Asia Program

Events

"Scholars Under Siege?"

October 24, 2001 // 12:00am

By Gang Lin
Asia Program Associate

Perry Link, professor of East Asian studies, Princeton University
Richard P. Madsen, professor of sociology, University of California-San Diego
Chin-Chuan Lee, professor of journalism and mass communication, University of Minnesota-Minneapolis
Yongming Zhou, assistant professor of anthropology, University of Wisconsin at Madison and Wilson Center fellow

Beijing's detention of several overseas Chinese scholars for spying has aroused renewed concern about academic and media freedom in China and the personal security of foreign scholars working in the PRC. Where are the lines in China separating "spying" from legitimate scholarly inquiry and media coverage? How does the government enforce conformity of academic research and media reportage, and with what success? To what degree do Chinese intellectuals enjoy independent inquiry on sensitive political issues? How does the Chinese media accommodate both market demand and government control? Can Beijing stifle the increasing information flow on the Internet? What are the implications of these issues for U.S.-China relations?

At an October 24 seminar titled "Academic and Media Freedom in China" sponsored by the Asia Program, four speakers explored the constraints under which scholars and journalists operate in China. Speakers agreed that Chinese intellectuals have gained a certain degree of freedom in academic discussion and media reportage, but cannot challenge official ideology in public discourse and through regular media.

Perry Link of Princeton University recognized that Chinese intellectuals have gained more latitude in informal and private discussion than before, but noticed that they are still subject to governmental repression in public discourse. Beijing employs an essentially psychological control system in which the key is self-censorship. By using vague standards to define "spying" in China, Beijing intentionally frightens people, pressures intellectuals to curtail their activities, exercises arbitrary power in targeting troublesome scholars, and induces confessions. According to Link, the Chinese government's censorship is less like a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon than like a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Beijing's detention of several scholars with Western ties and the resultant intimidation of Chinese intellectuals affect the scholarly world more deeply than surface appearances suggest, Link concluded.

Richard Madsen of the University of California at San Diego argued that the Party-state's influence on academic institutions is more complex, less direct, and less predictable than during the Maoist era. The government cannot now simply stifle the expression of any particular idea, much less the independent thinking, of Chinese scholars. Although the government intimidates academic sociological research, the academic life of Chinese sociologists demonstrates extraordinary vitality, Madsen maintained. The government's strategy of meddling in academic life, according to Madsen, is to inhibit professional communication among scholars and deploy resources to co-opt scholars into work that meets the Party's political priorities. The result is that while many thousands of flowers privately bloom in China today, no schools of thought publicly contend against official ideology, Madsen concluded.

Chin-Chuan Lee of the University of Minnesota explored media freedom in post-Mao China, where totalitarianism has shifted to state-capitalist authoritarianism with the easing of political interference in the economy. This transformation has created considerable room for media liberalization in the social arena and resulted in the unseemly collaboration of authoritarian power and the undisciplined media market, Lee maintained. Chinese journalists have altered their role from being "Party propagandists" to being "information providers," while retaining their statist and elitist orientations. However, private media ownership is still banned in China and all journalists remain state employees. Caught between the need to unleash economic momentum and the intention to keep marketization within an official trajectory, Beijing has initiated press conglomeration as a new scheme for state management of media, to meet potential foreign challenges after China joins the WTO.

Wilson Center Fellow Yongming Zhou from the University of Wisconsin at Madison examined the relationship between the state and intellectual websites. According to Zhou, Chinese intellectual websites show an unprecedented degree of openness, frankness, and tolerance. These sites give dissident or non-conformist Chinese intellectuals a place to publish works that are banned from the print press. Faced with an increasing number of intellectual websites, the state has opted to exert pressure on website editors to ensure self-censorship. Because there are no clear regulations on what can or cannot be published on the Internet, editors have to constantly exercise their own judgment on the admissibility of submitted articles. For the foreseeable future, Chinese intellectuals will continue to take advantage of Internet technology and expand the space of free exchange of ideals and information, while the state will continue to monitor the development with more refined control, Zhou predicted.

This seminar explored China's academic and media freedom from multidisciplinary perspectives of literature, sociology, journalism and anthropology. Although Chinese intellectuals have gained some leeway in thought, expression and communication, a significant gap remains between China's academic environment and the universal principle of freedom from intimidation. The United States, while being preoccupied with the war on terrorism, should continue to make it clear to Beijing that we view censorship of academic publication and media reportage, including self-censorship under duress, as a violation of free expression and human rights.

Commentary and Response

As a former Visa chief at the American Embassy in Beijing, I was intrigued by Professor Perry Link's closing comments about anti-Americanism among Chinese young students, as symbolized by their reaction to Sept. 11th, yet their contradictory desire to study in the United States. Also by Professor Link's comments on hidden bank accounts in the United States of China's party and PLA elites to finance their children's education. As Visa Chief, I saw those documents---the VIP in question would bring them in sheepishly to show only me, to meet the requirements of American law regarding necessary financial support for a student (yet trying to keep their bank documents away from the eyes of our Chinese staff.). So please advise Professor Link that, based on my first-hand experience, these bank accounts are not rumor but actual fact. PLA colonels making supposedly three hundred U.S. dollars a month with a two hundred thousand dollar account in a California bank!

I also had a question for Professor Link: How will the almost inevitable tightening of immigration procedures, including student visas, following as a result of the September 11th tragedy influence bilateral relations and the Chinese elite's view of the United States, since China is the number one country for student visa applications to the U.S?

Senator Feinstein, immediately after September 11th, proposed a six-month moratorium on student visa issuance, to re-examine security issues and noncompliance with visa status in light of the fact that a number of the terrorists were here on student visas. American university presidents quickly banned together and shot that idea down; but now Senator Feinstein, with Senator Kyl, has come up with another proposal to gain a handle on visa matters. Senator Feinstein is correct in her statement on bribes in the visa system; visa malfeasance is a big problem for our China posts. Before September 11th The NY Times had an article on the rising refusal rate for student visas in Beijing and a resulting increase in resentment of America.

Does Professor Link see any possibility for an understanding of U.S. border security needs on this or will a tightening on student visa policy inevitably increase the anti-American feelings of Chinese university students?

Dennis P. Halpin
Pearson Fellow
House International Relations Committee

Response by Perry Link:

I am particularly interested in your comments about the evidence of large bank accounts that you observed as visa chief. My own evidence for this phenomenon comes all from the "other end"---that is, from Chinese friends in the United States who learn about the savings accounts on the grapevine here.

Regarding your question about the consequences of cutting back on student visas: this would be sharply disappointing to students in China, but I don't think it would change the underlying perceptions of America. The United States would still be the object of both envy and admiration, and still the preferred destination for overseas study. I don't think there is much chance that many Chinese students would "understand U.S. border security needs." From a Chinese point of view, the United States is Fat City with or without a shocking loss of 6,000 people--which is a very small number by the standards of Chinese losses. And Chinese students, even if they do cheer the images of a flaming World Trade Center, know that they are not the ones who do such things, so will feel the wrong people are being punished. It will only make them compete harder to get here, though. It will not displace the United States as their first choice.

Perry Link
Professor of Asian Studies
Princeton University

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