Teaching politically and culturally sensitive topics: China

Upholding academic freedom can be challenging when teaching politically and culturally sensitive topics especially those relating to China and other authoritarian regimes. This page provides guidance for staff who teach about China or who have large cohorts of Chinese speaking students. It provides advice on approaches to ensure that you are able to uphold academic freedom in your teaching while at the same time providing a secure learning environment for your students. While the majority of the guidance refers to China and Chinese speaking students, it is also relevant to other authoritarian regimes.

See also guidance on teaching sensitive topics

A group of students sitting in a tiered lecture theatre, writing notes

The University upholds the principle of academic freedom and aims to ensure that students develop the key critical thinking and inclusivity skills articulated through the Sheffield Graduate Attributes. At the same time, there is evidence of a tension between maintaining academic freedom while, at the same time, providing a secure learning environment for our students. With the introduction of the National Security Law, students from China and Hong Kong are at risk of detainment for critiquing their government or its policies no matter where they are in the world. In some cases, students are asked to report back to their government on course activity, other students or staff that are perceived to be critical of the government. This has a significant impact on the way that some students feel able to engage with certain content in their programme.

Dr Christina Maags from the School of East Asian Studies explains what the Hong Kong National Security Law is and its implications for teaching and research.

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What types of topics are likely to be politically and culturally sensitive?

Topics that call into question the legitimacy of i) the social cohesion of the nation-state that students come from, ii) the territories of that nation-state, iii) the identities that are seen to constitute that nation-state, or iv) the historical narratives that underpin the legitimacy of that nation-state’s current leadership.

Dr Jamie Coates from the School of East Asian Studies explains some of the key issues around identity and Chinese-speaking students. Having a greater understanding of this, can help you navigate teaching potentially sensitive issues for Chinese speaking students.

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Key principles when covering politically and culturally sensitive topics:

  • Uphold the principle of academic freedom. Do not self-censor or avoid these topics if they are an important part of the programme.
  • Take an inclusive approach.
  • Consider what in your teaching could be sensitive to some students and consider the most appropriate way for students to engage with it.
  • Focus on the academic skills (e.g. using evidence to support your claims, being able to see things from different perspectives) you want students to develop rather than getting into difficult discussions about whether certain claims are right or not.
  • Provide clear communications to students about the content of modules or programmes and how you expect them to engage with the module or programme.
  • Consider the extent to which your curriculum presents a euro-centric view of the world and whether there are changes you can make to the content and/or the way that you teach. See guidance on decolonising the curriculum.

Dr Jamie Coates Top Tips for dealing with sensitive issues: Chinese speaking students

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Approaches to take in your teaching

Our guidance on teaching sensitive topics has lots of good advice for planning teaching and teaching practice. In addition the following points are particularly important for teaching China.

  • Provide information about the security of any online course materials including assessments, course information, contributions to discussion boards on the VLE, recordings.
  • Students who are based in China will access any online course materials using University Connect for China. This allows them to access Blackboard and any other course materials and tools such as google applications. Those based in the UK will be accessing course materials directly via Blackboard. Remind students that they cannot share any course content beyond students and staff on their programme. This includes students making their own unauthorised recordings of classes.
  • Consider whether you need to record your teaching sessions. You are strongly advised not to record seminars involving discussion of sensitive topics. This means there is less risk of recordings being shared inappropriately and students may feel safer engaging in these sessions. Consider alternative ways to provide a record of the seminar for students. If you are recording a session, remind students that they cannot share the recording.
  • Consider whether you know enough about the subject in question to raise it in class. If not, consider inviting a guest speaker or create an independent learning activity. Avoiding difficult topics is a form of self censorship.
  • Don’t be tempted to assume that Chinese speaking students will all have similar cultural and political beliefs.
  • Review your reading list - is there a balance of scholars from different countries / cultures with different perspectives on the issue you are covering. This is important for creating a more inclusive curriculum.
  • When providing specific examples
  1. it is better to refer to a specific city or region rather than saying e.g. in China, people do x.
  2. refer to cultures rather than nations e.g. Taiwanese culture rather than the country of Taiwan
  3. refer and discuss practices rather than appearing critical of a practice of a particular country. For example, if you are referring to the detainment of people in Xinjiang link this to other examples in the world e.g. Guantanamo Bay or Australia. This means that you can compare with similar practices in different countries and it doesn’t feel that the lecturer is merely being critical of a particular country or government.
  4. be wary of coming across as negative towards a particular country or culture in total.
  • Frame discussions so that they encourage students to look at certain issues from different perspectives and understand the historical context for different perspectives emerging.
  • Provide ways for students to contribute to discussions anonymously. Blackboard Collaborate chat and Blackboard discussion boards can both be set up so that students can choose to post anonymously. Here is some further guidance:
  1. Amend Blackboard Collaborate session settings
  2. Edit Blackboard discussion board settings
  3. Direct students to guidance on how to post anonymously.
  • Provide choice in assessment so that students don’t have to base an assessment on a topic they feel uncomfortable with.

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Responding to students concerned about their safety

  • Recognize the legitimacy of their concern and explore it with them as sensitively as possible.
  • Reiterate to them the importance of understanding different viewpoints.
  • Reiterate to them the security of online course materials either accessed directly via Blackboard or via University Connect for China.
  • If you believe the student is at risk refer them to the Programme Director and/or Student Welfare and Wellbeing. Make them aware of the University's Report and Support service.

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Responding to pressure to self-censor

The University’s line is that you should uphold the principles of academic freedom and not self - censor. If you are being put in a difficult position, discuss this with your director of teaching or Head of Department in the first instance.

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The University’s Disciplinary Regulations

The University has updated its Disciplinary Regulations from 2021-22 to include “disclosure of another person’s legitimate speech or activity that would place any person at risk of harm” as constituting misconduct.

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Further information