It’s complicated: Self-censorship and China

How is your university tackling the sensitive issue of China and self-censorship? In this extract from Hepi’s new collection of essays on UK universities and China, Professor Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College London, explores how to manage risk without restricting free speech

The issue of self-censorship for those writing, studying and commenting on China is a difficult one.
It is more difficult than simply claiming that Chinese government actors attempt to influence non-Chinese bodies like universities and companies through overt pressure or threats. While one can sometimes find tangible evidence in the form of conversations, emails, letters or other means, that pressure has been placed, with much self-censorship the act itself is invisible – it occurs in people’s heads, before and as they write and is very private. Unless there is evidence of a direct instruction from an outside body to deliver certain kinds of content in a specific way, how does one know that anyone really self-censors, except if the person accused acknowledges the act? Failing that, it is all down to it being deduced from contradictions and inconsistencies in their writing. Even then, writers can claim that they have changed their mind or decided to take a different approach to an issue of their own volition.

What is clear is that accusations of self-censorship regarding work on China have intensified in recent years. Lecturers in Australia have been accused of being forced to issue apologies over the language they use about Taiwan, and its contested status, in classes.

In America, institutions either having research centres in China, or hosting Confucius Institutes partially funded by the Chinese government, have also been accused of avoiding contentious or difficult issues that might irritate the Chinese government. These concerns and others have arisen partly because of the rising prominence of China and its role in the world. They are also because of the more vociferous and active role agents of the Chinese party-state have taken in recent years in expressing opinions about issues like Hong Kong, Taiwan and domestic matters – along with anything that relates to China’s interests abroad.

Rational fears?

Offending China was never difficult. In the era of current President and Communist Party head Xi Jinping, it has become extremely easy, and the Chinese government has not been coy in expressing this for everyone who wants to hear it. The assumption that this sort of environment must necessarily impact on the way people write and deal with China in some way, usually problematic, has strengthened.

This is partly because there is a mass of evidence that censorship and fear of reprisals is a massive issue within the People’s Republic. In the last few years alone a government edict leaked in 2013 – Document No 9 – clearly instructed those working in Chinese universities to avoid discussing ideas like democracy, federalism or constitutionalism. There have been many cases of academics removed from their positions for failing to toe the line, one of the most high profile recently was that of law expert Xu Zhangrun from elite Tsinghua University in 2019. Even foreign experts working in Chinese universities have felt the icy hand of control: American Christopher Balding departed his post in southern China in 2018 due to feeling unsafe and unable to speak freely.

In the relatively recent past, it was fairly straightforward to work out the topics that might arouse comment and direct interest from Chinese government officials, embassies and the official state media. Output produced in English mostly did not register. Only those referring to specific issues that appeared in high-profile outlets like the Financial Times, Economist, Wall Street Journal and New York Times tended to gain attention. Someone writing on the oppression of Tibetans, the vast detentions of people of Uighur ethnic minority status in the Xinjiang region since 2017, or about Taiwan and pressure on its autonomy (the island currently enjoys de facto independence, though the People’s Republic insists it remains part of China), in any of these outlets, or in Chinese, in ways which was critical of the Chinese government’s position was likely to get rebutted.

In some cases the author(s) would even be invited to discussions in person with Chinese Embassy officials. There were times when more prominent figures were even banned from the country – or at least placed on a visa blacklist. Foreign scholars who wrote a book about Xinjiang in the 2000s are a well-known example.

As China attempts to tell its story more widely in the world and be more proactive about its global messaging, there has been a more assertive stance. Sometimes this takes the form of attacks on social media, when posts go up by commentators or writers critical of China, by the army of ‘wumao’ activists – those sometimes paid by the Chinese government to put content in comments sections attacking critics and defending China. Many of these are by those who sincerely believe in what they are writing. China is increasingly willing to call out those who criticise it. For universities, this can run the risk of impacting on the recruitment of Chinese students, or undertaking research collaborations with China. Universities like the University of Nottingham, which has a campus in Ningbo, have been viewed as particularly susceptible to having their interests directly impinged on if academics are critical of China.

