There is an epidemic of self-censorship at U.S. universities on the subject of China, one that limits debate and funnels students and academics away from topics likely to offend the Chinese Communist Party. This epidemic stems less from the hundreds of millions of dollars Chinese individuals and the Chinese Communist Party spend in U.S. universities, or the influx of students from mainland China—roughly 350,000 in the United States, up more than fivefold from a decade ago. Rather, it is that some people in American academia, too eager to please Beijing or too fearful of offending China and the Chinese people, have submitted to a sophisticated global censorship regime. This weakens not only their scholarship and integrity, but also their negotiating power with Beijing over issues such as access for research, conferences and other academic collaborations, and joint programs between American and Chinese institutions.
More than 100 interviews over the last six months with professors, students, administrators, and alumni at U.S. universities reveal a worrying prevalence of self-censorship regarding China. In a previously unreported incident, Columbia University’s Global Center in Beijing canceled several talks it feared would upset Chinese officials, according to a person familiar with the matter. Some graduate students admitted to regularly censoring themselves. “It has gotten to the point where I don’t engage with anything overly political relating to the Chinese state,” said a white graduate student at a top American university, who described her views as “middle of the road” for those studying China. “I would not willfully do anything that would endanger my ability to get a visa to China in the future,” she added. (Like many of the people I spoke to for this article, the student asked to remain anonymous, because of the real and perceived risks of openly discussing self-censorship. She also asked that I identify her race because she believes there is even less freedom for people of color and Chinese-Americans to speak openly about China.)
Sometimes the censorship is blatant, like at Columbia, or when North Carolina State University canceled a visit from the Dalai Lama in 2009. “I don’t want to say we didn’t think about whether there were implications,” said the university’s provost, Warwick Arden. “Of course you do. China is a major trading partner for North Carolina.” Or, more recently, in September 2016, when the provost of New York’s Alfred University, Rick Stephens, personally ejected the researcher Rachelle Peterson from campus for investigating Chinese government influence at the school. (Stephens, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.)
More often, the self-censorship is nuanced and difficult to detect. “You’re not going to get a lot of China specialists openly confessing that self-censorship is a big problem,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California who is known for his critical stance toward the Chinese Communist Party. And yet Pei believes that those who communicate to nonacademic audiences, particularly in the media, thus increasing the likelihood that the Chinese government will see their work, and those who work on sensitive issues like Tibet, must watch what they say. “You don’t want to go out on a limb,” he said. “You want to come across as very measured.” Sounding “too strident,” he said, not only risks “the ire of the Chinese government but could also lose the respect of your peers, who value evidence above opinion.” Robert Barnett, who ran Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program from its founding in 1999 until stepping down in 2017, emphasized that Columbia never actively restricted his work, but that there was often “a very strong tendency within the university, and with many prestigious institutions in the U.S., not to include people who study the kind of subject I work on in any kind of academic collaborations in China or in dialogues with Chinese delegates.”
In March, at the annual conference of the Association for Asian Studies, I spoke with Anne Henochowicz, an editor and translator who studied Chinese literature and folklore at Ohio State University. Part of her research involved the oral tradition and folk music in Inner Mongolia, and she struggled with how forthright to be in writing and in her research about a potentially politically controversial topic, in part because she feared Beijing might deny her a visa in the future. An American historian of China said, “I frequently hear graduate students and younger scholars—people with academic jobs but pre-tenure—being advised not to explore sensitive subjects in their research, so they can preserve visa access.” Roughly a dozen people I spoke with told me that they don’t self-censor, but that they do occasionally word things differently so as not to “offend” their Chinese hosts, partners, or students. Jim Millward, a Georgetown University professor who had his ability to enter China severely restricted for more than a decade, ostensibly for studying the controversial Chinese region of Xinjiang, called it “politeness.” Once, he said, when he was presenting a paper at a conference in China, a Chinese translator removed a reference he had made to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. Millward let the edit stand. “I don’t call that self-censorship, but rather translating for a particular audience, which I know sounds like a horrible euphemism, but could be equated to being polite as a guest in someone’s house.”
