China students protest as university charter cuts 'freedom of thought'

A banner on the campus of Fudan University in Shanghai, calling for institutions to adhere to the political philosophy of Chinese President Xi Jinping. PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (AFP) - One of China's top universities has removed references to "freedom of thought" from its official charter, triggering a rare act of student defiance, while two other institutions have moved to strengthen their allegiance to President Xi Jinping.

A video that circulated this week showed students at Shanghai's Fudan University gathering to sing the school song - which extols "academic independence and freedom of thought" - in an apparent protest against the move.

Fudan's charter change was announced by the Ministry of Education on its website late on Tuesday (Dec 17) and quickly became a hot topic on social media, with posts questioning the move before China's ever-vigilant online censors acted to delete posts and block discussion.

As well as removing the "freedom of thought" reference, the new version inserts "arming the minds of teachers and students with Xi Jinping's new era of socialist ideology with Chinese characteristics".

It also obliges the school's faculty and teachers to adhere to "core socialist values" and for the institution to build a campus environment that is "harmonious" - a word typically used as code for the elimination of any anti-government sentiment.

The ministry announced similar changes to the charters of Nanjing University in eastern China, and Shaanxi Normal University in the north earlier this month, although neither institution referenced freedom of thought in their originals.

Mr Xi took office in 2012 and has implemented a campaign to increase the ruling Communist Party's grip on the country and build a personality cult around himself, which includes reverential references to a vaguely defined "Xi Jinping Thought" that recalls the days of communist founder Mao Zedong.

Mr Xi's government has moved aggressively to throttle activists and other critics while pushing communist ideological dogma through all aspects of society, from politics to culture and entertainment.

He also called in a speech last year for Marxism to be promoted in campuses and classrooms.

But even Marxist students have faced a backlash, as police cracked down on some who supported a labour rights movement last year.

The risks of defying Mr Xi have prevented any major public pushback.

But Fudan, one of China's most selective institutions of higher learning, is also among its most liberal, with a student body proud of a reputation for relative academic freedom.

In the brief clip of the student demonstration, around two dozen people are seen singing the school song in a campus canteen as a security guard appears to be lightly admonishing them.

A Fudan student told AFP that the gathering took place at lunchtime on Wednesday.

"I wish students had had the right or the time to express their opinions" on the charter change, one student who gave only his surname, Song, told AFP on Thursday.

Others said they do not expect much practical impact.

"I think people should be able to express themselves and I personally agree with freedom of thought," said a woman who plans to enrol in Fudan graduate studies. "I will continue to stand my ground."

Beijing is currently grappling with Hong Kong anti-government protests in which university students have played a prominent role.

In 1989, thousands of university students joined workers in pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, provoking a bloody crackdown that remains a taboo subject.

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