New York University’s degree-granting Shanghai campus quietly added a Chinese “civic education” course last year at the behest of the Chinese government, which included a visit to a monument commemorating a close advisor of Mao Zedong and screenings of video lessons like “Promoting the Prosperity and Development of Socialist Culture with Chinese Characteristics,” according to multiple students and a copy of the course's syllabus.
The course was not listed on the university's class registration system; several students told Motherboard that they were informed of the course's existence by the university via WeChat, China's most popular chat app.
A spokesperson for NYU Shanghai told Motherboard the course is “a Chinese government requirement of Chinese citizens attending college,” and that noncitizens do not have to take the class. “The course is not taught by NYU Shanghai faculty,” the spokesperson said. However, a copy of the course’s syllabus obtained by Motherboard states that NYU Shanghai’s chancellor Yu Lizhong was a speaker at one of the classes.
As the Communist party pushes for greater control over foreign university partnerships, some American institutions are reevaluating their relationships with the authoritarian economic powerhouse. Last month, Wesleyan University announced it would not go forward with discussions about opening a campus south of Shanghai, citing in part “questions we had around issues of academic freedom.” This also comes amid horrifying reporting about Chinese human rights abuses of the Muslim Uighur people and crackdowns against pro-democratic protesters in Hong Kong.
Last year, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced it would end one-fifth of the country’s partnerships with foreign universities. But in May, NYU Shanghai unveiled a massive expansion that will more than triple the size of its student body from 1,300 to 4,000.
NYU Shanghai’s “civic education” course was first offered over winter break of the 2018-2019 school year, according to a student who attended the class and several students with knowledge of the class.
According to a course syllabus provided to Motherboard by Benjamin Haller, an alum who edited the independent NYU Shanghai student publication On Century Avenue at the time, the civic education class involved field trips to Longhua Memorial Cemetary and the Shanghai War Memorial, both of which commemorate communist martyrs. While the syllabus does not describe the content of each lecture, it includes the names of two videos that were shown: “Leading the New Normal of Economic Development” and “Promoting the Prosperity and Development of Socialist Culture with Chinese Characteristics.”
The syllabus also shows that classes were taught by professors from Shanghai universities unaffiliated with NYU, as well as Chancellor Yu himself. Students received grades based on attendance, online discussion posts, and a 3,000-word research paper, it says.
Rather than adding the class to "Albert," the online system that's used by students at all NYU sites to register for classes, Chancellor Yu Lizhong took the unconventional step of informing students usingWeChat, according to two students.
“This was very secretive,” said Haller.
Students said the course was taught in Mandarin and targeted exclusively at students from the graduating class of 2022 and beyond who are Chinese citizens. Half of the school’s population is from China, according to NYU.
“The course you're referring to is a Chinese government requirement of Chinese citizens attending college,” an NYU Shanghai spokesperson told Motherboard. “It is not required of non-Chinese citizens and not required for the NYU degree that NYU Shanghai awards. The course is not taught by NYU Shanghai faculty, nor is it given during the regular semester. Because the course is not part of the NYU curriculum, it is not part of the course registration system.”
In a 2011 press release announcing the creation of NYU Shanghai, NYU administrators promised that classes would be conducted “in accordance with the principles of academic freedom associated with American colleges and universities.” The university—a partnership between NYU and East China Normal University—was the first ever joint Sino-American university, a model that has since been replicated by other American universities including Duke.
Multiple alumni who graduated prior to the 2018-2019 school year told Motherboard they had not heard of any “civic education” classes being offered. “In my entire time at NYU Shanghai, I never actually faced any limitations on free speech or journalism,” said Allison Chesky, who graduated in 2018 and edited On Century Avenue, the student publication, during her senior year.
However, Chesky and Haller said that On Century Avenue's website was blocked by the Chinese government for a period of time around early 2016, meaning student journalists had to use a VPN provided by NYU to access their own publication.
Rebecca Karl, a professor at NYU’s New York campus who has written books about Mao Zedong and Chinese feminism, has criticized the university’s expansions in both Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, citing concerns about academic freedom in both countries.
“I have always suspected—because I’ve never gotten an actual real answer from anybody from Shanghai—that Chinese students have had to take the political class that is required of all Chinese students that go to university in China,” Karl said. “NYU has probably agreed to certain protocols that we don’t know because they won’t disclose them. My suspicion is that they won’t disclose them because they would raise a ruckus.”
As part of a story published last month about attitudes among NYU Shanghai students and faculty toward the Hong Kong protests, the New York Post reported, “Chinese students who attend the school are also required by the government to take classes like ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ and ‘Introduction to the Communist Party of China’ during winter break off campus.” While students told Motherboard that a winter course intended for Chinese students was indeed held, they said that the course was not strictly mandatory, that it was held on campus, and that it incorporated Chinese government ideas but was not named either of the titles reported by the Post.
Haller, who is not from China, called the unlisted course “propaganda being shoved down the throat of college students.” But he considers NYU Shanghai, overall, to be a net good. “It’s certainly the most free and open university campus in China, without a doubt,” he said, citing open in-class conversations about politics he believes wouldn’t happen at other Chinese universities.