China is pushing for greater ideological conformity in schools and universities. Shown here, students before wushu practice at the Tagou martial arts school in Dengfeng in October. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)

Universities must be strongholds for the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping says, while schools are on the front line of the battle against the infiltration of “hostile” foreign forces and their “subversive” ideas.

Journalistsopinion leaders on social media and civil society groups were among the first in the firing line, then came lawyers, with many of the most “troublesome” now behind bars. Writers and artists have been warned that their work must serve the Communist Party and the masses.

Now academics and educators are in the crosshairs.

China must “build colleges into strongholds that adhere to Party leadership,” Xi said at a two-day meeting last week on ideological and political work in higher education, while teachers must be “disseminators of advanced ideology and culture” and “staunch supporters of governance by the Party.”

The People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, explained what that meant in a commentary piece over the weekend. 

Students’ intellectual, ideological, emotional and psychological makeup have not matured, the paper said, and they need guidance: on where to channel their efforts in life, whom to love, how to appreciate things and what kind of person to be.

In an essay, Education Minister Chen Baosheng wrote that schools were the main target of hostile foreign forces that seek to infiltrate the country, while also complaining of “historic nihilism” — code for attempts to question the Communist Party’s rewriting of history. 

“There are intense battles being fought at our education front line now,” he said.

In the short term, the clampdown will be felt most strongly in the social sciences, experts say, but it has potentially broad and damaging implications for the nation’s intellectual and economic advance. 

“It is going to stifle much-needed debate on a whole variety of areas about where China is going,” said Rana Mitter, a professor of modern China at the University of Oxford, who argues that the country needs open discussion at its top universities about the challenges it faces.

Zhu Dake, an expert on Chinese cultural history at Tongji University in Shanghai, called the news a severe blow to academia and independent thought.

“Before, there were some spaces for academics to express what they believe,” he said. “Now it is highly possible that universities won’t have any space for independent speech.”

Chinese universities were given broad freedom to pursue academic excellence since the country began opening to the outside world in the late 1970s, experts say. 

In recent years, China has been investing heavily in higher education, recognizing its role in fostering the innovation its economy needs to continue growing. Chinese scholars who left to pursue their careers overseas have been lured back home, while partnerships with top foreign universities have been encouraged. 

All this has helped push Chinese universities steadily up international rankings, said Phil Baty at Times Higher Education, with Peking University and Tsinghua in the top 35 globally. But the largest gains have tended to be focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, where investment has been highest and “where restrictions on academic freedom may not have as strong an impact,” Baty said. 

Graduates in these subjects have spearheaded China’s drive into IT innovation, and the party clearly values their work.

When Xi took over, however, the suspicion returned, and there has been a crackdown. 

Last year, universities were told to shun textbooks that promote Western values, while a small number of outspoken academics have been sacked or — in the case of ethnic Uighur professor Ilham Tohti — jailed for alleged separatist activity.

The chill winds are felt most strongly in the social sciences and humanities.

“Both foreign students and Chinese students in the social sciences have come under much stricter supervision since Xi came to power,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, who has taught in China for many years. “Chinese teachers are much more cautious about what they will say about the current political situation — even off the record.”

In the longer term, they could put off foreign academics from a variety of disciplines from coming to the country, Oxford’s Mitter argued, slowing the process of internationalization that has helped China’s universities join the ranks of the world’s best.

Edward Vickers, an expert in Chinese education at Japan’s Kyushu University, said the clampdown appears to be having some effect both on what is taught in classes and what scholars feel empowered to publish. 

But implementation of the latest directive is likely to be inconsistent, he said.

“Party committees in any university or college are made up of locals,” he said. “Once these messages are filtered down through several layers to the local level, they might not mean that much.”

Brady made a similar point.

“Now more than ever, the political atmosphere at each university is very dependent on the attitude of the top leaders and whether or not they support an atmosphere of academic freedom,” she said. “So a few universities are operating relatively normally, while many are slowly imposing stricter controls on academics and students, too.”

Zhu, at Tongji University, said tighter restrictions on accessing the global Internet have hit scholars across all disciplines. Last year, a group of scientists appealed to the government to lift restrictions on accessing research over the Internet, but their request was denied. 

Zhu said his research into comparative Chinese cultural history has stalled because he can no longer freely access international material. He plans to finish his work in the United States.

“The Chinese government says it wants to strengthen China’s soft power and influence in the world. But to be honest, with this kind of intrusion, and the closing down of free academic thought and global interconnectedness, I don’t know how they are going to realize this great destiny to revive the ‘China Dream,’­ ” he said.

Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.