NYU Shanghai Criticized for Unlisted, Pro-Government Course

A course not available on Albert included pro-Chinese government propaganda.


Recently, NYU added a pro-government course for students at the Shanghai campus. (Photo by Casey Kwon)

Mina Mohammadi, Deputy News Editor

NYU Shanghai offered a course involving various pro-China media and trips to monuments that commemorate communist martyrs last year at the request of the Chinese government, as reported by VICE.

The course was first offered over winter break of the 2018-2019 academic year but was not listed on Albert. Instead, students were informed of the course through WeChat, the most widespread messaging app in China.

When NYU Shanghai first opened in 2012, the university and the government agreed that students — both Chinese and international — would be able to satisfy all the requirements of the Chinese diploma through courses that count toward their NYU diploma. However, after the Shanghai government conducted an accreditation review in the summer of 2018, the government notified NYU Shanghai that in order for Chinese citizen students to qualify for the Chinese diploma, they would have to take a version of the civics course offered at all other Chinese citizen colleges. Non-Chinese citizen students would continue to qualify for the Chinese diploma without it. 

The syllabus, acquired by VICE,  shows that along with NYU Shanghai’s Chancellor Yu Lizhong, professors from Shanghai universities unaffiliated with NYU were also teaching the course at NYU Shanghai. 

Against the backdrop of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims, the crackdowns against protestors in Hong Kong and the overall Communist Party push for greater control over foreign universities within the country, the course has sparked controversy among students about human rights, censorship and what NYU Shanghai’s place should be in the discussion. 

NYU Shanghai students that spoke to WSN have had mixed responses to the government-mandated course. NYU Shanghai sophomore Rugby Scruggs was generally apathetic.

“I don’t really have a problem with it.” Scruggs said. “These are not hidden by the university — these are just things that the Chinese government expects their citizens to complete.”

In contrast, NYU Shanghai junior Oli Chen was concerned by the course. 

“I am not surprised of the course’s existence at all,” Chen said. “The government wants to ensure its students’ top priority is to China.”

Chen did note, however, that the situation is not unique to China.

“While I might not agree with the nature of the course I would be remiss to not acknowledge that this is not just a Chinese phenomenon,” Chen said. “Many countries have requirements for their citizens. The United States has the Pledge of Allegiance.”

NYU Shanghai spokesperson June Shih said media coverage of the course, which has largely been negative, has been unfair.

“There are a number of misleading characterizations,” Shih said in a statement to WSN. “This is a national requirement for young Chinese citizens not to receive an NYU degree but to receive a Chinese Ministry of Education diploma and certificate. The two Chinese requirements — military service and a civics course, do not have a bearing on the awarding of an NYU degree.”

Both Scruggs and Chen expressed that NYU Shanghai has not encroached on academic freedom overall, and that NYU Shanghai has given students access to VPNs and WiFi that is pre-routed to other places like Hong Kong and Taiwan. 

“NYU Shanghai has made efforts on the discussions of censorship and human rights,” Scruggs said. “All students are required to take a course called Global Perspectives on Society. In my Friday recitation group 10 students, half-international and half-Chinese, watched a video on the internment camps of the Uighur Muslims. There was also a student panel on Hong Kong hosted by NYU Shanghai.”

NYU Shanghai first-year Maya Doulat said that this course is bringing up important questions about NYU’s operations in China.

“This type of situation necessitates differentiating between the right of academic freedom and the practical capacity to do it,” Doulat wrote in an Instagram direct message to WSN. “I think what’s most crucial to understand would be the discussion of how NYU’s permission to operate in China violates the rights of professors and students from the point of view of American and international law.” 

NYU Shanghai senior Kat Van Sligtenhorst questioned how the university decides who is exempted from what requirements. As an international student, Sligtenhorst will not need to take this course but still is qualified for the Chinese diploma.

“NYU Shanghai exempts us [international students] from a lot of things, including this course,” Sligtenhrost said. “We have access to VPN, internet and free speech but the legislation around the partnership between China and NYU Shanghai remains classified. I would like to know how these agreements are made. Currently, there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to policy and we are currently pushing for the creation of more clearly defined protocol.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, November 25, 2019, print edition. Email Mina Mohammadi at [email protected].