Censorship: Another Cheap Chinese Import We Don’t Need

Rachelle Peterson

This article originally appeared at American Greatness on August 28, 2017. 

Chinese censors nearly won again. Cambridge University Press last week confirmed it would comply with requests from Chinese authorities to block access in China to certain articles published in The China Quarterly, a top peer-reviewed journal. Three days later, the publisher reversed course, announcing it would keep the journal intact, and make the articles in question available for free.

All this came about after two Chinese agencies responsible for monitoring the flow of information had demanded that more than 300 articles on Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Taiwan, Chairman Mao, Falun Gong, the Cultural Revolution, and other sensitive topics be made inaccessible to subscribers in China. In announcing its original decision to bowdlerize one of its journals, Cambridge University Press claimed that it was “troubled” by the increasing frequency of China’s censorious exercises, but forced under the circumstances to acquiesce. China had threatened to cut off access to all China Quarterly articles, unless the publisher itself voluntarily blocked the offending articles. Initially, Cambridge caved.

It took an international outcry to give Cambridge backbone. A Change.org petition garnered 600 signatures before Cambridge’s reversal. Signatories warned the publisher that “we as academics and universities reserve the right to pursue other actions including boycotts of Cambridge University Press and related journals” should the press continue in its decision. (As of August 28, the petition has more than 1,300 names.) Scholars across the globe declared Cambridge’s decision an abridgment of intellectual freedom. On August 21, Cambridge announced that its decision to censor was actually a “temporary measure” that was now being rescinded “so as to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the University’s work is founded.”



Cambridge drew international ire not just because it had declined to defend its core principles, but because it had become complicit in censorship. China’s historical abridgment of intellectual freedom is notorious. The country rates “Not Free” in Freedom House’s annual index of freedom, with a score of 15 on a scale of 0 (worst) to 100 (best). The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks China among the 10 most censorious nations in the world, in the company of North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

Much of that suppression occurs at the hands of Chinese agents, who construct internet firewalls, monitor communications, and even ban puns in increasingly desperate efforts to rein in the double-speak that censorship breeds. Winnie the Pooh is the latest victim of Chinese censors, who bristled at comparisons between the fat bear of very little brain and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Censors also block online images of “Tank Man” braving the Chinese military at Tiananmen Square, or articles that criticize the Chinese Communist Party.

Cambridge diverged from other groups that chose to play hardball with China. The New York Times opted to pull out of China entirely rather than submit to China’s selective editing. Google had the option to operate in China under censorship restrictions but chose to leave altogether. Cambridge, given the same choice, decided to engage in self-censorship.

Congratulations to Cambridge for making the right decision in the end. But its initial submission to China shows a dangerous willingness to do China’s dirty work. And unfortunately, hundreds of universities have already made the kind of trade-off that Cambridge narrowly avoided, sacrificing intellectual freedom in order to preserve a nominal relationship with China. The main way in which universities do so is by hosting Confucius Institutes.


Soft Power U.

Confucius Institutes are Chinese government-sponsored teaching and research centers located at colleges and universities, offering classes in Chinese language and culture. There are about 500 worldwide, including 103 at American institutions, which permit the Chinese government to fund, staff, and provide textbooks for these classes. I recently completed a study of the rise of Confucius Institutes in America, and found that universities with Confucius Institutes give up a significant amount of autonomy in order to receive China’s largesse. Tiananmen Square, Tibet, the Cultural Revolution—the same topics that were nearly excised from The China Quarterly—are currently off-limits in Confucius Institute classes offered at American colleges and universities today.

Instead, the Chinese government trains Confucius Institute teachers to focus on “deepening friendly relationships with other nations” and promoting among their students a spirit of goodwill toward China. Xiuli Yin, while on leave from Jilin HuaQiao University of Foreign Languages to serve as the founding Chinese director of the Confucius Institute at New Jersey City University, told me she dodges any questions related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. If a student persists in asking, she will show a contemporary photograph of the square and “point out the beautiful architecture.” Yin likewise won’t discuss the status of Taiwan, or the persecution of Falun Gong. “We don’t touch it” is how she described the Confucius Institute’s approach to issues deemed delicate in China.