Self-censorship is a familiar concept in global business—and especially in Washington’s political circles. But academic self-censorship when it comes to China is particularly troubling. The country is America’s most important foreign relationship, chief geostrategic concern, largest single trading partner, and only real rival for global political power. U.S. universities and think tanks are among the best sources of information about China, especially because censorship there reduces the utility of Chinese journalists and academics working in the country. Self-censorship within American institutions, therefore, restricts the ability of U.S. policymakers, businesspeople, human rights advocates, and the general public to make smart decisions about how to interact with China.
“The art is learning to judge when you’re censoring yourself out of fear,” wrote an economist in April on Chinapol, a members-only email listserv for academics, journalists, lawyers, and activists who specialize in China, which he permitted me to quote publicly. “If you’re doing it out of fear, you have to then ask if your fear is warranted and outweighs the import of what you’re saying and the damage to a culture of saying what we believe or know to be true. If you put any worth on your own values, sometimes you have to be willing to accept the cost of upholding them.”
Chinese students abroad, Chinese professors, and Chinese-Americans face more pressure to self-censor in U.S. universities than white Americans, who rarely have family in China and never hold Chinese citizenship. (The field in the United States is almost entirely white and Asian.) This undermines an especially useful source of knowledge, as ethnically Chinese professors and students often benefit from more advanced linguistic skills and more nuanced understanding of their country than their American counterparts.
Consider what happened at the University of Maryland in May 2017. The graduating Chinese student Yang Shuping gave a commencement speech in which she praised the “fresh air” of the American system and said democracy and freedom were “worth fighting for.” A video of the speech went viral, garnering millions of views and hundreds of thousands of comments—many of them negative—on various social media platforms and publications in China, including China’s vitriolic tabloid the Global Times. A day later, after the home address of her family had been widely shared online, Yang issued a public apology for her speech. “I had no intentions of belittling my country,” she wrote. “I am deeply sorry and hope for forgiveness.”
Some Chinese students, American faculty members, and human rights activists believe Chinese students and faculty sometimes spy on other Chinese students—and, to a lesser extent, American professors. I spoke to a Chinese Ph.D. graduate of a U.S. university. She told me that a classmate approached her when she was a graduate student at a Chinese university in 2008 and asked if she wanted to work for him in China’s Ministry of State Security. “He knew that I had an offer to an American university and asked if I’d like to ‘acquire a second stipend.’ ” She said that she politely declined.
“I always worry that there are folks in the room who are reporting back on what they’re hearing,” said an assistant professor of political science at an American university. “And there almost certainly are. Reporting back on each other, too.” The white American graduate student told me she worried about Chinese students monitoring her speech and behavior. “If I said something in the classroom, and a student reported me, then maybe I would be under scrutiny for something,” she said—something that also might jeopardize her ability to get a visa to conduct research in China in the future. “That’s part of the minefield of teaching in the United States.”
Some Chinese people, however, feel more comfortable than their white American counterparts navigating issues the Party deems sensitive. “I feel that I am more OK to criticize China in front of Chinese students, because I am Chinese,” said Yuhua Wang, an assistant professor in the department of government at Harvard University. “I feel there is more trouble for other colleagues who teach Chinese politics. The students might be thinking, ‘OK, this is a white guy criticizing China who doesn’t know anything about China.’ ”
Generally speaking, however, those with a more direct link to China have more to lose. A recent graduate of a Ph.D. program at a top-tier university described how having relatives in China meant that he and others “face a starker choice about whether they will phrase things in a way that will cause them problems.”
This leverage also extends to universities with campuses in China or joint ventures with Chinese universities. Many top American universities maintain a presence in China, through summer language programs like the Harvard Beijing Academy; institutes such as the Stanford Center at Peking University that serve as platforms to attract students, fund-raise, allow faculty to conduct research, and host events; or even full campuses, like New York University–Shanghai and Johns Hopkins Nanjing.
Those institutions in China are “hostages,” said Pei, the Claremont McKenna professor, because the universities don’t want to jeopardize the status of their satellite institutions. Beijing “could make their life miserable in many ways,” he said—for instance by restricting visas, ramping up health and safety inspections, and even issuing threats of closure. “If you’re Stanford or Harvard and you have operations in China, are you going to host a famous dissident to speak?” he asked.
