EDITORIAL: Penalizing the press: Journalism deal with Chinese university raises concern

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Herald Editorial Board

Issue: Two weeks ago, WKU came to an agreement with an institution of higher education in China, Shaanxi Normal University (SNNU), that will allow WKU and SNNU students to transfer between universities and complete degrees in psychology, education and/ or journalism.

Our stance: Higher education in China — along with many other Chinese institutions — is overseen by an authoritarian communist regime, and because of this WKU should not share the same values on psychology, education and journalism with a program under China’s control.

The joint memo detailing WKU and SNNU’s agreement reads the two universities will offer programs “deemed mutually desirable and reasonable for the development of cooperative activities between the two institutions,” and “specific programs shall be subject to mutual consent,” meaning WKU sees an overlap in the criteria it and SNNU wants to meet.

This notion is abhorrent, especially in terms of agreeing on principles of journalism, as China regularly limits its media and practices prior restraint (when the government intervenes to prevent a story’s publication.) Banning prior restraint is fundamental to freedom of the press in the United States, and this alone should stop WKU from reaching an agreement with SNNU on how to teach journalism.

On top of this, China is ranked 177 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, third from last in front of only North Korea and Eritrea, according to Reporters Without Borders. It is not uncommon for the Chinese Communist Party to hire writers to work under a pseudonym and praise the government in print media in order to sneakily give readers propaganda, according to The China Quarterly.

How can WKU partner to teach journalism with a university hosted by a country that doesn’t even share its basic beliefs on what journalism should be? What skills could a WKU student studying journalism learn from studying abroad in a country which actively suppresses its media?

This partnering with China could not come at a worse time, as the country has been on the world stage actively trying to take away Hong Kong’s democracy and implement communist law.

In the past, Chinese citizens have sought protection in Hong Kong after violating mainland China’s media laws, and this ongoing fight for the city has jeopardized this safety net for citizens’ voices.

The Chinese government also has an estimated 1.5 million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps — known in mainland China as re-education camps — in which Chinese officials force the Uyghurs to conform to the Chinese Communist ideology, according to Reuters.

These concentration camps have been in place since 2014 partially in order to fight separatism, crushing multiculturalism and diversity by ripping families apart for no reason other than their religion.

WKU President Timothy Caboni has repeatedly spoken about WKU’s need for diversity, and John Sunnygard, WKU’s associate provost for Global Learning and International Affairs, even said in an email to the Herald that diversity was a factor in this agreement.

If this is the case, why does WKU not reach an agreement with another institution that shares its supposed desire for diversity?

Surely WKU could find a university which actually shares its beliefs on how psychology, education and journalism should be taught. It also should not be difficult to find a university which holds these values and is located in a country whose government is not committing atrocities upon its own people — unlike the one with which WKU just reached an agreement.

WKU’s decision is equally, if not more, shortsighted than its previous one with the Confucius Institute. This agreement is entirely different than the Chinese Flagship Program, which is a program meant to enrich students about China’s vibrant culture and treasured history dating back thousands of years.

However, this agreement is a form of WKU complying with the Chinese government, which is the very power that keeps Chinese citizens oppressed. WKU should not endorse programs backed by an authoritarian government; it’s that simple.