On August 20, 2020, Peking University issued a “Notice on Regulating the Declaration and Approval of Participation in Online International Conferences Organized by Foreign Parties.” The Notice requires all teachers and students planning to participate in online conferences (webinars) to declare their participation and seek approval by providing documentation and specifics at least 15 days prior to an event.
In their scope and likely impact, the requirements raise serious concerns about restrictions on academic freedom and, more specifically, about noncompliance with a wide range of international human rights standards, including freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, and the right to access and disseminate information. In addition, the Notice directly implicates a fundamental right to education under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which the People’s Republic of China is a party. The Covenant states that “[h]igher education shall be made equally accessible to all.” (Art. 13 (2)(c))
(See Annex I below for a bilingual version of the Notice with HRIC’s translation.)
The Notice states that participation in online conferences organized by “foreign parties” (外方) shall be treated the same as a temporary visit abroad regulated by an earlier set of rules, “Peking University’s Provisions on Approval and Management of Going Abroad on Business” issued in 2012 which set out application and post-visit reporting requirements as well as a three-tiered oversight structure.
(See Annex II below for a summary of key points in the 2012 Provisions.)
We assume that the Notice does not apply to online meetings, conferences, and other public sessions organized by United Nations bodies, including UN human rights mechanisms. The right of civil society to participate is protected under international standards and norms. Requiring prior declaration and approval for such events would unduly restrict that right.
In an era when online conferencing serves teachers and students globally by connecting them, spreading knowledge, and enabling exchange of ideas across borders, the requirement to “declare” and obtain “approval” before participation in online conferences also restricts and chills the legitimate exercise of academic freedom. This requirement also highlights a concerning expansion of the social control over the exercise of rights online under China’s Cybersecurity Law (2017) to online international exchanges and platforms.
The uncertainty and chilling effect of the pre-participation declaration process contribute to undermining the kinds of academic and expert exchanges of information, analyses, and international collaboration critical to identifying and effectively addressing the complex global, cross-border health and other challenges facing China and the world.
Two specific requirements in the Notice raise concern over their functions as deterrents to academic engagement and inhibitors of free and open intellectual and scholarly exchange on topics that may be deemed “politically sensitive”:
Pre-approval requirement chills exercise of rights
The requirement to disclose conference details poses hurdles for the potential participant as well as risks for the conference organizer. Examples of issues that may arise include:
Vague requirement to “keep secrets” impacts innovation and research
The requirement in the Notice to keep secrets does not specify the definition and scope of secrets, or the process for identifying them. However, the referenced 2012 Provisions state: “Persons visiting on business must keep state secrets and must not involve national political, military, economic and technological secrets; and should safeguard the school’s intellectual property rights.“ (“Peking University’s Provisions on Approval and Management of Going Abroad on Business,” Art. 27) Under the State Secrets Law of the People’s Republic of China, what might constitute a “secret” is broad, vague and all-encompassing under implementing regulations that impact virtually every social sector, including research and education. Within an overarching political culture of secrecy and lack of transparency, the vague and broad secrecy requirement can act as a blanket inhibitor of meaningful participation in academic conferences on a wide range of topics, including technological and scientific topics. Examples of issues that may arise include:
A vague secrecy requirement implemented by Peking University, one of the major institutions in China, will also undermine its international reputation for innovation and research.
Impact of the Notice on related regulations
The Notice also raises issues relating to online conferences organized by foreign NGOs that have registered with Chinese authorities and have representative offices in China as well as those that have received approval for temporary activities under the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administration of Activities of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in the Mainland of China (FNGO Law, effective January 1, 2017). Will webinars organized by foreign NGOs with approved representative offices or those already approved as temporary activities fall under the scope of this Notice? To date, 554 foreign NGOs—operating in fields including education, medicine, science, youth development, rights of persons with disabilities, environmental protection, and cultural exchange—have registered with Chinese authorities, and there have been 2,895 filings for temporary activities. Given the breadth of these foreign NGOs’ activities, the chilling effect of this Notice could be equally deep. While the Notice applies to Peking University teachers and students, the expansion of this requirement to other universities and institutions will need to be monitored.
Notice on Regulating the Declaration and Approval of Participation in Online International Conferences Organized by Foreign Parties
Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan Affairs Office of the International Cooperation Department Peking University
August 20, 2020
[English translation by Human Rights in China]
To all units within the university:
In accordance with the spirit of the documents from the higher-ups concerning the regulation and management of online foreign affairs activities, combining the reality of our school’s normalization of prevention of the new coronavirus epidemic, furthering the standardization of the declaration and approval procedures for teachers and students to participate in online international conferences organized by foreign parties, and ensuring that online foreign exchange activities proceed in an orderly manner, we hereby give notice on the following related matters:
1. Our school’s teachers and students participating in online international conferences organized by foreign parties should refer to Peking University's Provisions on Approval and Management of Going Abroad on Business (School Rule  No. 69) and make a declaration at least 15 days prior to participation.
2. The declaration and approval procedure is the same as the current declaration and approval procedure for going abroad for business (temporary). When filling out the visit declaration form, please select “attend online international conference” for the type of visit, fill in the time for the online international conference, select the country location of the organizer of the online international conference, and fill in “to participate in XXXX online international conference” as the reason for the visit. When submitting the declaration materials, an invitation letter or meeting notice should be included to clarify such arrangements as the theme, discussion topics, agenda, etc., of the meeting.
3. All units should strictly review and check participation in online international conferences organized by foreign parties. Teachers and students should strictly abide by relevant provisions on keeping secrets when participating in international conferences organized by foreign parties.
4. For participation in online international conferences organized by units in the regions of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, refer to the above methods for implementation.
If you have any questions when making a declaration, please consult the office of the International Cooperation Department by phone: 62752507, 62756433 (Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan Affairs Office).
Note: Official English translation of excerpts from the Provisions below is by Human Rights in China.
The provisions apply to “those who use funds from the state, unit, individual, or inviting party to participate in meetings, teaching, visits, cooperative research, learning, and other related official activities abroad.” (Art. 2)
第三条 ……学校、主管职能部门以及院系、直属附属单位分级负责管理的“三级管理”模式，按照“依法、高效、精简” 的原则，按程序、按权限逐级审批。“主管职能部门管理” 是指党委办公室校长办公室、党委组织部、保密办、教务部、研究生院、人事部、财务部、国际合作部等部门在各自职责范围内相互配合，提供因公出访服务，进行科学管理。国际合作部主要负责对全校因公出国工作实施归口管理，按照有关规定和程序进行申报审核。
The provision specifies secrecy relating to technology. (Art. 15)
Reporting including summary of visit, photos of visit, and a report on the visit (包括出访总结、出访照片、出访报告等) must be submitted to the issuing unit within 15 days upon return. (Arts. 23, 24)
第二十四条 校级领导完成出访任务后，应口头或书面向党 委常委会或校长办公会通报出访情况，并及时布置安排需要落实的后续工作。
Code of conduct on foreign business