Lisa Lapin, Stanford’s vice president for university communications, said the suggestion of self-censorship at its campus in Beijing is “not accurate.” Jennifer Li-Chia Liu, the director of the summer language program the Harvard Beijing Academy, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Perhaps the most egregious capitulator is my alma mater, Columbia University, whose Global Center in Beijing canceled several talks in the spring and summer of 2015, after the announcement of an updated NGO management law spooked China’s foreign nonprofit and educational community, according to a person familiar with the matter. “There was a period of concern and freak-out,” this person said, over the new law, which contained broad provisions prohibiting activities that threaten China’s national security and unity. That spring, “Columbia started requiring the Columbia Global Center to submit a list of upcoming events for review. Then Columbia in New York selected the ones they decided were too politically sensitive and asked the Columbia Global Center in Beijing to cancel them.” The canceled events “involved respected people from the Chinese government, Chinese academics, and a wide representation of stakeholders working on issues of women’s rights,” said the person familiar with the matter. Joan Kaufman, who ran the Columbia Global Center from 2012 to 2016, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but the university denied that political sensitivities played a part in its decision-making. “Columbia did not cancel events in Beijing because of their political content,” a university spokesperson said. “The volume of programming at every global center is affected by many factors, including availability of speakers, interest, and administrative capacity.” According to the person familiar with the matter, however, the canceled events were a clear case of self-censorship. “No Chinese official asked the center to cancel any events,” the person said, “and no one in China communicated to the center that it should be doing anything different than what it was doing.”
To silence views that undermine the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and to persuade the world of China’s peaceful—and inevitable—rise, Beijing deploys a tactic that I like to think of as the Little Distraction. Through public histrionics or private penalties—canceling visas, statements condemning foreigners who misspeak as having “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”—the Party’s propaganda apparatus makes certain topics, such as the status of self-ruling Taiwan, which China claims as a province, seem radioactive. These fireworks obscure the most sensitive issues—such as whether the Party deserves to rule China—pushing them outside public discourse.
The first part of the Little Distraction involves convincing foreigners and foreign institutions, especially those with little experience with China, that conversations on a wide range of constantly evolving, and occasionally irrelevant, issues will offend the country and its 1.4 billion people—and that the offense will limit Americans’ access to the country. According to Lucy Hornby, deputy bureau chief of the Financial Times in Beijing, “China has a long and very consistent track record of trading the real or imagined benefits of ‘access’—visas, market share, joint venture approvals, research cooperation, IPO fees, and the ‘honor’ of being met at the Purple Light Pavilion in the Imperial City in Beijing by someone who far outranks you—for acquiescence and/or silence on its ‘red line’ issues.”
Beijing makes public examples of a small number of people and institutions—Mercedes-Benz, for example, which the Chinese government criticized in February for using a quote from the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post—which it chooses by some unknown calculus. And when institutions concede whether they’ve been made examples of or not, Chinese representatives convince them they therefore must concede just a little more. China employs this strategy with a wide range of American institutions. In January, for example, a U.S.-based employee of the Marriott hotel chain “liked” a Twitter post about the nationhood of Tibet, a Chinese region in which some citizens have long desired greater autonomy from China. This came amid a series of similar incidents with foreign brands such as Zara, Delta Airlines, and Qantas, and Beijing decided to make an example of Marriott—a company thriving in China, with nearly 300 hotels there and growing. Because Beijing likes foreigners to think that acknowledging the idea of Tibetan independence is a grave offense, it required Marriott to shut down all of its Chinese web sites and apps for seven days. Parroting China’s propaganda organs, the company apologized, saying it didn’t “support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.”
With that success, Beijing pushed further. In April, the Civil Aviation Administration of China sent a letter to 44 foreign airlines insisting that all their public-facing content clearly refer to Taiwan as part of China, or they would face punishment. Despite a surprisingly forthright statement from the Trump White House denouncing Beijing’s move as “Orwellian nonsense and part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies,” many airlines caved. In a May 22 report, the Associated Press found that 20 airlines had complied and listed Taiwan as part of China. In July, the United States’ three major international carriers, United, American, and Delta, bowed to the pressure from China and reclassified how they referenced Taiwan on their web sites—a change that Beijing said still did not go far enough. It’s unclear, however, whether Beijing was serious with its threat to punish the airlines.