In 2013, Canada’s McMaster University closed its Confucius Institute after a teacher, Sonia Zhao, filed a human rights complaint arguing the university was complicit in China’s discriminatory hiring practices. Zhao is part of Falun Gong, a persecuted practice whose adherents are banned from following or proclaiming in China, and was forced to sign (in China) a Confucius Institute contract that forbade Falun Gong participation. North Carolina State University disinvited the Dalai Lama in 2009, reportedly under pressure from its Confucius Institute.

Confucius Institutes also place university professors, even those technically unaffiliated with the Institute, under enormous pressure to avoid offending China. One senior professor at a State University of New York school told me he would commit professional suicide to challenge his university’s ties to the Chinese government: “this is my career and livelihood on the line.” Another told of a senior professor who stripped colleagues’ doors of all banners and posters related to Taiwan just before an official visit from agents from the Hanban, the Chinese government agency that runs Confucius Institutes. Universities dependent on Chinese funding become desperate to avoid offending their benefactors.


Strings Attached

Why accept such conditions? University administrators deny such concessions outright, or else minimize them with justifications that mimic Cambridge’s initial censorship decision. They emphasize the importance of “engaging” with China. China may not measure up to Western standards of liberalism, but is it not better to meet the nation where it is, rather than to cut off relationships with Chinese universities altogether?

“It’s important to study Chinese culture,” Rutgers University Provost Richard Edwards told me, adding that he found Rutgers’ Confucius Institutes to have only academic, not political, restrictions. There was no need to discuss Chinese history in a class on grammar, and any teacher would be wise to shut down extraneous conversations about China’s democracy deficit. “They might not be able to comment on” Tiananmen Square, Edwards said, acknowledging the restrictions that teachers from China face. “On the other hand, they have access to the internet here.” Later he added, “For me the issue is, do you want to shut off all contact with a nation because you disagree over some issues, or do you express opinions and views but keep interaction, aiming at a long-term positive effect?”

Randy Kluver, director of the Confucius Institute at Texas A&M University, said he personally opposed the speech restrictions that China placed on the teachers it sent to Confucius Institutes, but wouldn’t argue with China’s right to enforce its own laws. “There’s a lot of Chinese laws I have problems with. I’ve been a critic of Chinese religious freedom, all kinds of Chinese policies. … We can argue about that all day long, but that is Chinese law. Should Chinese law govern how Chinese funds are spent?”

At the University of Buffalo, Stephen Dunnett, Vice Provost for International Education and chairman of the board of the Confucius Institute, said China’s initiatives to improve its image were no worse than American efforts at self-promotion. “Is it Chinese soft power? It could be. But so do we have that too.”

No university—or publishing house—should demand ideological conformity of its academic partners. They needn’t agree with China on every issue in order to engage with Chinese institutions or scholars. But they must agree to intellectual freedom, the bedrock of academic exchange. If China cannot—or will not—commit to respecting that, then Western academic institutions should decline to bow to China’s censorious requests.

China has long treated higher education as the plaything of politicians. Mao relied on Open-Door schooling and re-education camps to inculcate Communist habits and beliefs. President Xi Jinping has reiterated his own commitment to using higher education to advance his political goals. In December, he delivered a major address calling on Chinese universities to “adhere to correct political orientation” and serve as Communist party “strongholds.” Xinhua News Agency, the official press agency of the Chinese government, quoted Xi as saying, “China’s higher education institutions are under the leadership of the CPC [Chinese Communist Party], and are socialist colleges with Chinese characteristics, so higher education must be guided by Marxism, and the Party’s policies in education must be fully carried out.”

China has also set its sights on other nations’ colleges and universities as another means to build its soft power and massage its international image. In 2009, Li Changchun, then the head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party and a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee,called Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” The recent pressure on Cambridge University Press is of a piece with China’s larger political goal of restricting access to information and ideas that undermine the Communist Party.

Cambridge narrowly avoided caving to Chinese censors. Shame on those universities with Confucius Institutes that already have. Political censorship has no place in higher education.

Image: Silhouette by Johnathan Nightingale/ CC BY-SA 2.0CC BY-SA 2.0 

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