Those who tell the truth are sanctioned by the CCP. Those still allowed to visit China and attend events there are asked to stop telling the truth.
by Ruth Ingram
A British academic has watched with horror the human rights situation in China deteriorate since 2014. She says she was left with no choice but to condemn the abuses. The perpetrators of the intimidation and terror unfolding in the country she has loved for many years have turned on her. For refusing to be silent, they have tried to silence her.
CCP sanctions recently imposed on Joanne Smith Finley, a Newcastle University academic, for naming and shaming China’s genocide against the Uyghurs has spotlighted the growing conflicts and ethical dilemmas of those who study the Middle Kingdom. Her academic treatise on whether genocide was happening to Turkic peoples in North West China, earned charges of “maliciously spreading lies and disinformation.”
The CCP outburst has brought to a head issues that have been brewing for decades since thinkers began studying the area in earnest. Some like Finley, Adrian Zenz, Senior Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in the United States, Björn Jerdén, Director of the Swedish National China Centre at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, and the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), have been singled out for punishment. All without exception have blown the whistle on human rights atrocities in China and not held back from speaking out.
While they have risked careers and the possibility of ever returning to China, others conflicted over nuance and the benefits of keeping dialogue open, keep silent to protect sources and future generations of research.
Responding to Beijing’s chastisement, Smith Finley responded in a statement, “I would lack academic and moral integrity were I not to share the audio-visual, observational and interview data I have obtained over the past three decades. As stated on Twitter, I have no regrets for speaking out, and I will not be silenced.”
Moral dilemmas faced by China scholars were raised during a recent webinar held by the US-Asia Law Institute, but subsequently catapulted into the public arena following Beijing’s retaliation over the raft of sanctions punishing CCP abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. Within a matter of days, 1000 academics around the world rallied to support the sanctioned scholars in a letter to the Times newspaper . The coalition of Uyghur and non-Uyghur academics, Scholars Against Genocide, have launched a, to date, 300 strong petition, the British Association for Chinese Studies, BACS, the Universities UK, UUK, representing 140 universities and the Association for Asian Studies, have all protested against the muzzling of free speech and voiced their determination not to give in to Beijing’s bullying.
Rory Truex, assistant professor in Princeton’s Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, speaking at the webinar, spoke about a “perfect storm,” for China teaching since the COVID pandemic. All classes were now online, and recorded, and the “looming threat” of the new National Security Law’s Article 38 intimidated not only national students but foreign scholars who dared to speak against China.
He spoke vehemently against self-censorship or presenting a “sanitized version of Chinese history,” but stressed the importance of managing the risk for national students who needed to be aware of the dangers they might be running. It was “no small thing” for a PRC student to challenge the system, but conversely creating a climate of fear was counterproductive. He advocated “blind grading” students with the use of code names, discouraging some students in the PRC from taking selected classes, and not requiring participants to be on camera during class.
US-based Teng Biao, an exiled leading human rights lawyer who lives with the reality of having stood his ground against the CCP over Tibet, Uyghurs, and religious persecution, endured five years of harassment in 2003, ran the full gamut of disbarment, house arrest, loss of teaching post and deprivation of his passport. Eventually, he was disappeared and tortured in 2011. Goal posts and red lines continually change in China, he said, and academics were afraid even to address so-called “safe” subjects such as forced eviction, the one child policy, corruption and torture. Teachers were forced to be on constant guard, but a wrong calculation could lose them their job, their career, their liberty or worse, he warned. The “anaconda coiled in the chandelier” metaphor coined by the American sinologist Perry Link, that is ready to pounce unannounced, keeps everyone on their toes, dodging the censors or the security forces.
He spoke out against “moral cowardice that harms independent thinking” particularly in the west where there is no excuse. He condemned a decision to cancel a lecture when he was a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, because it coincided with the President of Harvard’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing. “This is not justifiable under any circumstances,” he said.
Speaking at the webinar he described the fear that envelops academics in China for whom the goal post of red lines continually changes. Foreign critics of Beijing have come unstuck too at home. He cited Ann Brady, the New Zealand academic whose university sided with Beijing when she dared suggest links with her country’s universities and tech companies and Chinese state interests. She was suspended, her office and home were broken into and her car tyres were sabotaged.
Experienced China hands speaking at the webinar addressed the many and fraught moral dilemmas of universities dealing with repressive regimes with fat wallets. Struggling departments are often only too happy to receive mounds of cash without asking too many questions, and fall prey to questionable exchange programs and intellectual compromise. Think tanks and institutions should beware of funding from the Chinese government whose specific purpose is to influence their research, cautioned Teng Biao, adding that in view of the sanctioning of academics and researchers, this phenomenon is increasing.
Ben Liebman, a US-based pre-eminent scholar of contemporary Chinese law, raising the future of China studies, wondered how it would continue be possible to study a country “that no longer wants to be studied.” Mutual conversations on a range of topics are now taboo, and consequences severe for those who transgress the new raft of invisible boundaries. Should Beijing be kept sweet by allowing Confucius Institutes to operate or not is one of the trade-offs that need to be negotiated. Increased numbers of Chinese institutions now blacklisted by the US mean fraught legal headaches for visiting academics. “How do we guide our students,” he asked, “when fieldwork is more difficult than ever?” Some academics have even thrown in the human rights towel completely in order to keep a sliver of academic dialogue open.
Teng Biao felt that some doors should still be left open if only to support scholars left in China. “We should still try to supply information and encourage the independent thinking of Chinese scholars,” he thought. Despite not wanting to close the door and decouple from China altogether, Teng Biao warned that some visiting scholars from the west were being used by the PRC in their own propaganda machine, and those who accepted positions in Chinese universities were particularly vulnerable, despite having the opportunity to help Chinese students to understand the world outside, not only through public lectures but by private conversations.
The development of China both militarily and politically on the world scene should never be underestimated, and its capacity to divide and rule not only academics but nations and world bodies should alert democracies of the power of this emerging giant to quash dissent and muzzle opposing voices, concluded the webinar. But its plan to take out academics and think tanks through recent sanctions has backfired, as witnessed to by the outpouring of support by colleagues, institutions and governments. Unity, joint action, standing with individuals and groups Beijing is trying to pick off through sanctions and retaliation was more important than ever, said Rory Truex.