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How Distance Learning Could Put Chinese Students at US Universities at Risk

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This is a guest post by Aynne Kokas and Michael Xiao. Kokas is a Kluge Fellow, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, as well as Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Kokas is the author of the book “Hollywood Made in China,” which examines the cultural, political and economic implications of US media investment in China as it becomes the world’s largest film market. Xiao is a Kluge Center intern and student at Georgetown University.

As school begins again, predominantly in online classrooms, many students who would otherwise be attending US institutions are stuck outside of the United States. Trump administration travel bans, reductions in flights, and the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 mean that US universities are delivering education from the US to students located in other countries. Chinese students, the largest group of international students in the United States, totaled nearly 400,000 in the 2018-2019 academic year. This new prevalence of online education conducted by US universities for students in China presents a serious risk to the academic freedom of those students.

While some Chinese students have remained in the United States, a large number will be taking courses remotely from their homes in China. There, the students, their professors, and the universities that provide the course management software and proxy servers that they will use are all subject to Chinese laws. Zoom, a platform that has taken the lead in providing online classroom videoconferencing software, has made clear that when it operates in China, the platform is subject to local laws. Zoom conferencing started as a convenient solution to an international pandemic, but has become the bleeding edge of China’s efforts to influence global communication.

That people accessing the Internet in China are subject to the country’s Great Firewall is popularly understood. (The Great Firewall refers to the measures put in place by China’s government to block access to certain websites and otherwise regulate the internet’s domestic availability.) Less clear to students, educators, and universities are what happens when data move between China and other countries.

When students access their courses from China, their universities could potentially be asking them to violate multiple laws simultaneously. First, many universities store content for students behind proxy servers. Proxy servers protect intellectual property owned or licensed by universities. However, according to Chinese law, these proxy servers must be authorized by China’s Cyberspace Administration.

Likewise, university classes that teach students about sensitive topics in China are also illegal. The Provisions on the Governance of Network Information Content Ecology is an expansive regulation passed in December 2019 that labels anything from sponsorship of terrorism to “insults or slanders” as “prohibited information.” Creating, reproducing, or disseminating such information is subject to civil and criminal liabilities. The terms of the law make unclear how the government will mete out punishment, which carries an additional chilling effect.

Similarly worrisome is China’s draft data security law, released on July 3, 2020, which subjects both local and domestic actors to potential punitive action for data activities that damage the national interest. The law allows Beijing access to all data in the country—including private data from foreign organizations. Put into practice, any data being sent to or from China will be accessible by the Chinese government. This leaves Chinese students taking classes at American universities vulnerable to criminal or civil liability for engaging in online learning.

There hasn’t been an epidemic of student arrests in China, but that can change quickly. Hong Kong’s July 1 national security law, for example, was passed on June 30 without citizens being able to read the text of the law. When it took effect the next day, arrests began.

American educational institutions moving their classes online need to be aware of the risks presented to students studying abroad while taking US university courses. Due to COVID-19, there has been a massive, unprecedented movement of the US educational system into countries hostile to its mission of academic freedom.

China has taken recent steps to exert power beyond its borders. The recent Hong Kong national security law—which is even applicable to crimes committed outside of China’s borders—and Zoom’s June 4th shutdown of calls by long-time critics of Beijing are just a few examples of China’s increasingly aggressive maneuvers to shape discourse around the world. Consequently, it is now essential to consider how to combat such measures, which means examining the consequences of online learning for students living in China but studying at American educational institutions.

Will universities put students learning in China at risk? Will they limit educational opportunities in order to protect the institution, faculty, and students from legal liability due to Chinese laws? In an environment where US faculty members are under increased scrutiny for transferring intellectual property to China, will US faculty members be accused of illegal activity by their own government if teaching about sensitive technologies? Will institutions urge faculty to limit the topics they discuss in order to accommodate a new, globalized educational landscape?

There are no easy answers to these questions. However, even as universities adjust to the unprecedented reality of the pandemic, they must also acknowledge their role in managing the global information ecosystem.

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