BEIJING — One of China's most prestigious universities has deleted a commitment to "freedom of thought" from its charter and has demoted "academic independence" to a spot lower than patriotism, triggering alarm among faculty and students alike.

The changes to Fudan University’s charter come amid a widening crackdown on freedom of expression under Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Predictably, criticism of the move was swiftly removed from China’s heavily censored Internet.

The Education Ministry announced the changes to Fudan’s charter on Tuesday. The previous version included the line, “The educational philosophy of the university is academic independence and freedom of thought as extolled in the university anthem.”

The revised version says: “The university upholds the motto of ‘Rich in Knowledge and Tenacious of Purpose; Inquiring with Earnestness and Reflecting with Self-practice.’ We promote the spirit of ‘unity, service and sacrifice,’ practice earnestly patriotic dedication, academic independence, pursuit of excellence.”

Another part of the charter was expanded to pledge allegiance to the party. “The university adheres to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and will fully implement the party’s educational policy,” it says.

“For people who are willing to praise the current leadership, it’s the best time to be working. But if you really want to do real research and have independent thoughts, it’s tough,” said Peidong Sun, a sociologist who teaches at Fudan. “But this might not be the toughest time. In five years, we might look back on 2019 and say that this was just the start.”

She could face discipline for speaking to The Washington Post in this way but said it was her duty as an intellectual to speak out against an entrenched practice that is becoming worse.

“There is no university in China that has freedom of thought or academic independence,” Sun said, noting that intellectual freedom began to be constrained as the Communists gathered power in the 1940s.

“Thought control has been one of the crucial parts of the Communist Party’s governance,” she said. “Art should serve politics; intellectuals should serve the party. This has always been the rule. It has never been changed, and it will never be changed.”

Established in 1905 by a Jesuit priest, Fudan was the first university to be founded by a Chinese person. Its name, meaning “return” and “dawn,” comes from a classical Chinese poem that says, “Brilliant are the sunshine and moonlight, again the morning radiance returns at dawn.”

Based in Shanghai, it has enjoyed some political (and geographical) distance from the seat of communist power in Beijing. It is renowned for excellence in the humanities, science and medicine and as a relatively free space in China. It is also one of the institutions tapped by the Chinese government for its “Double First Class University Plan” to become a world-class center by 2050.

Fudan also promotes what it calls a “strategic partnership” with universities such as Yale and the National University of Singapore.

Famous graduates include Wang Huning, a top aide to Xi and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s seven-member top decision-making body.

On Wednesday, after the news of the charter changes began to seep out, students stood up in a cafeteria at Fudan and sang the university’s anthem, which contains the words “academic independence, freedom of thought” and “politically unfettered.” Videos of the act of protest were circulated online as shock at the move spread.

Even in China’s increasingly constrained political space, where the country’s leader has promoted the “Xi Jinping Thought” and moved to silence all criticism, the apparent move to constrain Fudan came as a shock.

Some Fudan graduates contacted the vice secretary of the Communist Party unit at Fudan, Xu Zheng, to tell her they felt “hurt and humiliated” by the change.

“We studied very hard when we were little and were inspired by the freedom and the spirit of Fudan to enroll there,” a 2004 graduate, Wang Lili, wrote in a message to Xu that was shared online. “Since graduation, there hasn’t been a single day that I didn’t feel proud of my university, not a single day that I didn’t miss it. I am so sad to see the news today. It’s like our charter has been castrated.”

The moves were sharply criticized online Wednesday, but almost all of the posts were deleted by China’s eagle-eyed censors.

On Douban, a liberal Chinese social networking service that focuses on film, music and books, users resorted to sarcasm and puns to voice opposition to the change in Fudan’s charter.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Macao for the 20th anniversary of its handover to China. He's expected to deliver economic perks as a reward for its loyalty. (Reuters)

A widely shared post likened the Fudan move to the way Heidelberg University changed its motto from “The Living Spirit” to “The German Spirit” in 1936. It was changed back after the Nazi era. “The [Fudan] constitution will hopefully be changed back as well. But probably at a great cost,” the post said. By Wednesday afternoon, it, too, had been deleted.

A Prague-based food writer named Guo Ting posted a picture of Winnie the Pooh — a sarcastic reference to Xi, who also has a notable belly and similar facial expression — in which Pooh asks Piglet which day it is. “It’s the day we burn the patriarchy to the ground,” Piglet says. Pooh responds: “My favorite day.”

“What a perfect meme to go with the Fudan news today!” Guo wrote in the post, which remains online, perhaps because the text on the picture is in English.

The few comments that remained on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, were mild in their assessment.

“If Fudan University can’t have academic independence and freedom of thought, it’s practical and realistic to delete it,” wrote one person on Weibo under the name “Beijing Big Potato.” “At least it’s not bragging or being hypocritical. It is indeed a first-class university.”

Human rights advocates said the move was a continuation of Xi’s steady encroachment on expression or independent thought.

“I think the change in the charter represents yet another step toward the closing of minds in China,” said Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Since President Xi came to power, we’ve seen these pockets of freedom, where people can come up for air, disappearing.”

One academic partnership between Fudan and Yale University is the Yale-Fudan Center for Research in Cultural Sociology. Beginning in 2016, the center has organized academic exchanges and workshops between Yale and Fudan professors, researchers and doctoral students.

Yale sociology professor Jeffrey Alexander, one of the center’s two Yale-based program directors, told The Post that the center will continue its partnership with Fudan through summer 2022.

The Yale media office did not immediately respond to questions regarding the status of other collaborations with Fudan or the changes in Fudan’s charter.

Since Xi became the leader of the party at the end of 2012, publications that are even remotely critical of Chinese authorities have been shuttered, academics who dare to offer different opinions have been demoted or fired, and think tanks with alternative ideas have been closed. Lawyers have been arrested, and religious institutions, including churches and Buddhist temples, have been closed or brought under party control.

At its extremes, as in the northwestern area of Xinjiang, at least 1 million ethnic Uighur Muslims have been detained and put in reeducation camps aimed at stripping them of their culture and religion.

This latest assault on the academic sphere will have ramifications for years to come, Wang said.

“A lot of people who work in civil society have become interested in these issues at university,” she said. “If you put even more restrictions on freedom of expression at universities, the future leaders of China are not going to be broad-minded. But I still think that the desire for justice and equality remain strong.”

Liu Yang, Lyric Li and Wang Yuan in Beijing and Miriam Berger in Washington contributed to this report.