During the past few months, there has been a significant increase in tensions between China and not just the United States, but the rest of the world. While the US has been compelled to embark on a trade war with China, the fact is that China has grown increasingly aggressive, both abroad and at home. However, a lot of people might have been unaware of China’s aggression overseas since this involved industrial espionage, political interference, academic bullying, and one-sided business deals with small, developing nations.
Within China, there has been a lot of disturbing news from the restive northwest region of Xinjiang, where a huge number (and growing) of Muslim Uyghurs have been arrested and detained in concentration camps. To get a glimpse of this horror, just read an article like this one from the Guardian about Uyghurs in neighboring Kazakhstan whose family members back in Xinjiang have gone missing for over a year since being detained.
It is tiring to keep seeing news of China engaging in efforts to bully, interfere or foreign countries, whether it be Taiwan, Australia or even the US. A lot of this is not surprising to me because having lived in China for a couple of years, I saw how Xi Jinping’s reign had become increasingly repressive and that things would worsen, not get better.
I’m picking one aspect of China to highlight here, and that is the prevalent self-censorship by academics and graduate students across the US when it comes to China. That is because China often blacklists academics and writers who have focused on subjects it deems sensitive, such as the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989, Tibet, and Taiwan. This means these individuals are denied visas to visit China, which affects their careers as they cannot enter the very country they are doing research on.
As a result, many schools, professors, and graduate students have chosen to focus on less-controversial topics or hold back on their views in order to avoid offending China. This prevalence of self-censorship is actually worse because the person being targeted is the one doing the censoring.
This is a long article but it is worth the effort to get through. Here are some choice excerpts below:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.’ ”