Staff members on the production line at the Foxconn complex in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in a 2010 photo. Labor issues and labor rights have come under tighter government scrutiny, prompting one U.S. university to suspend two of its academic exchange programs in China. (AP)

On Oct. 20, Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) suspended two exchange programs with China’s Renmin University, citing principles of academic freedom. At issue were reports from Renmin students that the university had cracked down on student groups advocating worker rights.

I reached out to Eli Friedman, associate professor and director of Cornell ILR international programs, to learn more about the academic exchanges and the experience teaching about labor issues in China. What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Jessica Chen Weiss: What was the nature of the exchanges you suspended between Cornell and Renmin University, and what had they been intended to achieve?

Eli Friedman: We suspended two undergraduate exchange programs, one with Renmin’s School of Labor and Human Resources (SLHR) and the other with the business school. The exchange with the labor school launched in 2013, and eight to 10 students would spend about a month in Beijing in the summer, while Cornell would host a smaller number of Renmin students for the fall semester. The exchange with the business school was less robust, with a handful of students participating in recent years. Cornell has other engagements at Renmin and elsewhere in China that were not affected by this decision.

The exchange made sense. ILR is considered the top U.S. labor school, and Renmin’s SLHR the top labor school in China. Our students gained exposure to an elite Chinese university in Beijing. I was very impressed with the intellect and inquisitiveness of the Renmin students who came to Ithaca. 

JCW: What would it take to restore meaningful exchanges?

EF: We remain open to resuming these exchanges because they benefit students at both universities. But we need to be confident that the environment for academic freedom has improved. Specifically, we would want to see concrete evidence that students studying at Renmin, regardless of their country of origin, will be able to freely investigate, debate and express their opinions on a range of issues — including labor conflicts. This needs to happen in an environment free of coercion, surveillance and the threat of punishment.

Some issues in China have always been extremely sensitive and generally off limits in a college classroom, e.g., the Tiananmen massacre, Tibetan independence or challenging Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. When we started the exchange, this was not the case for labor issues. I could give public lectures in Chinese that basically did not differ from a lecture I might give in the U.S.

This kind of space does not exist anymore, and that diminishes the program’s educational value. Cornell needs to ensure that our partner institutions maintain the same standards of academic excellence — and the academic freedom to discuss complex social and political problems. 

JCW: What’s the biggest takeaway for academics?

EF: Foreign institutions have long hoped that engagement and quiet diplomacy in China would eventually lead to an expansion in academic, and possibly political, freedoms. It is increasingly clear that precisely the opposite has happened. In the Renmin case, the university has actively suppressed speech, engaged in widespread surveillance and punishment of student activists, and even been complicit in forcibly detaining one of their own students. This is a qualitative shift from earlier forms of censorship, in which students and faculty carefully danced around off-limits topics.

The CCP has become increasingly repressive. Suspending programs with Chinese universities is by no means the only response, but we might need to become louder about our defense of academic freedom. If Beijing continues to ignore quiet diplomacy, we’ll need to think seriously about other tools to exert pressure to open up space for academic freedom. The actions we took at Cornell ILR may or may not turn out to be effective, but doing nothing was not an option. 

JCW: What does China’s crackdown on labor organizing reveal about its commitment to Communist and Marxist principles? 

EF: Even going back to the 1950s, the CCP has consistently seen workers — and student-worker alliances — as the greatest threat to its monopoly on power. This distrust of the proletariat has only intensified in the reform era as inequality has soared and the state has been enriched by its alliance with private capital. This is not to say the government has done nothing for workers: Indeed, the legal protections afforded to employees are relatively strong, if frequently unenforced. But discussions of exploitation, class power or worker resistance are off limits.

As we have seen with the repression of the “eight young leftists” as well as the students supporting the unionizing efforts by workers at the Jasic Technology factory, Beijing does not hesitate to crack down on self-identified Maoists or Marxists if they pose a political threat. Perhaps the state is particularly discomfited by these young activists precisely because they embody the Marxist principles the CCP has long since abandoned in practice. 

JCW: Some U.S. analysts have concluded that policies of engagement with China have failed. Based on your own experience and research, would you agree or disagree with this view?

EF: I can respond to this based on my experiences in Chinese universities as well as efforts I’ve made to engage with the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). With respect to both of these institutions, I have concluded that foreign engagement has had no demonstrable impact when it comes to advancing democratic possibilities.

I should note that this is a 180-degree reversal from where I was in 2006, when as a grad student I argued passionately that the U.S. labor movement’s historical refusal to engage with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions was a relic of the Cold War. I participated in numerous local/national exchanges over the years between U.S. and Chinese trade unions. But the ACFTU under Xi Jinping has become remarkably more conservative, more hostile to worker involvement, and unwilling to consider reforms to formal arbitration and collective-bargaining arrangements.

In 2008-2009, while doing fieldwork in Guangzhou, I was actively involved in a joint labor research center between UC Berkeley and Sun Yat-sen University. For a few years, the center flourished, bringing in great students, conducting cutting-edge research and gaining international prestige for the university. But the center closed in 2015, when university administrators falsely accused the director of being in cahoots with the U.S. government.

Labor scholarship is in serious crisis in today’s China, but in more broad terms, we need to be realistic about what might come from academic engagement. In the best cases, we would hope to see mutually beneficial research collaborations, enlightening intellectual exchange and educational opportunities for students. Unfortunately, the scope of topics deemed off-limits continues to increase — and that will decrease these opportunities in more and more fields.