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China: CCP takes charge

EducationWorld March 2024 | International News Magazine

China’s move to take more direct control of university governance is likely to presage a further crackdown on academic freedom, experts warn. University presidents have long complained of a lack of autonomy stemming from the influence of government-appointed party secretaries on campuses, but these parallel governance structures are now being merged in institutions across the country.

Tsinghua University issued a notice in February announcing the merger of its party committee and the office of the president to form a new Party Committee Office that will run the country’s top-ranked institution, Radio Free Asia reported. And a review of campus websites by the US-funded station indicates that similar changes are under way in at least eight other major institutions.

This signifies a profound shift in power dynamics, placing greater emphasis on the authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in higher education, according to Ye Liu, a reader in international development at King’s College London. “While not entirely unexpected, this development underscores the enduring influence of the CCP administration over academic affairs,” she says.

Dr. Liu says that while party committees have long exercised control over university operations by promoting ideological reforms, academics had been able to retain a degree of freedom in their teaching and research provided that they declared their loyalty to the CCP. The merger of the parallel systems could presage a “heightened crackdown on academic freedom,” says Dr. Liu.

Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King’s, views the mergers as underlining that the CCP regards universities as key areas for indoctrination and for managing potential ideological threats, although, he explains, it had always been known that real power on campuses lay in the hands of party officials. “The changes that have been implemented, therefore, while making this role far clearer, don’t probably mean any radical change from the way things have been before. They just make it more explicit. They underline just how deep the party now reaches into society, and how commanding its role is,” says Brown.

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