What Will Newly Increased Party Control Mean for China’s Universities?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In January, Radio Free Asia reported that the Chinese Communist Party is “taking a direct role in the running of universities across the country” by merging the presidents’ offices with their Party committees.

Ideological controls on universities have been tightening for more than a decade. In 2013, a leaked Party directive, Document 9, warned against threats to the Party’s rule from “mistaken views and ideas . . . public lectures, seminars, university classrooms, class discussion forums,” and in the media and on the Internet. Last year, the Party’s General Office renewed the warning with a notice ordering legal theorists and educators to “firmly oppose and resist erroneous Western views of ‘constitutional government,’ ‘separation of three powers,’ and ‘independence of the judiciary.’”

This latest move may be even more dramatic: Although all universities have Party branches and committees, the Party has never directly controlled administrative offices.

How are China’s universities going to change under the new system? Why is the Party doing this now? —The Editors


In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has intensified its grip on various sectors, including education. The recent integration of university presidents’ offices with Party committees in January marks a significant step in the CCP’s effort to exert direct control over universities. This move raises pressing questions about the future of higher education in China, and the broader implications for academic freedom and innovation.

The CCP’s tightening control over universities isn’t a novel development: It is a continuation of a trend that has been evident for over a decade, from Document 9 to the warning from the Party’s General Office.

Also in January, China’s Ministry of State Security for the first time explicitly outlined 10 specific actions that may lead to an individual’s being questioned by authorities, colloquially referred to as an “invitation to tea.” Transitioning from 9 to 10 is merely a step, but it’s a leap backwards, not forwards. These actions include espionage and activities that jeopardize national security. Additionally, the ministry indicated that foreigners found guilty of violating the anti-espionage law may be required to leave the country. This announcement marks a significant move in terms of transparency regarding the criteria for state security investigations in China.

The effectiveness of the policy as a deterrent has been significant. Some of my colleagues in the West are currently assisting their friends with recommendation letters, as they look to leave their current roles due to growing ideological constraints on their teaching and research. Similarly, some of their counterparts in China have opted for early retirement from academic positions for the same reason. Meanwhile, I have seen a number of Chinese millennials, who earned their Ph.D.s in Western nations and served as tenure-track assistant professors at top 50 Chinese universities for a few years, now applying to pursue Master’s programs at Cornell University, where I teach.

So, what is driving the CCP to take such actions? Fundamentally, it’s about maintaining ideological purity and control. The Party believes that a firm grip on educational institutions is crucial to uphold its narrative and negate any Western influence that may challenge its authority. However, this approach is not without its costs.

Regarding the 2023 notice from the General Offices, Tong Zhiwei, a respected legal scholar, highlighted in a WeChat communication with me on January 31 that while the focus on developing legal theories rooted in Chinese culture and conditions is acceptable, the complete dismissal of Western theories is problematic. Tong pointed out three critical issues that need further discussion: the existence and nature of “comprehensive governance by law,” the relationship between practices governed by law and those not, and whether theories should be derived solely from the concept of “socialist rule of law with Chinese Characteristics” or from a broader range of legal phenomena.

Moreover, Tong recognizes the self-censorship practiced by experts, professors, and editors often exceeds official mandates, adding another layer of suppression in academic circles. This individual self-censorship, driven by opportunism and fear, significantly contributes to the erosion of academic integrity and freedom.

Looking at the broader context, the case of Dai Yi (1926-2024), a historian who led the compilation of the “Qing History Project” at Renmin University for more than 20 years, illustrates how state influence can hinder academic projects. Dai’s death recently brought attention to the troubled Project, reflecting the challenges historians face in navigating political sensitivities and academic rigor. In November 2023, Professor Taisu Zhang of Yale University revealed via social media that the Qing History Project and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) had been suspended. This decision, influenced by the authorities’ view that the project was “overly influenced by the New Qing History” and failed to align with the required political perspective, marks a significant moment in Chinese academic censorship. Despite the investment of nearly 2 billion renminbi (U.S.$280 million) and decades of work, the project’s discontinuation underscores the current repressive standards of political correctness in Chinese academia.

The CCP’s control over universities is not just about education; it’s part of a larger pattern of tightening control across various sectors. For instance, the recent expulsion of Wang Xiaojun, a leading rocket scientist, from the Party’s top political advisory body indicates a broader purge in the military and aerospace sectors.

The CCP’s increasing control over universities is a regressive step for academic freedom and innovation. While the Party’s intentions might be to safeguard its rule and ideological purity, this approach is likely to stifle creativity, critical thinking, and intellectual advancement. In Asia Society’s recent report, “China 2024: What to Watch,” economist Diana Choyleva finds Xi Jinping’s prioritization of “comprehensive national security” over economic growth, coupled with a revival of Marxist-Leninist ideology, is at odds with China’s development objectives. In essence, Xi’s regime prioritizes Communist Party control, even at the expense of economic progress and fundamental freedoms. As historian Antonia Finnane remarked in her book How to Make a Mao Suit: Clothing the People of Communist China, 1949–1976, a nation cannot simultaneously encourage innovation in technology while restricting fundamental ideas in politics. This paradox within the communist system only tightens the noose around its own neck, ultimately suffocating the very vitality it seeks to protect.