When to self-censor – and when not to

Despite this, as the case of Nottingham also proves (while it certainly has academics who are critical of China, their freedom to be so has not been affected by their university’s broader interests in the People’s Republic of China), it is very difficult to distinguish the perception that China is seeking to pressurise specific academic work from the reality of whether it actually is. This relates directly to self-censorship. Are people pre-emptively censoring their writing because they erroneously think the issues they write about will cause problems and responses, or are people self-censoring their writing to pre-empt and avoid a negative response because the issues they write about are genuinely sensitive topics likely to provoke a response? The first is almost a speculative act – ‘I am doing this because I think there might be a problem’ – as opposed to one based on real evidence – ‘I am doing this because there will be a problem, and I can predict it’.

China is increasingly willing to call out those who criticise it. For universities, this can run the risk of impactig on the recruitment of Chinese students, or undertaking research collaborations with China

Pre-emptive self-censorship from over-anxiety and misjudgement may well be a greater problem than self-censorship that is undertaken because it really is about things that will cause reactions. While it does show the general risk and nervousness about writing around issues like China, it does not show conclusively whether that nervousness is right or appropriate.

What is clear is that in the last few years, the fear and anxiety of facing individual and institutional consequences for straying over the ever-shifting red line that manages to offend China has risen dramatically.

Fear of what might happen is as much a problem as what actually has occurred or will occur. This fear is reinforced by the fact that China is much more powerful now. This is further strengthened by the fact that, for many, China is also not well known. That China has a political system and a cultural and philosophical view of itself and its relationship to the outside world means that it requires a knowledge-based, nuanced and sophisticated analysis and understanding. Its rise to global prominence presents many challenges to it and the rest of the world.

The Covid-19 crisis in early 2020, which spread from China to Europe and the US, dramatically illustrates this. In this context, the need for a neutral space in universities, thinktanks and elsewhere, where the implications of China’s rise can be understood in different frameworks and better conceptualised, has become more critical. The need for credible voices, untainted by claims they are partisan or undertaking self-censorship, has never been greater. And yet, both the often visceral attacks by those antipathetic to China because of its political system, its human rights issues and its actions over Tibet, Taiwan or the South China Sea, and the equally passionate responses and defences either by the Chinese government or its supporters, means that this space for neutrality has become squeezed and compromised almost to the point of becoming uninhabitable.

Those who experience the issues of how to research and understand China objectively in their work, while also being very aware of the consequences if they stray into the many areas of sensitivity, are doctoral students and early career researchers. Some of these may originally come from China, and have to protect friends, family and networks there. Others are involved in field research in sensitive ethnic minority areas, or around potentially contentious social policy issues like landownership reform or migrant labourer rights. For these, the worst that can happen is that they are detained. But for those not from China, while they at least do not get to see the inside of a Chinese detention centre, they do run the risk of ending up being unable to get visas, and then unable to do their field research and to produce the all-important work that will further their academic careers. These are serious consequences, which universities outside China need to be aware of, and demonstrate an understanding of. They are exacerbated by the very precarious situation that most researchers embarking on their careers endure in any field. It makes a difficult situation even worse.

Look between the extremes

In acknowledging the complexity of self-censorship as an issue, one final matter has to be added. This is the simple need to sometimes write about contentious issues in a way that is even-handed and sensitive.

The Hong Kong protests in 2019 offer a case in point. In some analysis, these were framed as a fight between defenders of democracy and freedom against the autocratic Chinese central state. In others, Hong Kong was viewed as a place descending into anarchy, proving that democracy was debilitating and corrosive to social cohesion. Between these extremes, there were a range of positions. In writing about these issues at the time, and afterwards, I had to make two admissions. First, that the complexity of what was happening in Hong Kong, the speed of events and the range of actors, meant that no one could claim to be absolutely authoritative. A Clausewitz-like chaos of war had descended, where events and time had sped up. The best option was to reserve at least some space for contingency in judgements about what was happening and what it all meant.

The second choice I made was to acknowledge that everyone involved in the events had some measure of culpability. The Chinese government had adopted heavy-handed, almost imperious policies towards the city since Xi’s rise in 2012.The administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam had been incompetent, and at times simply lost control of the public situation.

