Universities Must Address Self-Censorship on China, Professor Says

July 11, 2020 Updated: July 17, 2020

Universities should quickly create a strategy to protect researchers’ ability to openly discuss topics deemed sensitive by Beijing and say no to demands from China that violate their values, a China expert has said.

The advice was given in an essay, titled “China and Self-Censorship,” by Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College in London.

In his essay, part of a collection published on July 9, Brown discusses the way Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence can affect research output from UK universities on topics related to China, citing self-censorship as a response to pressures from the Chinese regime, both actual and perceived.

“While one can sometimes find tangible evidence in the form of conversations, emails, letters, or other means, that pressure has been placed, with much self-censorship the act itself is invisible—it occurs in people’s heads, before and as they write and is very private,” he wrote.

Brown said there’s a clear and pressing need for the protection of a middle ground, especially amid the CCP virus pandemic, in which China scholars can freely express their ideas to truly understand what’s happening in China.

“This space for neutrality has become squeezed and compromised almost to the point of becoming uninhabitable,” he wrote, noting the increasingly polarized environment of complex issues such as the Hong Kong protests.

“The need for credible voices, untainted by claims they are partisan or undertaking self-censorship, has never been greater.”

Pressure to Censor

While pressure on researchers working in China to toe the Party line is well documented, outside of China, in the past, only some high-profile articles or books on sensitive topics such as Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Uyghurs, attracted the attention of the Chinese regime.

But as the CCP has become more assertive in its messaging globally, so more China scholars are facing pressure to self-censor to avoid offending funders or research partners, Brown said.

“In America, institutions either having research centres in China, or hosting Confucius Institutes partially funded by the Chinese government have also been accused of avoiding contentious or difficult issues that might irritate the Chinese government,” he wrote.

Brown said this kind of pressure could particularly affect students doing doctorates and researchers at the beginning of their careers, as they could be cut off from visiting China to complete their research if they’re deemed to be critical of the regime.

The pressure to self-censor, he said, can manifest in different forms.

“Sometimes this takes the form of attacks on social media when posts go up by commentators or writers critical of China by the army of wumao activists—those sometimes paid by the Chinese Government to put content in comments sections attacking critics and defending China.”

Brown described academics as becoming increasingly fearful and anxious about the potential consequences for themselves as individuals, as well as for their institutions, when writing or even thinking of writing, on issues that may offend the CCP.

“Offending China was never difficult,” Brown wrote. In recent times, “it has become extremely easy, and the Chinese government has not been coy in expressing this for everyone who wants to hear it.”

Protecting Free Speech

European and U.S. universities that already had formal protections for free speech and expression should ensure they are rigorously implemented, Brown said. He recommended that all universities rapidly compose and adopt a risk management strategy for any interactions with China.

“This should cover all areas of intellectual inquiry,” he said. “It should spell out clearly and without naivety the risks, and opportunities, of doing work with China and on China.”

Dr. Liu, an engineering professor at a UK university, says the issues Brown raises had been in the UK higher education system for years.

“This self-censorship has unconsciously been a form of so-called political correctness: universities often claim, ‘We want to keep neutrality and we do not have any attitude toward any political issues.’ However, so-called political correctness or ‘self-censorship’ has significantly harmed academic freedom and freedom of speech within the campuses,” he said in an email.

“The universities should set up coordinated strategies to gradually eliminate self-censorship from the system and to protect our core values in higher education.”

Brown’s essay is one of a collection of eight in a Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) report on engagement with China, titled “UK Universities and China.” It comes at a time of heightened concern over China’s influence on and within UK institutions.

Other essays in the HEPI collection cover subjects ranging from the future for Chinese students in Australia to the ethical challenges of hosting international Chinese students.