The unpredictability and unevenness of how—and when and why—Beijing decides to act leads people and institutions to be overcautious, which only makes the strategy more effective. “There is no manual produced by the Chinese government about what we can and cannot say,” said Max Oidtmann, a China historian at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar. “The opacity of the Chinese censorship system is designed to make people self-censor to the greatest degree possible.”
Among academics and researchers who study China, the issues Beijing wants Americans to perceive as the most sensitive are known as the Three T’s: Taiwan, the self-governing island of 24 million people that Beijing views as a province pretending it’s independent; Tibet; and Tiananmen, a reference to the massive public plaza in the center of Beijing, the site of student protests and the notorious 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. “These issues make you controversial,” said a Ph.D. candidate studying China at a top-tier university.
There is no good polling in China on sensitive issues. Yet it’s safe to assume that China’s huge population holds a wide range of views when it comes to the Three T’s—often in contrast to the official government line. In hundreds of conversations I’ve had over the past decade with Chinese people who are not affiliated with the government, only a small minority expressed offense at perceived American positions on those issues. On Taiwan, for example, while some Chinese people expressed anger that Beijing hadn’t reclaimed the island, others saw it as a democratic model Beijing should emulate. It’s not that the Three T’s aren’t sensitive topics—they’re just not as sensitive as the Chinese government would have its critics believe.
The second, more complicated, and more pernicious part of the Little Distraction strategy is that the fixation on the Three T’s makes Americans more likely to overlook what actually are the most sensitive issues: exposing wrongdoing by Chinese leaders and criticizing specific policies; encouraging political organizing in China; calling for regime change or suggesting the Party should not rule China; and actively campaigning for the independence of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and more recently, Hong Kong.
Of these, the most sensitive issue involves suggestions that because of incompetence, corruption, or iniquity, the Communist Party, and the men—and they’re all men—in charge of it, do not deserve to rule China. Outside of these issues, and with few exceptions, academics and institutions can stand up to the Chinese government and emerge with their access and integrity intact. And yet many don’t.
Consider Columbia’s cancellation of the women’s events. The university administrators who made the decision may have read about the March 2015 detention in China of the “feminist five,” a group of anti–domestic violence activists. Police accused the women of disorderly conduct, though they were more likely targeted because their activism “has an organizational backbone,” said Diana Fu, author of the book Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China. The really sensitive issue about the feminist five is not their feminism. It’s that they organized politically, defying the Communist Party’s supreme authority.
Many people fail to see that issues involving China’s leaders and grassroots political activism—which represent the existential questions about China’s future—are the ones that actually matter. “The most important issue is who governs the biggest country on earth” and controls its vast resources, said Joshua Eisenman, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies China’s foreign policy. “Tibet, Taiwan, and other so-called ‘sensitive’ topics are peripheral.”
A report last year found that the Chinese government oversees an army of internet trolls that generate roughly 448 million social media posts annually. When a controversy erupts that incites criticism of the Party, its trolls react in a counterintuitive way. The strategy, the report’s authors found, “is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues.” Instead, the Party aims to “distract the public and change the subject.” The authors call it “reverse censorship.” Therein lies the value of the Little Distraction: It shifts the debate from the fundamental to the trivial.
There is no good way to quantify the prevalence of self-censorship at U.S. universities, but it has been a problem for a long time. Several people I interviewed for this story mentioned an oft-cited 2002 New York Review of Books article by Perry Link, a noted China scholar at the University of California, Riverside, who hasn’t been able to enter mainland China since 1995. Link said he doesn’t know exactly why he was blacklisted—the censorship system is so effective in part because one can never know for sure—but that his work on the Tiananmen massacre cemented his status as unwelcome. In the article, Link compared China’s censorship to an anaconda in a chandelier. “Normally the great snake doesn’t move,” he wrote. “It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite ‘naturally.’ ”
When he taught at Princeton in the mid-2000s, Link told me, each month a “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” student would ask him, “‘What do I have to do to not end up where you are?’ So they changed their topics and the way they phrased things” when they wrote about China. “The self-censorship magnet pulls people back way too much, frightens them way too much.”
