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  • 1 John Villasenor, “Why I won’t let my classes be recorded”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2020, (...)

1The current global health crisis has ushered universities into remote learning, raising concerns about the freedom for students and teachers alike to express themselves “beyond the reach of the digital panopticon”, or to maintain interactive debates instead of pre-recorded online classes where knowledge is processed without being challenged.1 Besides, voices have been raised about online platforms as a potential means of tracking academics’ time spent online, and targeted harassment through the dissemination of cherry-picked texts and videos used in class is indeed a matter for concern for individuals and institutions.

  • 2 Joyce Lau, “Academic freedom and covid-19 in China”, Inside Higher Ed, 2020, https://www.insidehigh (...)
  • 3 Humboldt Foundation, “Academic freedom: Russia tightens state control over education”, May 26, 2021 (...)

2In authoritarian regimes, pressures on academic freedom have increased in the wake of the pandemic, as recent cases in China have shown: historian Sun Peidong from Fudan University was severely harassed for publicly debating the crisis, law professor Xu Zhangrunfrom Tsinghua University was suspended and placed under house arrest for being openly critical of the government, and several other scholars were under investigation for reporting on the lockdown or commenting on related political measures.2 In other non-democratic regimes, the pandemic also serves as a justification to isolate scholars from the international community and place academic institutions under the yoke of the State. For instance, in Russia, the Kremlin tightened its control over universities: amendments to educational legislation in application from July 2021 reinforced the role of State authorities in the internationalization of universities and the content of scientific activities to “protect the youth” from “foreign influences”.3 More generally, mobility restrictions, especially for scholars who carry out fieldwork, is impacting long-term research. China is a case in point, with Beijing using pandemic-related visa limitations to restrict researchers’ access to Wuhan or Xinjiang.

  • 4 In that case, the French Ministers of Education and Higher Education themselves have officially att (...)

3Yet, silencing academics and diminishing scientific research has also occurred in the United States where President Trump continuously downplayed the severity of the virus and was dismissive of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, and Chief Medical Advisor to the President Anthony Fauci, thus creating an atmosphere of distrust against scientists. Such political polarization has occurred in most democratic societies. Indeed, scholars face heightened levels of public harassment while drastic political interventions are increasingly hindering academic freedom. Waves of public hostility based on science scepticism and denialism have been ushered in by the pandemic, sometimes supported by representatives of the State, as the French case of “islamo-gauchisme” of so-called “wokism” allegations shows.4 In many countries, the impact of the virus combined with a long-standing economic crisis, as it is the case in Lebanon, will have dire consequences with the cutting of less profitable academic programmes and employment.

4This special issue takes academic freedom as its core topic, considering that the pandemic has generally acted as a catalyst for latent systemic dysfunctions and has often reinforced potential threats to academic freedom. Our focus, however, is not so much on the consequences of the sanitary crisis worldwide per se, but on the variety of threats, and responses to threats, to academic freedom in various contexts, as a reminder that preserving academic freedom is essential at all times, even in times of crisis.

5Threats to academic freedom may vary in nature and impact depending on historical, linguistic and geopolitical factors. All the contributions to this special issue show the extent to which both local and global socio-political histories have generated major upheavals in academic affairs. In China (a case dear to the editors of this special issue), the practice or the limitation of academic freedom is played out not only on the local/national scene (censorship, self-censorship, ideological programmes, dismissal and imprisonment of researchers, teachers and students but also in the international arena, such as the creation of the Confucius Institutes as official educational bodies outside China, attempts to put pressure on academic publishers or even entryism into foreign universities).5 Over the past two decades, pressure on academic freedom from the Chinese regime has become a transnational issue, since not only are censorship and repressive measures practised with regard to academics in China, but academics the world over are also targeted when their discourse contradicts that of the Chinese communist party. For instance, in early 2021, a French scholar who openly supported an official visit of French parliamentarians to Taiwan that had been harshly criticized by Beijing, was publicly insulted by the Chinese ambassador in Paris, who called him a “little thug”, a “crazy hyena” and other names on his Twitter account.6 A few weeks later, in an unforeseen escalation, following European sanctions against high-level Chinese officials involved in the drastic repression of Turkic people in northwest China, Beijing officially sanctioned and banned three European China scholars as well as one research institute for “fabricating lies” and “spreading disinformation” about the situation in the Uyghur region and other current topics in China.7

  • 8 Eva Pils, “China and the Threat to Global Academic Freedom”, in V. Frangville and al. La liberté ac (...)
  • 9 “Academic freedom does not mean “willful”: University classrooms are not “show grounds” (学术自由并不等于(...)

