An existential interpretation of student angst in Chinese universities raises issues of autonomy and freedom. The governance arrangements in China create a conflict for Chinese students who in their coursework are urged to become critical-minded and open-minded. In this essay, Kant’s moral theory provides access to this phenomenon. His theory of duty–rationality–autonomy–freedom relates the liberty of thought to principled action. Kantian ideals still influence western business and university practice and they become relevant in China as that country modernises. The abilities of graduates which officials say the country needs—insightfulness, creativity, innovation, progressiveness and commitment—are only achievable by professionals who are independent minded, rational and who commit to act on their own conclusions. Such people are Kant’s autonomous persons. Chinese students increasingly confront a conflicted educational environment. Universities require students to think, analyse and argue. An outcome of this deliberation is freedom, as construed by Kant as an ‘inner’construct. When students are unable to exercise Kantian freedom in matters which concern them they experience the angst of freedom. Students may carry a burden derived from bridles on information and authoritarian restrictions on dialogue.