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Analysis: US scholars self-censor due to fear of offending Chinese interests

An article in The New Republic explains that American universities and scholars are censoring themselves on issues relating to the Chinese Communist Party as part of a “sophisticated global censorship regime.”

Author Isaac Stone Fish begins by pointing out that he does not believe the censorship comes because of “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,” but instead because of a variety of reasons, most stemming from a desire not to offend Chinese interests.

One graduate student told Fish “I would not willfully do anything that would endanger my ability to get a visa to China in the future.” Other forms of censorship are more apparent:

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.)

Fish observes that the pressure for self-censorship is oftentimes greater on Chinese students, professors, and Chinese-Americans with family still in China:

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 theGlobal 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.”

Another professor says American universities that have appendages in China are effectively held hostage. After all, “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.”

Fish is especially critical of Columbia University’s cancellation of several talks and events that would have been critical of China.

China’s record on freedom of speech is also deeply concerning for Fish, who writes, “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.’”

Fish concludes by quoting a scholar who had published an article about the “endgame of Chinese communist rule.” The scholar reported suffering retribution from China:

“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.”

Read the full article.

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