Long the vanguard of liberal change, the American university now leads the appeasement of a hardened authoritarian China. The interest in promoting a broader community of scholars has given way to a toxic combination of business interests, the inability of college leaders to recognize their failure in influencing Chinese education, and their unwillingness to see the reality of a new China.
Both China and the United States need universities to engage in solutions based upon the values of universities rather than catering to authoritarianism.
American universities and professors jealously guard their independence, seeing themselves as defenders of liberal values and social change. A tenure system built upon the defense of free speech and controversy promotes the exploration of radical ideas and critical thinking skills seen as vital for everything from an informed electorate to higher-order job skills.
Historically, the academy writ large has been at the forefront of human rights and social change. Universities provide a fertile environment to push for social change, from racial integration to campaigns for human rights. With a reasonable record of pushing change, universities like to consider themselves defenders of liberal values.
Early after the opening of China, American universities worked to build bridges between a Cold War-focused country and a reforming communist stalwart. Major elite universities trained early reformers that helped China join the World Trade Organization—yet, now, they have educated the daughter of authoritarian Party chairman Xi Jinping. Universities began with the noblest of intentions but, as China changed, evolved into institutions that defend educating the children of elite rulers who direct concentration camps.
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