6In many ways, the globalization of higher education in which China has widely participated has normalized an increasingly repressive regime that promotes excellence and achieves high scores in international rankings, allowing the Party-State to export its forms of repression in global academic environments, rather than increasing academic freedom.8 In response to a debate on “academic freedom” in China, former Minister of Education Yuan Guiren 贵仁 stated that “there was no question of letting Western values textbooks enter university classrooms”, pretending that the Western conception of academic freedom was not the same as the Chinese view.9 While this accusation is frequent in the official Chinese rhetoric about freedom in general, it nevertheless raises the question of the universality of (Western) academic freedom as a primary value. The transnational and transcultural ambition of this special issue therefore necessarily confronts us with a rhetorical difficulty: is there a normative and universally applicable definition of “academic freedom” or does this principle need to be understood in each specficic geocultural context?

  • 10 Simon Marginson, “Academic Freedom: A Global Comparative Approach”, Frontiers of Education in China(...)
  • 11 Simon Marginson, “Academic Freedom: A Global Comparative Approach”, p.36.

7Simon Marginson, professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford and Director of the ESRC/OFSRE Centre for Global Higher Education, suggests that “the principal sources of difference in approaches to academic freedom are: (1) variations in state traditions and political cultures, (2) variations in traditions specific to higher education, and (3) variations in university-state and university-society relations. Yet when academic freedom is discussed, these differences are mostly overlooked, as if the contextual conditions surrounding academic freedom, and its specific practices, are the same everywhere”.10 To justify his idea that academic freedom is ultimately a matter of cultural specificity, Simon Marginson attempts to rely on “tradition” and “history”, arguing that the academic situation of so-called “post-Confucian” societies can be traced back from Warring State Periods (fourth century BCE).11

8Even if Marginson’s argument seems more developed and convincing than Minister Yuan Guiren’s assertion, in our opinion, they share the same culturalist pitfall. First, it is obviously historically inept to imagine a constant and untouched traditional linearity between pre-modern China and present-day China, as the political upheavals of this country have contributed to shaping the relationship of civil society and the political sphere to (higher) education. It does not seem possible to us then to give up or deny the modern experience of China in the global debates of academic freedom. Furthermore, according to Marginson, there is no “national” consensus on academic freedom in any country, consequently academic freedom is not always lived and accepted by all actors of a same nation. Despite the limitations of these arguments, the question still deserves to be asked: is academic freedom a “western” emanation, and is it therefore invalid (or incomplete) in other contexts? Nevertheless, it seems to us – and as all the articles in this special issue illustrate – that the quest for or the limitation of academic freedom in the contemporary global world is always part of a socio-historical movement, whatever the space, and that it is not in an intangible cultural framework.

  • 12 Judith Butler, “Academic Freedom and the Critical Task of the University”, Globalization, Vol. 14, (...)

9Therefore, academic freedom is understood here as the freedom to produce and share knowledge free from political, economic or social hindrance so as to shed light on complex situations or issues. Academic freedom relates to members of research and educational institutions who seek to create knowledge “for its own sake”, not for industrial or commercial interests.12 Therefore, it is distinct from freedom of speech or other basic human rights as it is not an inherent entitlement of each human being, but rather a freedom attached to a specific community of people whose duty is to further develop knowledge in several areas. In that sense, academic freedom has a collective dimension but is exercised by a “community of the competent” who ensure that science is not diverted from its central purpose: producing, sharing and enriching knowledge. This special issue seeks to document and analyse the alarming rise in and diversification of threats to academic freedom in the twenty-first century across the globe.

