By Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - Cornell University has cut two exchange programmes with a top Chinese school over academic freedom concerns, the Ivy League school said, after Chinese students were punished for supporting labour rights in China.
The move is a rare step for a U.S. university, many of which are eager to court ties with China due to its huge education market, amid international criticism of tightening Chinese government controls on scholarship.
Cornell's School of Industrial and Labour Relations (ILR) suspended the small programmes with its counterparts at Beijing-based Renmin University after several Chinese student activists were punished for supporting protests at a welding machinery firm in the southern Chinese city of Huizhou.
"The decision stemmed from concerns that students at the Chinese institution were being penalised for speaking out about labour rights," Provost Michael Kotlikoff said in a statement on Tuesday.
Kotlikoff said Cornell had a history of meaningful exchanges with China and an "overarching commitment to academic freedom", adding that the suspension did not affect other Cornell academic programmes in China.
The suspension of the exchanges was first reported by the Financial Times.
Labour activism is viewed as a challenge by the ruling Communist Party, which opposes independent unions and punishes protesters.
Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has stepped up censorship, tightened controls on the internet and various aspects of civil society, and reasserted party authority over academia and other institutions.
Chinese officials have also campaigned against the spread of "Western values" at universities and the party's anti-corruption watchdog has sent inspectors to monitor teachers for "improper" remarks in class.
"IT CROSSED TOO MANY LINES"
In August, police in riot gear stormed an apartment in Huizhou where activists, including students from many top Chinese schools, were staying while they supported factory workers at Jasic International seeking to form a union.
Some of the students were detained and a document was leaked on social media which revealed details of how Renmin University planned to keep vocal students under surveillance on campus.
"We are a labour school. They are a labour school. This was an academic freedom violation that was related directly to a labour issue," Eli Friedman, the director of international programmes at ILR who made the decision with Cornell administrators, told Reuters.
"It crossed too many lines, as far as I was concerned."
Friedman notified Renmin of the suspension in an email on Oct. 20, according to an image he posted on Twitter on Monday.
In the email, he said he had seen evidence that the university was "taking extreme measures", including widespread surveillance and pressuring students' families, to prevent them from speaking out on labour issues.
"On the other hand, I have seen no evidence of student wrongdoing," he wrote.
Renmin did not respond to a request for comment.
But China's nationalist Global Times tabloid said in a commentary late on Monday that Cornell's accusations were "nonsense" and "misled by online rumours".
"The road for China will inevitably get wider and wider, while the path for the few forces who reject cooperation with us will only get more and more narrow," it said.
The school exchanges, which began in 2014, typically included about 10 U.S. undergraduate students studying at Renmin in the summer, followed by a handful of Chinese students studying at Cornell for the longer fall semester.
Several Chinese students are still at Cornell, and the U.S. university has pledged to support them as they finish their studies as planned.
Friedman said he would like the exchanges to resume when there is evidence that academic freedom has improved.
(Reporting by Michael Martina and Sue-Lin Wong; Editing by Nick Macfie)