Since then, and especially over the last several years, three trends have caused the phenomenon to increase. The first is the inescapable fact of China’s emergence as a global superpower. In 2002, when Link’s article first appeared, China’s gross domestic product was $1.47 trillion, slightly more than 13 percent of the GDP of the United States. By the end of 2016, it had reached $11.2 trillion, more than 60 percent of America’s GDP. Politically, economically, scientifically, socially, militarily, and culturally, China is simply far more important today than it was in the past. There’s a much larger volume of research and discussion about China to be self-censored and a much larger loss—to research, to cultural capital, and to a school’s bottom line—if a university’s access to China is restricted.
The second trend is that China has grown more repressive on issues of freedom of speech, both domestically and globally. In 2016, Xi Jinping said China must “build colleges into strongholds that adhere to Party leadership,” and that higher education “must adhere to correct political orientation.” According to the Australian China expert John Fitzgerald, Beijing has “begun to export the style of internationalist academic policing it routinely practices at home.” In recent years, as Millward put it in a December 2017 blog post on Medium, “the sensitive subjects have become more sensitive.” This is a “disorienting” change, said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine. “We felt that things were moving in the direction where there would be less and less need to watch what you said in China, because in the 1990s until the early 2000s there was less reason to be careful.” Instead, a period of tightening has replaced that loosening.
The third and arguably most important reason is that American universities are increasingly financially dependent on China. That’s the main role the roughly 350,000 Chinese students at American universities play in the self-censorship regime: not as individuals contributing to censorship, but as a financial punishment or reward. Beijing’s ability to direct Chinese students to cash-strapped universities—or take them away—gives universities a powerful incentive to act carefully.
An example of this occurred at the University of California, San Diego, which has a student body made up of roughly 14 percent Chinese foreign students. In 2017, the university invited the Dalai Lama to speak at its commencement, and in response, Beijing froze funding to Chinese scholars wishing to attend the school. “We’re taking the quiet route,” a UCSD professor told me when I asked how the school was trying to return to China’s good graces. Chinese undergraduates pay more than twice what students from California pay, and the university could face severe financial pressure if Beijing limited students’ abilities to study there.
“We are in this austerity period,” Michael Gibbs Hill, the director of Chinese studies at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, told me. “With Chinese studies, there is growing interest and no new money.” So some universities have turned to China’s Confucius Institutes for funding and programming. Named after China’s most famous sage and overseen by the Chinese Ministry of Education, Confucius Institutes are a global phenomenon, enrolling more than nine million students at 525 institutes in 146 countries and regions around the world, according to the program’s web site. Since the organization’s founding in 2004, it has established more than 100 Confucius Institutes in the United States, the most in the world, and, according to the organization, it currently has 29 in the United Kingdom, which hosts the second largest number perhaps because of Beijing’s desire to shape perceptions of China in the world’s two leading English-language-speaking countries.
And the funding is generous. According to disclosures to the U.S. Department of Education, from 2010 to 2017 the Chinese Ministry of Education provided more than $17 million to U.S. universities—although the total sum is almost certainly higher, since universities do not need to report transactions under $250,000.
The institutes offer instruction in Chinese language and culture—and encourage faculty and administrators to step gingerly around issues considered taboo, to prevent the loss of their funding. “We avoid sensitive things like Taiwan and Falun Gong,” said Yin Xiuli, the director of the Confucius Institute at New Jersey City University, referring to the outspoken spiritual group banned in China. “We don’t touch it.” It was apparently because Rachelle Peterson, who is the policy director at the National Association of Scholars, was investigating the Confucius Institute’s relationship with Chinese soft power that Alfred University’s provost, Rick Stephens, escorted her out of a classroom she was observing and banned her from campus. “We started hearing concerns from our members about Confucius Institutes,” Peterson told me. “And Alfred University is the most extreme example of the kind of secrecy I found Confucius Institutes exhibited.”
Confucius Institutes are certainly not the only examples of political interference on U.S. campuses. In April, a scandal roiled George Mason University in Virginia after faculty members learned that the Charles Koch Foundation, which had donated large sums to the school, had a say in the hiring and firing of professors. And Saudi businessmen and royals donate handsomely to top American institutions, including Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown.
