor raised a question in class.

DARIUS: Basically, the first day he asks - so what is the first thing you think of when you hear America? And then one Chinese student was like, a green card.

INSKEEP: Even in today's tense times, many Chinese do travel to the U.S. to study or work or live. And tomorrow, we meet some. They're Chinese students at a university in the United States who are now commonly suspected of spying.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm scared because of the current political environment. I feel like the Chinese international students are targeted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.