10This special issue comprises six articles and one interview, and includes theoretical texts and case studies covering Europe, Lebanon, China, Russia and the post-Soviet space. It would have been desirable to cover other areas that have been particularly in the spotlight in recent years: Brazil, for instance, where constitutional rights are under threat in a deeply polarized political climate since the advent of the 2019 administration of Bolsonaro, who has used the pandemic as an excuse to take control of university administrations and impede rectors’ elections so as to reduce university autonomy.13 Similarly in Poland, violations of institutional autonomy in higher education have risen dramatically since 2015 under the influence of the right-wing populist party in power. Gender studies were specifically targeted in Poland, and in Hungary even banned as “an ideology rather than science”.14 Many more geopolitical or research areas could be included in this special issue; it is however impossible to be exhaustive in such a limited space. Our interview with Scholars at Risk attempts to palliate this limitation, demonstrating that monitoring academic freedom in each corner of the globe may be possible through vast networks of organizations in which universities and other higher education actors are actively involved. Each contribution therefore counts towards a much-needed effort to preserve academic freedom.

11In the opening article, Alain-Marc Rieu reflects on the inability of academic research to respond to the challenges of our time (“climate change, energy transition, rise of neo-authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, nationalist movements and identity politics, weakened political institutions, mass immigration, increasing social violence and the return of war, world reordering”). However, according to Rieu, this impasse cannot just be explained by a freezing of consciousness or a cognitive inability to think about these challenges, but rather by the lack of institutional and scientific autonomy of universities that are subjected to different pressures: governments, economic interests, and religious faith. Rieu’s study focuses on three key periods: the energy crises of the 1970s, the aftermaths of the 2008 systemic financial crisis and the current environmental transition. The author adopts a transnational and comparative approach which shows, if not the similarity, at least the complicity of authoritarian and neoliberal systems in the threats which hang over academic freedom in the world. Rieu invites us to (re)make the university an “instrument of democracy” that would participate in the same way as a social and economic transitions to an epistemological reform able to better face the dangers of tomorrow.

12How to carry out research and produce knowledge in times of sanitary and economic crisis is at the heart of Jihane Sfeir’s article. In the Lebanese context, the ongoing financial crisis combined with the global pandemic and a long-lasting political deadlock directly affect higher education, prompting universities to develop new strategies to avoid a scientific brain drain. As students face unprecedented economic pressure, private universities, for instance, try to maintain their attractiveness by offering special grants through international initiatives, while public universities adjust their course schedules and create night classes to allow students who work during the day to cover their tuition fees. Academic staff, however, are increasingly offered non-permanent part-time positions and cumulate several jobs to make both ends meet. As for tenured scholars, they have seen their pay frozen for years. International collaboration, on the rise since 2007, nevertheless remains timid and limited to establishing joint degrees and short-term exchanges, fearing Lebanese students or academics may never come back if they see more opportunities abroad. Since 2020, the global sanitary crisis has even further deepened inequalities in terms of access to teaching, as equipment for online classes is missing. The Lebanese case shows that economic instability can lead to a serious standoff for universities, whose missions are strongly impacted by the need to survive a triple crisis. This is particularly true for public universities who suffer from decades of poor management and underfunding.

13It is also the historical process of evolution of universities that interests Dmitry Dmitry Dubrovsky and Katarzyna Kaczmarska. Taking the case of Russian Higher Education, the authors show how the “technical” incorporation of the Russian university into the system of international higher education has affected academic rights and academic freedom, creating what they call “pockets of effectiveness”. By developing the central concept of authoritarian modernization, which they connect to the ambiguous internationalization of contemporary Russia, Dubrovniksky and Kaczmarska show the direct and indirect impact of foreign policies on academic research. Through four different but complementary cases (the Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Science, the Tyumen School of Advanced Studies, the Higher School of Economics and the European University at St Petersburg), Dubrovniksky and Kaczmarska analyse the underlying non-academic trends which contribute to undermining the autonomy of the individuals working in academic institutions. As Rieu and Sfeir show in their articles, the threat to academic freedom here is at least as much the result of institutional dysfunction as of ideological coercion.

14Boris Vinogradov chose to focus on one specific Russian institution: the Russian Academy of Sciences, an institution founded in 1724 that has undergone many transformations throughout Russian history. Vinogradov examines the evolution of the Academy throughout the twentieth century and analyzes its links with state power. Vinogradov shows, for example, how the Academy of Sciences acquired a new status in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, benefiting from relative autonomy, before, from the 2000s onwards, being once again the object of a governmental stranglehold which manifests itself in more substantial public subsidies and a marked decrease in foreign funding. The reforms initiated in the 2010s centralized the management of the Academy, now run directly by a ministry of state. If the situation is not an exception when compared to academic institutions in other countries, Vinogradov shows how in Russia the authorities’ stronger commitment to the modernization of the academic model is accompanied by greater ideological control. The case of the Russian Academy of Sciences emerges as a symbolic marker, not only to discuss academic freedom, but also to understand the political history of Russia and the ideological apparatus of the state during the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.

