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China Scholars Need to Break Free of Beijing

By Peter Zhang

A new report should spark self-examination by China scholars and questioning from others at how individuals who are often protected by tenure are serving Western societies.

According to the 35-page report, “The Repressive Experiences Among China Scholars: New Evidence from Survey Data,” by Sheena Chestnut Greitens of University of Missouri and Rory Truex of Princeton University, 70 percent of the 562 scholars who responded to the global survey agreed that self-censorship is a major concern in the academic field of China studies.

There are reasons for this. Quite a few of them have been banned from visiting China, and 9 percent have even been “served with tea,” a euphemism for being interrogated by Chinese security agents.

Perhaps, the most harrowing experience belongs to professor Anne-Marie Brady of University of Canterbury in New Zealand, whose office and home were both burglarized after publishing a detailed report on China’s influence operations in New Zealand. Her well-cited paper drew worldwide attention and likely the ire of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Both Interpol and New Zealand Security Intelligence Service reportedly are investigating the break-ins. Brady believes, “It was a psychological operation; it was intended to intimidate.”

A spokesperson for the prime minister was quoted as saying, “New Zealand remains vigilant to the threat of foreign interference and has robust measures in place to protect our values, institutions, and economy.”

In 2007, Carsten A. Holz, an economist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, authored an alarming article, “Have China Scholars All Been Bought?”, in the Far Eastern Economic Review, holding Western researchers in China studies accountable for currying favor with the CCP, in exchange for access and personal safety in China.

In the article, Holz writes: “Our use of language to conform to the image the Party wishes to project is pervasive. Would the description ‘a secret society characterized by an attitude of popular hostility to law and government’ not properly describe the secrecy of the Party’s operations, its supremacy above the law, and its total control of the government? In Webster’s New World College Dictionary, this is the definition of ‘mafia.’

“The Party’s—or the mafia’s—terminology pervades our writing and teaching. … We are not even willing to call China what its own constitution calls it: a dictatorship.”

The epidemic of self-censorship has extended to elite universities in the United States, according to a recent article in The New Republic, which calls it, “The Other Political Correctness.”

After conducting interviews with more than 100 professors, administrators, and students, the writer concludes that some individuals and academic institutions appear to be too eager to please Beijing or too fearful of offending the party state. The article cites a number of instances of self-censorship, including Columbia University’s Global Center in Beijing canceling several politically sensitive talks.

Sophistry in China Studies

Plato’s depiction of sophists might be less than positive, and perhaps rightly so, should they serve to be merchants of insincere and superficial opinions, and oppressors of souls and wisdom. If integrity is missing in China studies, authentic scholarship will vacate, allowing sophistry of various kinds and even lies to permeate the discipline’s work.

It’s perhaps understandable for researchers living in China to kowtow to the CCP, but it’s unconscionable for scholars outside China to behave like timid collaborators of the communist regime through self-censorship. Topics that are particularly sensitive to the CCP include Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square massacre, underground Christians, and Xinjiang.

The late Margaret Thatcher, a former UK prime minister, once said, “When I’m out of politics, I’m going to run a business. It’ll be called ‘rent-a-spine.’” Sadly, the Iron Lady is no longer around.

A good number of China scholars, however, conduct their research truthfully, irrespective of how the CCP reacts and as a matter of intellectual hygiene.

They might now be on the CCP’s blacklist, perhaps to be known in the future as the honor roll when China becomes an open society. After all, the public in the free world and elsewhere certainly deserves to be informed of research findings from all sides on any academic topic.

‘White-Washing’ the Party State

One might ask, when did Beijing take the community of China studies hostage? Even during the Cold War’s most hostile time, Russian studies researchers who lived outside the Eastern Bloc never faced such widespread apprehension and self-censorship. What is called China exceptionalism is perhaps in part to blame.

These days, the definition of China exceptionalism has many interpretations, depending on who writes about it.

China apologists, otherwise also known as Panda Huggers, paint a rosy picture of the Communist regime indiscriminately, to the extent that they would whitewash this Orwellian party-state as an alternative state capitalism, or the so-called “China model,” to compete with the “flawed” Western democracies on a global scale.

These apologists may come from think tanks, media, academic, and business interest groups. They willfully overlook the CCP’s ruthless domestic suppression and the final communist mission as stated by Mao Zedong—“the ultimate emancipation of mankind as a whole.” At the same time, they normalize, rationalize, and accept what is actually abnormal, irrational and unacceptable, regarding Beijing’s behavior at home and abroad.

Over the years, these China apologists have successfully lobbied Washington to refrain from confronting Beijing on a wide range of concerns, such as unfair trade, piracy of intellectual property, human rights, and espionage on U.S. soil.

They persuaded policymakers to save the CCP’s face by holding human rights dialogues behind closed doors, instead of addressing publicly Beijing’s dismal human rights record, including the horrific crime of harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience.

Each time Washington moves a step closer to sell some defensive weaponry to Taiwan or to take similar acts that annoy Beijing, these apologists rush to echo the CCP’s proverbial backlash: “The feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people are hurt!”

Such recycled verbiage, however, is so obviously self-serving that Chinese netizens often feel compelled to clarify their frustrations online.

One wrote on Twitter, “Let me tell you, I’m a member of the Chinese people, and my feelings haven’t been hurt by you in the least. The feelings you’ve really hurt belong to the people of Zhao.” To avoid censorship, the Chinese netizens are now using the term, “the people of Zhao”—the powerful upper-society family in a famous novel by Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881–1936)—to refer to the CCP elite today.

When this type of exceptionalism steered by China apologists becomes pervasive, it becomes inevitable that much of the CCP’s wrongdoing is made to appear somehow justified.

The so-called constructive engagement policy embraced by all previous administrations lacked the guts to stand up to Beijing and failed to make the honest Sinologists feel secure, thereby setting the stage for the rampant self-imposed censorship—truly, a fear-based habit.

While the CCP is going about its scare tactics as usual, things are beginning to take a new turn in some aspects of life in dealing with China since President Donald Trump moved into the White House, according to a U.S. diplomat who was once stationed in Beijing. For instance, Washington no longer hesitates to point out the CCP’s espionage and infiltration on America’s college campuses, pointing to the Confucius Institutes in particular. As evidenced in the Greitens-Truex report, China scholars are beginning to share their significant concerns over Beijing’s interference with their research.

While some China watchers are reluctant to acknowledge it, a new cold war between Beijing and Washington has already begun, and may be around for some time.

Western democracies must be as firm in their standoff with this communist regime in Asia as they once were with the former USSR near the North Pole. The main difference this time is perhaps we are facing a much more formidable foe.

In times of this importance, humanity needs to be unafraid. As Shakespeare wrote in “Measure for Measure,” “virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.”

Peter Zhang contributed this article which was previously published for EET. Peter Zhang is a researcher on China's political economy and a graduate of Beijing International Studies University, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Harvard Kennedy School.


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