There won’t be much change. As it stands, all major decisions involving university life are decided by both Party secretaries and academic administrators such as university presidents and deans. At Peking University and Tsinghua University, the same person has served as both Party secretary and president, which suggests the person matters more than the post. At Shandong University, where I served as dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration from 2017 to 2022, we had a form of collective leadership. Major decisions were taken following extensive deliberations at biweekly meetings involving three Party secretaries, four vice-deans, and myself. I had formal power as dean but could not make any major decisions without the support of the other leaders.

That said, academic administrators and Party secretaries tend to do different things. In my faculty at Shandong University, academic decisions such as hiring and promotion were decided by an academic committee composed of 14 professors and the Party secretaries were rarely involved. The Party secretaries tended to focus on matters affecting the social life of the university. When COVID hit our campus, the Party secretaries were on the front line, living on the campus for weeks at a time. The Party secretaries also had the task of helping our students find employment after graduation. When students or professors had personal difficulties, the Party secretaries devoted time and effort to help them. It’s no wonder that some Party secretaries become therapists after they retire.

Of course, academic censorship has worsened over the years, especially regarding Chinese language publications, although the teaching is still relatively free. It may not be the bulk of their work, but Party secretaries do enforce restrictions on academic freedom. I haven’t met a single academic, regardless of political orientation, who likes the current trend. Academics need freedom to develop their talents to the best of their ability.

In principle, it’s not a bad idea to divide the labor between academic administrators in charge of academic matters and Party secretaries in charge of social matters. At the University of Hong Kong, where there is no system of Party secretaries, deans and university presidents sometimes find themselves dealing with social and political matters without the experience needed to smooth out conflicts. Not to mention that universities in the West tend to be “ivory towers” that are disconnected from real world social problems: In Hong Kong and the West, it may not be a bad idea for universities to hire the functional equivalent of Party secretaries tasked to ensure that universities contribute to the common good.

In China, the challenge for the future is to secure academic freedom for scholars while Party secretaries do their best to smooth out social problems and increase the likelihood that universities “serve the people.” I write extensively on these themes in my book The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University, published by Princeton University Press in 2023.

When I studied at late-Mao-era universities from 1974 to 1977, we were ruled over not by academic administrators or Party cadres but by the military men of a Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team. The teams had occupied universities over the summer months of 1968, dispatched by Mao to quell the Red Guard factional fighting that had turned campuses into bloody war zones. The leaders of the teams were drawn from factories, army units, and rural people’s communes, stalwarts who had proven their loyalty to Mao’s line. Their new ruling power structures combined young, mature, and older cadres into “revolutionary committees.” From 1967, the committees, the result of Mao’s autogolpe against the party-state he had founded, had replaced both Party and civilian structures. Their mantra was “The proletariat must rule over everything.”

The head of the Mao Thought Propaganda Team at my university was a People’s Liberation Army general and he was not to be trifled with. I know because my fellow foreign students deputized me as a spokesperson to argue our case for closer ties with our Chinese classmates in lecture theaters, in the mess halls, and in our everyday lives. The team leader remained unmoved, and his underlings, fawning Party bureaucrats and tremulous academics alike, complied.

So, while the Radio Free Asia report claims that although all universities have Party branches and committees, and the Party has never directly controlled administrative offices, the Party has long sought to dominate university life, as well as students’ minds. For much of its history, it has had a monopoly over every aspect of the nation’s life.

A renewed determination to do this was apparent even before Xi Jinping took power in 2012-2013. Addressing an annual plenary session of the National People’s Congress in March 2011, Standing Committee Chairman Wu Bangguo declared a new war on corrosive ideas such as multiparty democracy and the separation of powers, and he affirmed that “the CPC is always the core of the leadership for the cause of socialism.”

It was a full two years before Xi launched his own autogolpe by arrogating to himself control over both the civilian as well as the Party bureaucracy. As I have argued elsewhere, Xi would continue the “counter-reform” movement that had been launched in response to the student rebellion of 1989. To do so, Party power, and his own authority, would be paramount. In January 2016, Xi unabashedly declared that “Everything in China is under the direction of the Communist Party: Party, state, army, civilian life, and education, as are all points of the compass.” It was an old Maoist slogan that had featured prominently during the Cultural Revolution when it was summed up as “top-down integrated rule.”

Before 2016, I had called Xi the “Chairman of Everything.” Thereafter, I also referred to him as the “Chairman of Everyone and Everywhere.”

In streamlining Party control over China’s campuses in 2024, Xi is indicating yet again that for him more power is never enough power. Mao used students in the form of Red Guard rebels to overthrow the bureaucratic order that he believed was stymying the revolution, but he swiftly crushed their anarchic potential and asserted monopolistic Party rule. Faced with a restive population of young people in a deliquescent economy, Xi also seems to be preparing for the worst.