15Following these two articles about academic freedom in post-Soviet- era Russia, Maxime Corron takes us to Kazakhstan, the largest former Soviet republic in Central Asia. He shares his experience as a young ethnographer carrying out research in an international school where he also worked as a foreign teacher. Three decades of president Nazarbayev’s power, followed by a partial political transition in 2019, have prompted most Kazakh citizens to develop passive strategies of restraint and prudence. Corron reflects on how such a context and restrictions on social sciences practices can hinder the work of an ethnographer and access to information in the field, and how it ultimately constitutes an obstacle to academic freedom. Focusing on linguistic practices in an officially trilingual environment (Russian, Kazakh and English), this chapter shows how the use of English language became a compromise between the ethnographer and local informants, in which the former was able to collect information for his academic research and the latter to improve their skills in an economically strategic language. Yet such “compromised”, or interest-driven communication strategies have limitations, both methodologically and ethically. This article thus addresses the question of research integrity and compromise in an authoritarian regime.

16Moving to Hong Kong, where all freedoms have been increasingly under threat under since its “handover” to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, Patrick Kar-wai Poon focuses on the figure of Benny Tai Yiu-ting as a leader of social protests since 2013. Poon seeks to examine how Tai, over the past few years, has turned his academic research and expertise in law into public action. Indeed, Tai, a university professor, used his academic research on civil society, social movements, and constitutionalism to act and to encourage other citizens to exercise, as citizens, their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. As pointed above in the beginning of this introduction, threats to academic freedom and other types of freedom can arise out of the same context, however pressure on academic freedom only affects a smaller group. Tai’s direct and active participation to Hong Kong social protests in the past few years is an interesting case of interconnection between academic freedom, exercised by academics only, and other freedoms enjoyed by all. Poon also shows that Tai always performed publicly as an academic, basing his claims on thorough research and using his authoritative position to speak for many Hongkongers. As most commentators have rightly pointed, the dismissal of Tai from the University of Hong Kong and his arrest in 2020 marked the end of academic freedom. At the same time, Hong Kong authorities targeted him as a leader, charging him with “incitement to nuisance”, “conspiracy to commit subversion” and other incriminations that could apply to any citizen. Tai’s case thus helps us to reflect on the nexus between academia and activism.

17Our special issue ends with an interview conducted by the editors with the co-founder and executive director of Scholars at Risk, a network of higher education universities concerned with academic freedom in the world. Solidarity to protect academic freedom has become fundamental in an increasingly interdependent world. It also became evident that, when a state fails to protect academic freedom, whether for political, economic or ideological reasons, non-state actors such as collectives, organizations and university networks must step in to protect academic freedom for the common good. Actions have therefore multiplied either globally or locally: scholarship for endangered scholars, awareness campaigns, monitoring reports, and public statements of support, all contribute to support academic freedom as a universal and unconditional value.

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1 John Villasenor, “Why I won’t let my classes be recorded”, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2020,, accessed 31 September 2021.

2 Joyce Lau, “Academic freedom and covid-19 in China”, Inside Higher Ed, 2020,, accessed 31 September 2021.; Geremie Barmé’s translation of Prof. Xu’s essay, Viral Alarm:, accessed 31 September 2021.

3 Humboldt Foundation, “Academic freedom: Russia tightens state control over education”, May 26, 2021,, accessed 31 September 2021.

4 In that case, the French Ministers of Education and Higher Education themselves have officially attacked, in public speeches and at university events, researchers deemed to work on “postcolonial” and “decolonial” studies. See: Lucie Delaporte and Mathilde Goanec, “Un vrai-faux colloque à la Sorbonne pour mener le procès du “wokisme””, Mediapart, 2022,” (accessed 31 September 2021.) and Lucie Delaporte, “‘Islamo-gauchisme’: Vidal provoque la consternation chez les chercheurs”, Mediapart, 2021,, , accessed 31 September 2021.

