China censors viral clips of a rare university protest after the academy downgrades ‘freedom of thought’

China has censored online all mentions and video clips of a rare protest at a university after the institution dropped the phrase, “freedom of thought,” from its charter. The new charter for Fudan University in Shanghai – one of China’s most prestigious – now includes a pledge to “serving the governance of the Communist Party” and pushes “academic independence” below “patriotism,” leading to uproar among students and faculty.  The changes came to light Tuesday when the country’s education ministry said it had approved similar alterations for three universities.  Within hours, the Fudan charter amendments were trending online, with at least one hashtag generating at least a million views. Clips also circulated online showing students staging a flash mob protest on campus, singing the school’s anthem, which includes the phrase “freedom of thought”.  Fudan professors also took online to express their alarm. Qu Weiguo, a professor of foreign languages, posted that he was “very shocked” to learn about the changes, which he said were made without consulting faculty.  But shortly after, such mentions and posts online were all deleted by China’s active government censors, which routinely block news and information, and scrub the internet clean of any dissenting comments.  Video that circulated this week showed students at Shanghai’s Fudan University gathering to sing the school song Credit: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images Since Xi Jinping, leader of the Chinese Communist Party, came to power in 2012, China has engaged in a widespread crackdown online and in civil society in a campaign that has sent a chill across the country.  Mr Xi has called for allegiance to the Party from the country’s universities, with some institutions even setting up departments to root out ideological “weakness.”  All this has led to tightening of academic freedoms – professors failing to toe the party line have been suspended from their posts. Informants are also believed to be keeping an eye on them – foreign and Chinese alike. Late Wednesday, the university posted a statement online saying the charter changes were made “in strict accordance with legal procedures.” Beijing has kept tight control over universities every since student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – ending in bloodshed after the government ordered the military to suppress the uprising.  Universities – and schools – have never had robus academic independence, with curriculums and textbooks all vetted by the government. Certain topics deemed sensitive by the party are left out, or presented in a fashion palatable to the government. But many experts have criticised the tightening under Xi as heralding a new era of squashing dissent.  China is also on heightened watch over universities given fears that widespread protests in Hong Kong largely led by students – now entering a seventh continuous month – could spill over into the mainland. Indeed, Fudan’s new charter says the university would “weaponise the minds of teachers and students using Xi Jinping’s socialism ideology with Chinese characteristics in the new era.”  The university has since posted a statement online saying the changes were made “in strict accordance with legal procedures.”

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