Overseas China scholars face self-censorship dilemma

As China combines internal censorship and a major crackdown in its Xinjiang region, with aggressive verbal attacks and informal pressure on overseas academics, the self-censorship dilemma is becoming acute for overseas China scholars who comment China’s human rights, Tibet, Taiwan independence and other sensitive topics.

Self-censorship is rife and some who previously spoke out on China matters have gone silent, fearing access to the country, on which much of their research depends, could be curbed if they irritate the Chinese authorities.

“There is a constant reminder with certain topics that this or that could get you into trouble with Beijing. It influences graduate topics and choices for academics and even their behaviour on social media. There is a very widespread concern about this,” says Kevin Carrico, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

The issue was highlighted when Carrico published a blog on 17 July on the moral culpability of overseas China scholars who do not speak out, which sparked a lively twitter debate.

“As academics, we experience pressures, both direct and indirect, from the [Communist] Party-state, all too often abetted by publishers and universities eager to sacrifice principles to cash in on this massive economic opportunity known as ‘China’,” he wrote.

“Yet at the same time, we are also placing pressures upon ourselves, imagining the potential responses of the seemingly all-knowing and all-powerful Party-state to our each and every move. As a result, it remains unclear whether the primary issue is in fact censorship, or self-censorship, and where we can begin to draw the line between the two,” Carrico wrote in the article, also published in the latest issue of the quarterly journal Made in China.

“It has become increasingly apparent that one cannot conduct research or write on China today without touching on fundamental questions of moral culpability,” Carrico wrote.

“As the political system tightens, as academic restrictions increase, as ever more writers and activists face ever longer prison sentences, and as camps are built and filled with living, breathing, thinking human beings, we are no longer in comfortable territory.

“Rather than worrying about our next 10-year visa [to China], we all need to be more critically reflective on the ways in which our behaviour and collaboration contribute to the perpetuation of a system that does great injustices on a massive scale.”

Carrico noted in the article that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, the Muslim Turkic minority in China’s North Western Xinjiang province, are being held in ‘re-education camps’. Among the detained are Uighur professor and poet Abdulqadir Jalaleddin of Xinjiang Pedagogical University. And among those who have died in the camps are Islamic scholar Muhammad Salih Hajim, who translated the Quran from Arabic to Uighur.

In Xinjiang itself “we see all too direct pressures from the Party-state: there is no blurred line between censorship and self-censorship. People are not delaying publications or worrying about visa denials. They are facing imprisonment and even death simply for speaking their minds and doing what they do: for exercising some of the most basic rights that we increasingly take for granted in our self-censorship,” Carrico wrote.

“When we take into consideration the sheer extent of these sacrifices ongoing in China today, the desire of academics outside of China to stay on the authorities’ ‘good side’ and avoid potential visa problems is, to put it bluntly, the epitome of narcissistic self-absorption.”

Lively response

The article sparked a lively Twitter debate.

Sheena Greitens, assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri in the United States, currently conducting a survey of China scholars that includes questions of self-censorship, tweeted: “Academics, like journalists, have obligations to protect sources/subjects/interlocutors. Most of us are well aware that our potential visa problems pale in comparison to possible consequences to interpreter/archivist/interviewee in China.”

But she also pointed to cases where it is not the scholars themselves who are self-censoring but third parties such as universities and publishers, “often without scholars’ knowledge or permission”.

In one widely publicised case the United Kingdom’s Cambridge University Press in August 2017 removed more than 300 articles on sensitive topics such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang published in the journal The China Quarterly from its Chinese website. It only reversed the decision after an outcry by China scholars and others.

Others noted that speaking out is a personal decision for academics. For example, there is a difference between the situation faced by scholars wholly overseas and those with family in China who could possibly face repercussions.

Adrian Zenz, a specialist on Xinjiang who lectures at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, told University World News that not speaking out does not necessarily mean nothing is being said. “The general perception is that maybe not enough is being said [by scholars] and that is quite true, but sometimes we don’t know what’s being said behind closed doors.”