5 Holly Else, “Cambridge University Press removes journal articles under Chinese pressure”, Times Higher Education, 2017,, , accessed 31 September 2021.

6 See France 24 report of the incident here:, accessed 31 September 2021.

7 See for instance Yojana Sharma, “China fights back sanctions on academics, institute”, University World News, 25 March 2021:, accessed 31 September 2021.

8 Eva Pils, “China and the Threat to Global Academic Freedom”, in V. Frangville and al. La liberté académique : enjeux et menaces, Bruxelles, Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2021, pp.155-163; Vanessa Frangville, Constraints on Academic Freedom in the People’s Republic of China: A Transnational Issue, in Laborier, Dakhli and Wolff (eds.), Scholars at Risk, Rescue Politics and Institutional Opportunities in Comparative and Longterm Perspectives, Wiesbaden, Springer, Migrations Societies (to be published in 2022).

9 “Academic freedom does not mean “willful”: University classrooms are not “show grounds” (学术自由并不等于任性大学课堂不是秀场”) , Chinese Communist Party News (中国共产党新闻网), 2015,, accessed 31 September 2021.

10 Simon Marginson, “Academic Freedom: A Global Comparative Approach”, Frontiers of Education in China, vol.9, n°1, 2014, p.25.

11 Simon Marginson, “Academic Freedom: A Global Comparative Approach”, p.36.

12 Judith Butler, “Academic Freedom and the Critical Task of the University”, Globalization, Vol. 14, No. 6, 2017, p.858.

13 See:, accessed 31 September 2021.

14 Teodora Miljojkovic, “Academic Freedom in Hungary: A Fundamental Principle or Just a Pipe Dream”, December 11, 2018,, accessed 31 September 2021.

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Vanessa Frangville et Gwennaël Gaffric, « Introduction »Transtext(e)s Transcultures 跨文本跨文化 [En ligne], 16 | 2021, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2021, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Vanessa Frangville

Vanessa Frangville is Senior Lecturer in China Studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB); director of EASt, ULB’s research centre on East Asia; and co-director of Routledge’s “Contemporary Asian Societies” series. Her research deals with discourses on ethnicity and nation building in modern and contemporary China, with a special focus on cinema and “ethnic minority” film. Her current projects deal with cultural and artistic expressions of trauma and nostalgia in the Uyghur diaspora since 2018, with a focus on performative and audio-visual arts.

Vanessa Frangville est professeure en études chinoises à l'Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), directrice du centre de recherche sur l'Asie de l'est à l'ULB, EASt, et co-directrice de la collection « Contemporary Asian Society » chez Routledge. Ses recherches portent sur les rapports entre politique culturelle et production audiovisuelle en République populaire de Chine. Elle a publié de nombreux articles sur le cinéma en lien avec les ethnies « minoritaires » ou « non-Han », notamment sur le cinéma tibétain. Ses projets actuels portent sur le cinéma ouïghour et les productions artistiques, en particulier audiovisuelles, qui témoignent de la crise ouïghoure depuis 2016.

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Gwennaël Gaffric

Gwennaël Gaffric is Assistant Professor in Chinese language and literature at Jean Moulin University Lyon 3. His current research focuses on environmental issues in contemporary literature in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, particularly in science fiction. He has recently published a book entitled La littérature à l’ère de l’Anthropocène : Une étude écocritique autour des œuvres de l’écrivain taïwanais Wu Ming-Yi (Literature in the Anthropocene Era: an Ecocritical Study of Taiwanese Writer Wu Ming-Yi’s Works) (coll. “Études formosanes”, L’Asiathèque, 2019) and co-edited with Vanessa Frangville China’s Youth Cultures and Collective Spaces: Creativity, Sociality, Identity and Resistance (Routledge, 2019).

Gwennaël Gaffric est Maître de conférences en langues et littératures chinoises à l’Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3. Ses recherches actuelles portent sur les questions environnementales dans la littérature sinophone (Chine, Hong Kong, Taïwan), et en particulier la science-fiction. Il a récemment publié La littérature à l’ère de l’Anthropocène : Une étude écocritique autour des œuvres de l’écrivain taïwanais Wu Ming-Yi (L’Asiathèque, 2019) et co-dirigé avec Vanessa Frangville China’s Youth Cultures and Collective Spaces: Creativity, Sociality, Identity and Resistance (Routledge, 2019).

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