There’s a long tradition in China-watching, perhaps inherited from Kremlinology, of analyzing domestic politics through the lens of the party-state’s organizational structure. The tradition has yielded many insights, but not every revision to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-People’s Republic of China (PRC) org chart necessarily signals profound change. My understanding of China’s universities is drawn from practical experience dealing with them as the former director of a leading global center for Chinese studies, and more recently as a visitor at Xiamen University in the fall semester of 2023, rather than systematic study. But in my interpretation, the recent consolidation of the offices of University President and Party Secretary at some universities is largely symbolic, and reflects changes that have long been underway.

It’s not always obvious to outsiders what the Party Secretary at a Chinese university actually does. Some hapless administrator at a U.S. school reportedly once saw the title in a visiting delegation name list and assumed it described a position akin to Dean of Student Life, responsible for ensuring that student hijinks in the dorm didn’t get out of hand. Some Chinese schools have chosen to translate the title with the English term "Provost," in order to indicate the importance of the role. (On first learning this, I proudly told Chinese colleagues that my running buddy was the “Party Secretary of Harvard.”)

But terminology notwithstanding, it’s always been clear that in matters of importance it is the Party Secretary who ultimately calls the shots. This is actually reflected in the old org chart, where the President was typically concurrently Vice Party Secretary. Thus, the recent changes may be understood as a streamlining rather than a fundamental shift in governance. The corporate analogy would be the transfer of a VP role to the CEO’s office.

In the context of greater CCP concerns about ideological discipline, and greater efforts to secure authority over society more broadly, the consolidation of these specific offices is likewise not surprising. What might it mean for intellectual enquiry? The space for intellectual debate in China has been shrinking for some years before this change. I’m confident China’s brightest scholars will still find ways to talk about the issues that matter. They may not be able to do so publicly, or in print. But they have plenty of experience in negotiating the system. At the margins, this may be good for U.S. higher education, encouraging some Chinese scholars to consider leaving. This would be an ironic outcome in light of America’s ongoing efforts to shoot itself in the foot in the war for global talent.

Bill Kirby’s recent book Empires of Ideas shows us that the structure of the modern global university is the product of history, not natural selection. There’s no reason to think the structure that prevails in U.S. universities is necessarily the universal ideal. We can be sure at least that many Chinese don’t think it is. But it’s hard to imagine how stricter ideological controls and limits can be good for China’s universities as centers of teaching and scholarship. I know I wouldn’t do my best work in an institution where the Party Secretary was the top authority. But making the assumption that adapting a global institutional template to incorporate “Chinese characteristics” is necessarily going to yield negative results has long been a losing bet.

Though I have yet to witness these new developments firsthand, the recently announced mergers of campus Party committees and administrative functions seem to be just the latest move in a gradualist agenda that has continued for more than a decade. Just as Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” policy facilitated a closer relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and corporate sectors, ensuring the Party’s relevance and control, the education sector has also encountered increasing Party influence. Scholars such as historian Zhang Lifan have warned of an increasing “partyfication” of academia, and the public intellectual Zi Zhongyun has lamented that, due to increasing Party control, Tsinghua University, her alma mater, now “values officials more than academics.

When I first started teaching on college campuses in China in the mid-1990s, Party offices were mostly manned with bureaucratic functionaries who cared little about the esoteric interests of scholars. Most academic projects were respected, or at least tolerated, and subject to relatively minimal scrutiny by today’s standards. The classroom was still a sacrosanct space, where professors and students could engage in a relatively free exchange of ideas. University administrators and professors, proud of their May 4th intellectual legacy, and sharing a tacit awareness that universities could not perform their nation-building function without free inquiry, allowed their institutions to function—within limits—as discourse “bubbles.”

In the last two decades, the bubble has burst, as the Party has aggressively put its ideological requirements front and center in academia. The structural changes at Tsinghua and other institutions are just the next phase in the process. As usual, the Party continues to believe that the overlay of such imposed orthodoxies are not at odds with the goals and principles of a quality education system.

Whether or not this assumption is tenable, the Party’s strategy is obviously counterproductive to China’s own aspirations of building world-class, soft-power-enhancing universities. Though certain elite Chinese universities have steadily risen in the world university rankings, over the long term top-notch universities cannot thrive without international cooperation. Despite the enticement of lucrative salaries, Chinese universities have failed to attract eminent foreign professors as prestigious fixtures of the faculty. The many study-abroad programs that were suspended during the COVID epidemic have not returned, partly due to the doubts about the usefulness of increasingly censored curricula. With enormous budgets and state funding, China will undoubtedly be able to attract academic talent and cooperation in areas such as AI and genomics, but the prospect of Chinese Harvards or Oxfords is still very much in doubt.

The increasing presence of Party politics entangled in administrative and academic affairs will only make the university environment less attractive to foreign educational institutions. China, of course, has every right to structure its universities according to its own educational principles, even if they clash with the bedrock global principle: academic freedom.