But Confucius Institutes are different. They are arms of the Chinese government, a far more powerful polity than Riyadh. In 2009, Li Changchun, then a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body, called Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda apparatus,” and in a 2011 speech at the Beijing headquarters of the Confucius Institute, he called them an “appealing brand,” adding that “using the excuse of teaching Chinese language, everything looks reasonable and logical.”
Confucius Institutes, through the money they bring in, act as “a method that induces professors to gag themselves, leaving the Chinese government free to claim that it has not engaged in any improper behavior,” wrote Peterson in an April 2017 report on the organizations. “They turn universities themselves into agents whose interest lies in enforcing the Chinese government’s implicit speech codes.”
In a 2015 book, the University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called the Confucius Institutes “academic malware” injected into the academic system and argued that universities should ban them from their campuses. In February, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said the bureau is “warily” watching, and even investigating, some Confucius Institutes. “They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere,” Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “They’re taking advantage of it.”
That month, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida wrote a letter to his five state institutions with Confucius Institutes. “Given China’s aggressive campaign to ‘infiltrate’ American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad,” he wrote, “I respectfully urge you to consider terminating your Confucius Institute agreement.” At least one has decided to do so.
What universities should do instead to meet the demand for Chinese language learning remains an open question. “There is discussion about the potential problems of Confucius Institutes,” said Hill, the William and Mary professor, “but not much discussion about alternative sources of funding to support hiring new faculty and scholarships for students to study abroad.”
What, then, is to be done about self-censorship at American universities? Laws regulating Chinese investment in these institutions—but without offering other sources of funding—will result in a poorer academic environment. In late May, the State Department announced that Chinese nationals studying in areas relating to U.S. national security may have their visas limited to one year. But restricting Chinese students contravenes American values, deprives universities of a valuable source of funding, and limits one of the best opportunities for the United States to liberalize China—by creating avenues for Chinese students to realize that democracy, rather than dictatorship, is a better fit for their country.
Several people I spoke to urged universities to communicate more with China scholars, to prevent overcaution. “Universities, please be as upright and courageous as your scholars, who understand China better than administrators do,” Millward wrote in an August 2011 blog post—advice that remains crucial.
Ultimately, the debate over self-censorship is a proxy for the larger and more important debate over how to react to the rise of China as a global power. Should the United States protest it? Accede to it? Try to stop it? It’s a conversation begging for a national debate. Regardless of the reservations U.S. academics might have about American global dominance, many China studies professors have spent enough time in China to conclude they don’t want to live in China’s world. American academics should think critically about how to respond to China’s growing influence, instead of acting as Xi’s willing censors.
Perhaps the most thoughtful conversation I had on the subject of self-censorship was with Max Oidtmann, the China historian at Georgetown University’s campus in Qatar. Oidtmann has a new academic book about the Dalai Lama and is debating how public to be about his research. Many of his colleagues told him he would be safe as long as his arguments remain in the scholarly sphere. “You’re not creating a Facebook page, you’re not taking a position on Al Jazeera or CNN, you’re not creating an advocacy web site,” he said they told him. Yet Oidtmann still worries. Living, as he does, in a repressive Gulf state makes him feel especially exposed. “I could easily envision the Qatari government pulling my visa if it got pressure from Beijing,” he said. “I have given a lot of thought to the op-ed I might write, or the interview on television I might give,” he said. “I would really try to limit my conclusions to the informed scholarly arguments, and I would try to do as much justice to Chinese concerns as to the concerns of Tibetan Buddhists and the Tibetan exile community. But at the end of the day, I am going to say what I want to say. I’m not going to live in fear.”
There is a distinction between self-censorship and reasonable scholarly judgment. The Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan is the co-editor, with Perry Link, of The Tiananmen Papers, a controversial book on Tiananmen featuring Party documents secretly smuggled out of China. Both Nathan and Link have been systematically denied visas to China. Nathan also chairs one of Columbia’s Institutional Review Boards, which oversees research ethics. He told me he would likely reject the application of a student who planned to interview and visit with dissidents in China, because “you’re going to get those people in danger, and those are human subjects, and you’re not allowed to create risk.” That is not self-censorship.
