American universities need to show Beijing—again and again—that they reserve the right to unfettered debate.
About five times a year, the U.S. military conducts freedom-of-navigation operations, or FONOPs, in the South China Sea to challenge China’s territorial claims in the area. American Navy vessels traverse through waters claimed by the Chinese government. This is how the U.S. government registers its view that those waters are international territory, and that China’s assertion of sovereignty over them is inconsistent with international law.
Americans are witnessing a similar encroachment on territory equally central to our national interest: our own social and political discourse. Through a combination of market coercion and intimidation, the Chinese Communist Party is trying to constrain how people in the United States and other Western democracies talk about China.
This encroachment needs a measured response—what we might call freedom-of-speech operations, or FOSOPs for short. American universities can take the lead. They should routinely hold events on the fate of Taiwan, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and other topics known to be sensitive to the Chinese government. These events can be organized by students, faculty, or research centers. They need not originate from a university’s administration. If anything, the message that FOSOPs send—everything in the United States is subject to open debate, especially on college campuses—is even stronger if the pressure comes from the grass roots.