There was no clear sign of a coherent political strategy among many of the different activists and protest groups or their advisers. They want a range of diverse things, from political reform to outright independence. Some just wanted to protest. Nor did it help that the US, Britain and other governments had sometimes well-intentioned, but often opportunistic, politicians and public figures using Hong Kong for their larger purpose of simply attacking China itself. Their newfound ‘expertise’ around Hong Kong was curiously timed. Many of these have now migrated to using Covid-19 as their main point of attack though their objective remains unchanged.

This is not to denigrate the sincerity of many of those involved in the Hong Kong protests or the management of them. But sincerity does not mean people are doing wise, correct or decent things.
The greatest problem was the cast-iron certainty with which many approached understanding the Hong Kong issue. As an observer, all I could do was provide a note of scepticism and doubt – for everyone.

Is tact or neutrality along these lines also self-censorship? Or is it an admission that for certain important messages addressed to the Chinese government who, after all, continue to have the most influence over issues in their own country, means deploying more neutral, diplomatic language and strategies? It also means recognising complexity. There is a big difference between sounding like one is commanding something and suggesting the same thing. One can indeed berate Beijing for its measures in Xinjiang. The repression in this region is appalling – and has been for many years – before it intensified over 2017 into 2018. Is writing categorically critical attacks of the events there likely to change minds in Beijing, or would it be better simply to point out the policies implemented in the last few years are very likely to lead to the very thing they have ostensibly been aimed at preventing – building up local resentment and fuelling radicalisation? The consequences of this will take decades to handle. If one wants to try to do something, anything, about Xinjiang as an outsider, it seems to me more likely that the second tactic – focusing on policy effectiveness and clear, profound questions about this in the region – is likely to work better than the first.

Some could argue that the role of scholars is not to influence but to record. This is a statement by some academics I often hear when attending international seminars. They need to record with absolute veracity, not frame things in a neat, policy-friendly framework which might not currently exist. On an issue like this, however, knowing something very often means at least wanting to do something about it. The question is what. Many who write and think about Xinjiang tend to drift into some form of active engagement. The issue is so current and so extreme. Even writing about it so more people know what is happening there is a form of action. The question is what one tries to do. There are various paths and choices that lie ahead; it depends on the individual scholar or researcher about which they take.

Politics, risk and knowledge

With China, especially now, there are no easy answers. It was always a highly politicised subject, right from the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949. Figures as significant as Joseph Needham and Joan Robinson in the 1950s and 1960s were accused of being over-supportive and friendly to China. They defended themselves by saying they believed the Communist Party was delivering a better standard of living to people who had experienced war, famine and poverty in the earlier part of the century. In a different way, but every bit as divided, the debate about China today still rages. As for the issue of self-censorship, the one thing I have learned in 25 years dealing with this issue and this country and its culture is to stand by one specific motto: it’s complicated.

Therefore, all universities must think through, and rapidly adopt, a risk-management strategy for any dealings with China. This should cover all areas of intellectual enquiry. It should spell out clearly and without naivety the risks, and opportunities, of doing work with China and on China. It should also offer some ideas on how to manage issues such as demands from Chinese partners.

The need for credible voices, untainted by claims they are partisan or undertaking self-censorship, has never been greater

European and American universities mostly have clear charters covering free speech and expression.
They need to make sure these are absolutely upheld and that China does not cause them to make exceptions. They should set up a designated body including all the key partners in the institution who research or work with China, to gain their input and advice. They need to be ready to say no to demands or issues from China that they feel violate their own values, but ensure they do this in a neutral and respectful way. There needs to be more co-ordination for a strategy relating to China in bodies like the Russell Group, producing advice and ideas for all members that is non-politicised and pragmatic.

The greatest problem of dealing with China is often a lack of knowledge and a proper understanding. Building knowledge up among themselves, and within themselves, would greatly help universities. Once these measures are in place, while the issues of self-censorship might not be wholly put to rest, they are at least placed in a context where people feel more protected and more able to get on with doing their jobs: thinking, writing, and trying to understand.

This essay by Professor Kerry Brown is an extract from UK Universities and China – HEPI Report 132 (HEPI), edited by Michael Natzler


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