Then there is the matter of practicality, which intersects with China’s lack of transparency. “When I’m advising a Ph.D. dissertation, I’m always thinking about access to data,” Nathan said, adding that he discourages students from pursuing theses about power struggles in Beijing, or on the relationship between civilians and the Party’s People’s Liberation Army—not because they’re sensitive topics, but because the inaccessibility of data makes them incredibly difficult to study. “Feasibility is always a reasonable criterion,” he told me. Some students consider this when they choose their subjects. “I wanted to stick with research that could be safely and effectively conducted from outside of China,” said Peter Marino, who’s starting a Ph.D. at the New School this fall about how the Party elite use philosophic traditions in their public discourse, “because I did not want to be concerned about the Party restricting my access to China.”
Self-censorship is certainly not omnipresent. “It has not happened to me personally or on the campus that I’m aware of,” said Thomas B. Gold, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Berkeley is the birthplace of the free speech movement,” he added. When I told Nathan about Columbia’s Global Center canceling events, he said nothing like that had ever happened to him. Likewise, I have yet to meet an American academic who claims that his or her career has been ruined because they offended Beijing. Nor do I know of any cases where a Confucius Institute ended its relationship with an American university or where Beijing forced an American university to close its campus or institution in China because the school declined to self-censor (which makes Columbia University’s behavior even more egregious). Being blacklisted has “actually been pretty liberating,” Millward said. Link concurred. It “cuts you off from worry,” he told me. “Before, I worried about [self-censorship],” Link said, “and cut corners.” Not any more, Link said.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the complexities of speaking about China in an American academic setting more than the experience of David Shambaugh, a political science professor at George Washington University and one of America’s best-known China experts. In March 2015, Shambaugh published a widely circulated article in The Wall Street Journal arguing that “the endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun.” Shambaugh’s piece forthrightly addressed his views on the most sensitive issue in China. “Communist rule in China is unlikely to end quietly,” he wrote. “Its demise is likely to be protracted, messy and violent. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Mr. Xi will be deposed in a power struggle or coup d’état.”
After the article came out, Shambaugh faced reprisals from Beijing. “I have been punished by the Chinese government,” he said in March, at an event at the Brookings Institution. “I have paid a personal and professional price.” He added that “Chinese state retribution is real, and that’s a price that everybody has to consider when they say something.” Though he didn’t elaborate, several people I spoke to said that after the article was published, the Chinese government treated Shambaugh with less respect than he was accustomed to receiving as a top China scholar. Writing about the Three T’s didn’t hurt Shambaugh’s relationship with Beijing—predicting the Party’s downfall did. “He clearly spoke his mind back in 2015, when he predicted the collapse of the Party,” said a China academic. “And it seems clear that he has paid a price for it in terms of access to China and top Chinese scholars, analysts, and officials.”
Pei, who shares some of Shambaugh’s views about the Party’s weaknesses, told me he has tried to avoid some of the difficulties Shambaugh has faced, adding that “in my own writing, I don’t use words that will provoke, such as ‘collapse,’ because that is such a sensitive word.” He prefers “unraveling,” he said. “It’s a lot safer to describe the process, rather than predict the event.”
When I asked Shambaugh if his views on the Chinese government’s fragility had changed, or if he would have handled the controversy his article provoked differently, he replied, “I would rather not address this question,” except to say the headline of the article—“THE COMING CHINESE CRACKUP”—misrepresented his views in 2015 and today. “Many American scholars would have held back on expressing any opinion on such a sensitive topic,” said the China academic. “But David spoke freely, and the global conversation on China has been that much better for it.”
Yet Shambaugh has encouraged other academics to self-censor. Several years before the Journal article, in late 2012, Shambaugh offered a very different view on how, or whether, to speak publicly about China to a group of young academics at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, a prominent nonprofit. “At some point, you’ll receive a call from a journalist, who will ask you about Taiwan, or Tibet, or Tiananmen,” Shambaugh said, according to three of the young academics. “And when that happens, you should put down the phone and run as far away as possible.”
When I asked Shambaugh about this anecdote, he responded, by email, “I said no such thing, would never say such a thing, and do not believe such a thing.” But as Pei, the Claremont McKenna professor, put it, American academics “have to be very careful” when it comes to what they say or do about China publicly. “We sort of know where the red lines are. But of course, the lines keep moving.”
Cole Kitchen contributed research.