Teaching Sensitive Content in a Remote Environment

Dimitar Gueorguiev, Syracuse University; Xiaobo Lü, University of Texas at Austin; Kerry Ratigan, Amherst College; Meg Rithmire, Harvard University; Rory Truex, Princeton University

A longer version of the following statement is available on ChinaFile

On June 30, 2020, the Chinese National People’s Congress passed the Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL). The law empowers government authorities to potentially interpret a wide range of speech and actions as the commission of or advocacy for secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with a foreign country against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or the Hong Kong government, regardless of citizenship or location of the offender. The broad scope of the NSL raises new and serious concerns for researchers, teachers, and students of China, especially in a remote learning environment.

Many universities have adopted Zoom for remote teaching since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the US. While Zoom has facilitated remote learning, it creates challenges for scholars who teach topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. Several recent incidents involving Zoom and the PRC have raised the alarm in light of China’s NSL. As a statement by the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) explains, data generated in videoconferencing applications such as Zoom is vulnerable to surveillance by the Chinese state. Furthermore, VPNs are not a viable solution to resolve these challenges.

Teaching about China, including topics that contradict the official narratives of the Chinese government, helps remove some of the ambiguity and anxiety that cultivates misunderstanding and misinformation. By contrast, avoiding China-related topics in the classroom amplifies the voices of those who profit from misrepresentation and chauvinism. We advocate for teaching China rigorously while also thoughtfully managing the risks associated.

Unfortunately, these risks are ambiguous, so, in our risk assessment below, we consider the worst-case scenarios, regardless of their likelihood. For a more detailed discussion of risk assessment and strategies, please see the full essay here.


Chinese students are caught between a Chinese government that demands political loyalty and a U.S. government that is actively demonizing them. The risks are highest for students learning remotely from China. If found violating the NSL, Chinese citizens could be harassed or detained. Non-citizens in China could be expelled from the country. These represent unlikely but possible scenarios given China’s current political context and the state of U.S.-China relations. Non-legal risks, such as political intimidation and negative career consequences, have intensified. Students physically present in the US face lower risk, but the risk is still non-negligible for Chinese citizens.

Faculty and teaching staff could face visa denials, harassment, or even detention when they visit China or Hong Kong based on evidence collected from their classes. Instructors with relatives in China may reasonably fear that their actions could have negative repercussions for family members. ​Teaching assistants, who do not choose course material and depend on healthy relationships with faculty members for their advancement, are in a particularly vulnerable position and should be offered special consideration.

In light of these risks, faculty and administrators may consider the following:

Strategies for Faculty:

  • Disclosure. Faculty should consider sending a note to enrolled students, particularly those who will be taking the course from China or Hong Kong, about the potential risks of enrolling in the course in light of the National Security Law. Faculty should direct enrolled students to the recent statement by the Association for Asian Studies.
  • Policies on recording and dissemination of course materials. Instructors should be empowered to decide how much course content may be recorded or shared beyond the participants of the course, and should work with university administrators to institute appropriate consequences for unsanctioned recordings or dissemination of course materials.
  • Multiple channels for participation. Consider methods to protect student participation, ensure safety, and promote free discussion. Instructors may allow students to “opt out” of online discussions without incurring a penalty to their grade; choose less sensitive essay topics; contribute to discussions via direct email to the instructor rather than publicly; host anonymous discussion forums for sensitive topics; or use “blind grading,” in which students are assigned a numerical key rather than have their name associated with the work.
  • Protect teaching assistants (TAs). Because of nationality, career stage, or physical location, TAs face higher risks than faculty members and should be given the opportunity to opt out of leading discussion if the topic entails political risk.

Strategies for Administrators:

  • Instructor autonomy. Instructors should be able to decide course content and dissemination of course materials, including discussions that take place over videoconference.
  • Access to resources. Administrators and instructors should work with information technology departments to ensure that students learning remotely can access course content. If some students cannot access certain resources, the instructor might think of appropriate alternatives and ensure that students are not penalized for lack of access. Students should not be encouraged to access blocked resources with university VPNs.
  • On-campus residence for vulnerable students. If the university is allowing a subset of students to reside on campus, the administration should consider a student’s citizenship in a country that curtails speech as one of the criteria in determining whether they may remain on campus.
  • Legal support. As the AAS recommends, universities should clearly communicate whether they can offer legal support to students, faculty, or teaching staff who face repercussions for engaging in sensitive content.
  • Communication and guidance. University administrators should clearly communicate university policy on protecting students. China-focused faculty may be aware of the issues we discuss above, but instructors in other disciplines might not.

Dimitar Gueorguiev, Syracuse University

Xiaobo Lü, University of Texas at Austin

Kerry Ratigan, Amherst College

Meg Rithmire, Harvard University

Rory Truex, Princeton University



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