China's President Xi Jinping in Hanoi on Nov. 12. (Kham/AFP/Getty Images)

ALONG WITH the news media, social media, nongovernmental organizations and business, the contest over freedom in China also plays out at its universities. China aspires to be a superpower of higher education, but its authoritarian rulers don't like to allow the unfettered openness and inquiry that are at the core of academic freedom. President Xi Jinping, whose thinking has now been enshrined in Communist Party dogma on the level of that of Mao Zedong, insists that all sectors of society acknowledge the party's primacy. "Government, military, society and schools — north, south, east and west — the party is leader of all," Mr. Xi declared at the recent 19th Party Congress.

Mr. Xi's determination to clamp down on any deviation is unfortunate for the Chinese people, locking them into an information prison, denying them details about topics such as Taiwan and Tibet. But it also impedes the work of Westerners who have flooded China in recent years, hoping to flourish with products, ideas and programs, and in some way influence China toward more openness. In fact, the open space in China is narrowing. China manages the world's largest Internet censorship; has demanded that academic publishers remove from circulation scholarly articles about sensitive topics; and has passed laws to force tech giants such as Apple and others to locate their users' data inside its borders.

Now, according to the Financial Times, China has issued regulations for the joint ventures that Western universities have formed with Chinese partners. The new rules say Communist Party secretaries must be given vice-chancellor status and sit on the board of trustees, giving party bosses a view of operations and perhaps a watchtower for those who stray from "Xi Jinping Thought." The Post's Simon Denyer reported recently that Mr. Xi insisted late last year that universities be strongholds of the party and that teachers disseminate "advanced ideology." Then, six months later, the party's anti-corruption watchdog accused 14 schools of ideological weakness. After the recent Party Congress, about 40 universities promptly set up centers for the study of Mr. Xi's newly enshrined doctrine. Must be scintillating.

Most Western universities have agreements with China designed to guarantee academic freedom, and they hold the value dear. They will be hoping that the new regulations are for show, to impress higher-ups; the mere presence of party officials on campus should surprise no one. But it will be alarming if they begin to interfere with administration or textbooks, if they pose real threats to academic freedom. The universities should not temporize if that happens. They must not help China do the dirty work of thought police and censorship.

Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig of the National Endowment for Democracy point out in a forthcoming study that China and Russia have poured billions of dollars into globe-spanning campaigns to undermine open societies. This is not "soft power," they note in a Foreign Affairs article, but something "sharp," a ruthless and growing competition between autocratic and democratic states. The authoritarian regimes, once crude bunglers, have fine-tuned their methods. They must be met everywhere with vigilance and, on campus, a determination to protect academic freedom.