David Zheng

Tucked near the middle of political science professor Daniel Mattingly’s syllabus for a Chinese history class lies a new warning for prospective students living in China: Review the course description “carefully.”

Mattingly’s course touches on topics the Chinese government has long attempted to keep under wraps, including the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the ongoing internment of ethnic Muslims. But due to China’s new national security law aimed at suppressing dissent in Hong Kong, students who tune in to college classes from mainland China and Hong Kong could now risk detention by discussing these and other sensitive issues. Still, three Yale professors with expertise in the country’s history told the News it’s improbable that China would pursue action against University students this fall. 

“If you will be taking the class while residing in mainland China or Hong Kong, or are a PRC citizen, you should review the course syllabus carefully,” Mattingly’s “The Rise of China” syllabus reads. “Please get in touch to discuss.”

The Chinese government introduced the law this summer, attempting to quell what it calls “acts of secession, subversion, infiltration, and destruction against the Chinese mainland” associated with long-standing demonstrations in Hong Kong. It allows mainland officials to threaten as much as life in prison to anyone who they accuse of participating in acts they perceive as hostile — which could include academic discussion.

Vice Provost for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis wrote in an email to the News that it’s “highly unlikely that anything a student says in a Yale classroom (even a virtual one) would become an issue in China.”

University professors and other academics across the United States are now taking steps to protect their students from running afoul of the Chinese government.

History professor Denise Ho, who is teaching a seminar on Hong Kong and China, told the News that she’ll make what she calls a “circle of trust” among her students this fall. Seminar sessions won’t be recorded, she said, and what is said in class or on Canvas will stay there. 

Guidelines from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences website charge instructors with keeping students’ online work confidential this fall. Seminars are, by default, not recorded. The guidelines also state that students shouldn’t share class interactions without permission. 

Ho added that if discussion centers around a particularly sensitive topic, at-risk students can participate outside of class and submit their papers anonymously.

“This is obviously a moving target, so we have to communicate, stay aware and preserve the integrity of our classroom,” Ho wrote in an email.

But even with these measures, the risk remains unclear, Ho and Mattingly told the News. Online communication platforms remain vulnerable to hacks and security flaws. According to a Time report, U.S. officials have already caught Chinese operatives using Zoom to spy on American video chats.

“We are all very concerned to protect the freedom of discussion and academic inquiry for students participating in our classes,” Lewis said.

Instructors at Harvard University and Princeton University are also adopting measures to keep students safe, like code names and anonymous chat rooms.

The Chinese law stands as one of several significant hurdles that Yale and other universities face with offering remote classes in areas where speech is restricted compared to the United States. Normally, given broad freedom to discuss controversial topics in America, students living and learning in other parts of the globe could now see that freedom muzzled as courses move online.

“The [Chinese national security law] is new, but the concern [over academic freedom] isn’t,” said David Rank, a Senior Fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Rank is teaching a graduate-level seminar on China’s rise to global power this fall.

Despite the law, professors Ho and Mattingly say their syllabi remain unchanged.

“Now more than ever, especially in light of current US-China relations, it is important to teach and learn about China,” Ho said. “I’ve devoted my life to better understanding — and helping others better understand — China, past and present. Indeed, Yale has historically been one of the most important places to study Chinese history.”

Ho quoted from Yale’s motto: “light and truth,” adding that “it is imperative that we do not self-censor.” Mattingly told the News that he will not self-censor either, and will not remove sensitive topics from his syllabus.

“Given the potential risks to those in China and elsewhere, I’m encouraging students to examine the syllabus carefully and decide for themselves whether they want to enroll,” he said.

Around 1,700 undergraduates plan on taking classes remotely this fall, according to a YaleNews report.

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu