Little Red Podcast

Muzzling the Academy8 min read

Censorship emboldened, at home and abroad – by Louisa Lim


For University of Melbourne doctoral candidate Dayton Lekner, it was supposed to be his last day of fieldwork interviewing elderly survivors of the Anti-Rightist movement. Instead, he found himself in a Shanghai police station undergoing a three-hour interrogation about his research. His experience in February 2017 illustrates the challenges faced by Western academics researching China, who are encountering increasing levels of intimidation both of themselves and their sources. Though recent headlines have focused on the controversy surrounding Beijing’s demands that at least two Cambridge University Press journals censor their archives inside China, it is clear that attempts to shut down academic inquiry go far deeper.

Inside the back room of the Shanghai police station, it was clear to Lekner that his three questioners had been following his movements. He had interviewed more than a dozen survivors of the 1957-59 Anti-Rightist Movement aged between 79 and 97, and his interrogators made it clear they knew whom he had met. They wanted specific details on the angle of his research, and the depth of their knowledge about six-decade-old history was such that at times the conversation took on an absurdist slant. “That was the amazing thing,” Lekner says, “It was actually fantastic. Better than a lot of conferences in the level of knowledge of the era. We had quite a good conversation in some ways. I was intimidated and scared, and I didn’t know when I was getting out of the little room. But it was also interesting and enjoyable in some sort of abstract way.”

Lekner’s interrogators never identified themselves, but he assumed they were from China’s internal security services. In order to be released, they asked him to promise not to speak about his interrogation, not to publicly release information given to him by his interviewees and not to duplicate any of the recordings he had made. He was also warned not to attend a conference in Hong Kong marking the 60th Anniversary of the Anti-Rightist movement.   When he arrived in Hong Kong, he found the conference organizer had been briefly detained, while around half the mainland participants had dropped out after receiving warnings not to attend.

Such tactics are an open secret among academics working on sensitive periods of Chinese history. Glenn Tiffert, a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution also studying the Anti-Rightist Movement, describes how he was even assigned his own personal policeman during his fieldwork. “I was offered a research assistant … and simply out of courtesy I had to accept. It turned out he was a fulltime Public Security Bureau officer, whose job was to take copious notes on everything I was interested in. His job was to monitor me.”

Tiffert has conducted the first forensic analysis of Chinese censorship of its scholarly archives after making the chance discovery that the electronic archives of certain legal journals had been selectively censored with significant sections carefully excised from the historical record. Tiffert painstakingly compiled paper copies of two leading law journals, Political-Legal Research and Law Science, to ascertain how much was missing. Within a three-year sample, he found that 11% of the page count had been removed including many of the headline articles.

The Sichuan Provincial Archives catalog for post-1949 – @MichaelSzonyi

The method of censorship was not a crude keyword search, as observers had noted in the Cambridge University Press case, but a far more sophisticated operation removing evidence of the intensity of earlier debates about constitutionalism, judicial independence, the rule of law, the relevance of the crime of counter-revolution and the presumption of innocence.  “These were debated vigorously for a short period of time and then the conversation shut down when the Anti-Rightist Campaign struck,” Tiffert says, pointing out that the destruction of any trace of these debates effectively homogenises the historical record. “All these issues and questions are relevant today and have been discussed for a number of years. In the last several years in particular, the party is pushing hard against them, and narrowing the parameters of the debate.”

Looking at another journal, Studies in Law, as a comparison, he discovered 87% of the page count had been censored, effectively removing evidence of the diversity of ideas surrounding the reconstruction of the legal system before party orthodoxy began to congeal. Tiffert’s research has highlighted the problems with institutions’ increasing reliance on digital archives. “The Qin Shihuang example of book burning from the imperial period was a one-off,” Tiffert says. “Digital techniques have changed the game. Digital techniques make it possible for you to filter sources dynamically ad infinitum as Party policy on one particular issue changes.”

This was the experience of a third group of scholars working at the University of British Columbia in Canada, whose project involves translating contemporary works of intellectual history. They discovered discrepancies in different online versions of a 2009 essay penned by Yu Jianrong, the Director of the Chinese Academy of Social Science’s Rural Development Institute’s Social Issues Research Centre in the journal Strategy and Management. This indicates that censorship affects contemporary work even by such establishment figures as Yu, as well as historical sources. The team found that one sentence had been cut, which they believed was likely due to Yu’s use of the term minsheng or people’s livelihood, which as one of Sun Yatsen’s Three Principles of the People is politically charged.

The team was also tracking leftwing intellectual debate on a website called Putuowang, when it discovered that the original website had completely disappeared. It reappeared briefly with a Taiwanese domain name, then moved to an overseas server, which now only caches old articles, though some had disappeared. “What this all seems to come down to is party control of public discourse and ironically enough left-wing discourse,” says Morgan Rocks, a PhD student working on the project, “Left-wing debate is good, as long as the Party controls and guides it.”

These questions about the credibility of China’s electronic archives come at a time when many Western institutions are divesting themselves of bulky paper archives, and instead investing in expensive electronic databases. University of British Columbia intellectual historian Tim Cheek is forthright in his conclusions: “We cannot trust electronic archives based in the People’s Republic of China. It is more important than ever for scholars and institutions round the world to maintain independent collections and archives.”

Cheek points out the long roots of such censorship, echoing the literary inquisition of the Qianlong reign of 18th century. “That was also a prosperous age in China, with a rich and powerful state. Yet the Qing state felt the need to control public speech and to edit the historic record through the internet archive of the day – the sigu qianshu – the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries. Today’s attempt to purify electronic archives in the PRC feels similar. This censorship also suggests that the enemies whose speech the authorities in Beijing fear today are not foreigners but primarily Chinese people. Distrust of the people is also a longstanding component of Chinese statecraft. Its effect has been massively extended by modern technology and the Leninist state.”

As China’s influence on educational institution grows, so too do the tools which it can use to exert pressure. One recent example is the case of UC San Diego, which invited the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, to give a commencement address earlier this year. Now in retaliation, Beijing is reportedly cutting off state funding for Chinese students to study at UCSD, using its economic influence as a cudgel and a warning to other universities of the financial implications of inviting speakers seen as inimical towards China.

Collaborations with Chinese colleagues are becoming more strained, given the mounting pressures to toe the Party line as well as new moves to fight “historical nihilism”. When the subjects of study are sensitive historical periods or subjects, risk management is increasingly difficult. “To be honest, it breaks my heart,” says Glenn Tiffert. “Because Chinese history should be told by Chinese. But the stakes for them are much greater than they are for anyone else.

Increasingly Western academics are speaking out about their experiences, even if it means breaking promises made under coercion. Dayton Lekner, who was warned to keep quiet about his interrogation, believes that silence can be a form of capitulation. “It’s important not to be bluffed,” Dayton Lekner says. “It might be I’m not welcome to go back to China. That’s a price I’m willing to pay. If we cover up this kind of incident, then we don’t help any other scholars in China or here carry out research.” ∎


This essay is a companion piece to yesterday’s episode of the Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith in collaboration with Louisa Lim and distributed by Chinoiresie at Australian National University. Louisa and Graeme are calling for academics to share their own experiences of harassment, monitoring or censorship during research in China. Message them through Facebook, or get in touch with @limlouisa or @graemeksmith on Twitter to share your own stories either on or off the record.