The ‘lure of China’ that lurks in the background leads many to self-censor. Nonetheless, Zenz acknowledges that some might tone down their criticism “for good long-term reasons”, so maybe “there needs to be some caution about how far to push this outspokenness”.

Zenz adds that other than the need to protect informants, there are few academic guidelines “about being open or vocal on ethical issues”.

“And that’s one thing that there is discontent about and rightly so because there is no ethical obligation at the moment to speak out at all.”

But he agrees with Carrico that the Xinjiang crackdown, which he describes as “now the largest incarceration of a minority group in the world”, has become so significant that “it can no longer be confined to Xinjiang; any China scholar really has to take note and needs to think what that means”.

Rian Thum, an associate professor of history at Loyola University New Orleans in the US and an expert on Uighurs in China, tweeted that it is not enough to say speaking out is a personal decision. “Scholars have responsibilities to the communities they study,” and added there are China citizens “concerned about these issues but [they] face real danger if they speak out. Their silence is compelled. In most cases, foreign scholars’ silence is not.”

Fear of being banned from China

Fear of being denied visas to China, or of harassment and restrictions while in China are grounds for self-censorship mentioned by overseas scholars. But Carrico argues that “it’s not plausible that China will ban the entire community of overseas Chinese scholars”.

“I’m not asking people to abandon their China research,” Carrico explains. “But if that happens, it is solely a result of the Chinese state blocking people. So the question is that if we agree it is right to talk about these things but at the same time it comes perhaps at a cost inflicted by a political regime that is not the kindest in the world, then do I not do what is right because the government is going to do something wrong?”

Thum also said the fear of banning is overblown, describing those denied China visas as a “rather exclusive blacklist” and adding that “it really isn’t easy to get banned”.

Thum notes that despite openly arguing against the Communist Party line in an article he published after the 2009 uprising in Xinjiang, “I’ve been granted three visas since then”, including a 10-year visa after publishing a book on Uighur history in 2014.

Carrico says there has never been unfettered access in China for overseas academics, including for decades during and after the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Academics and researchers “are well advised to think creatively about access and envision alternatives”, he says, having not visited China himself since 2011 when he translated a book on the highly sensitive topic of self-immolation in Tibet.

“Maybe we need to give up on the myth of China access, especially as things appear to become ever more politically complicated there. Nobody is going to have unfettered access,” he says.

But describing Xinjiang as a “uniquely deplorable and disturbing case in China today”, Carrico says China scholars should not “look back 10 years from now and think about what they did when China was building re-education camps, which are really ethnicity or religion-based concentration camps. I don’t feel comfortable with trading my silence on that for an invitation to some conference in Shanghai.”

The ‘Xinjiang pledge’

The more people speak out, “the lower the potential blowback [from China]”, Carrico argues. He has floated the idea of a “Xinjiang Pledge” where “at the start of public talks, regardless of location, one acknowledges the distressing rights situation in China today”.

“Simply by talking about these matters openly, and attempting to give a voice to those who are unable to speak, the suffocating cycle of silence, to which far too many of us have been accomplices at the nexus of censorship and self-censorship, will ever so slowly be broken,” Carrico wrote in his article.

“The chances of getting banned or having informants harmed for briefly mentioning Xinjiang atrocities in a public talk are pretty much zero. So I urge all China specialists to take up the Xinjiang pledge,” adds Thum. But he notes that speaking out about Xinjiang must go beyond Xinjiang specialists, and expressed the hope that other China experts would speak out.

Andrew Chubb, a researcher at Princeton University who studies the relationship between public opinion in China and its foreign policy, in a tweet on 26 July supported the underlying premise of the Xinjiang pledge. “Anyone who knows what’s going on – academics or otherwise – should be looking actively for opportunities to bring more attention to the [Xinjiang] issue,” he tweeted.

“Prefacing talks about China by asking everyone to spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of people suffering these evils is a good idea and one I’ll be taking up,” said Thum, but he added, “I’m not going to do it blindly, regardless of the circumstances. There are situations in which it might get someone else into trouble or be counterproductive.”