Academic Freedom in China
He, Qinglian, Academe
Economic and social reform in China have prompted more sophisticated ideological and political control of intellectuals.
China has never enjoyed real academic freedom, not even during more recent decades in which the government has carried out economic reform. The methods used to restrict free expression-most of which are unknown by Western scholars-have, however, changed over the past twenty years as a result of more openness in China to outside influences and a growing willingness among the Chinese people to question their government.
The worst time for Chinese scholars was during the era of Mao Zedong, from 1949 to 1976, when the Chinese government conducted a campaign of brainwashing intellectuals. If one dared to criticize any policy or political leader, he or she could be prosecuted and sent to a labor camp or sentented to life in prison or death. All intellectuals felt compelled to praise Mao and his regime; those who actually contributed to communist propaganda were rewarded by a higher position and salary.
In 1957 the Chinese regime labeled its cultural and academic policy "Cultivating Thousands of Flowers and Encouraging Hundreds of Voices." But the so-called thousands of flowers and hundreds of voices did not have anything to do with freedom of speech or academic research; instead, the slogan was intended to encourage praise of the totalitarian system in China through various means, from poem, novel, and movie to drama.
Have market-oriented reforms and increased receptiveness to the outside world brought about academic freedom for Chinese intellectuals? Superficially, one may say yes. In contrast with Mao's era, Chinese intellectuals can read the literature of western social sciences, and, as long as they don't directly criticize the regime, they can use the research approaches of the social sciences. In addition, they can enjoy reading classical Chinese literature and Russian and Soviet literature. All of these materials were prohibited between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, during the Cultural Revolution.
Less restriction does not, however, suggest that the current regime allows real academic freedom. There are still many areas that academics cannot touch. For example, intellectuals are not permitted to introduce or study western political systems or democracy; research on the Cultural Revolution and the history of the Chinese Communist Party is restricted; and reform policies "should" be evaluated only in a positive way, that is, studies of them "should not" be biased against official positions.
Under China's constitution, a doctrine called "four principles," which insists on the dictatorship of the party, dominates all cultural and academic activities. Moreover, in China's political system, such activities are monitored regularly by the party's propaganda departments, whose function is to monitor culture and academia and give orders about what cannot be discussed. Anyone who goes a little beyond the limits set by the departments may face penalties. The system penetrates every corner of society; there are departments from the central regime to the county level, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to each university and research institute.
As Chinese society has gradually opened to outside influences, the government has had to develop more sophisticated means of ideological control than it used in Mao's era. As recently as about ten years ago, after the Tiananmen Massacre, the regime was still relying on its traditional methods. It published articles in official newspapers and distributed documents smearing students who demonstrated for democracy and dissidents exiled abroad, and it forced everyone in China to discuss these official materials and to show their loyalty to the regime.
Such methods have becomes less and less effective, however, and sometimes they completely fail. As more people make independent judgments and decline to defame those who are labeled as "enemies of the state" or who are penalized by the regime, political persecution of intellectuals often results in what the government dislikes: the intellectuals actually gain more social reputation, respect, and influence. The regime is learning that the Chinese people are no longer naive; they want to find the truth.
Another factor forcing the government to change its ways is criticism from the international community regarding human rights in China. As a result of consistent international pressure, the regime has moved to improve its image by adjusting its policy on ideological control. Penalties are no longer the only instruments applied; more "carrots" are now offered. The carrots are usually economic incentives and academic "reputation."
Cooperative intellectuals see their salaries raised. Government offices select "distinguished scholars," who receive special subsidies; promotion in academic careers becomes much easier as more of these senior positions are distributed. The Ministry of Education honors politically loyal followers by appointing them as instructors in Ph.D. programs, whether or not they are qualified. The government makes research funds available to professors who follow official policy and doctrines. Favored members of educational organizations and research institutes get opportunities to visit abroad. Universities are even allowed to "sell" master's or Ph.D. degrees to make money. One can pay a huge amount of money to loin a program without exams, take several low-level courses, submit a paper written by somebody else, and receive a diploma from a distinguished university. "Carrots" are indeed attractive.
"Sticks" are used in a hidden, if not secretive, way. Penalties such as being fired or having one's articles or books banned are no longer announced through formal official documents. Instead, orders for such penalties are now given orally, either over the phone or face to face. Moreover, when such orders are sent down from the top, they are always followed by these instructions: do not take any notes, make any recordings, or ask which office has issued the orders; simply memorize them. When asked to explain why it applies such "secret" methods, the government usually says that it doesn't want the intellectuals being punished to gain social reputation from the penalties. Actually, its purpose is to hide its actions from international human rights organizations.
The penalties take various forms. A slight one stops a promotion that an academic deserves. In China, salary, housing, and medical care are linked with seniority, so someone who gets such a penalty may encounter difficulties. A more severe penalty may involve being laid off. Once someone is laid off for political reasons, it would be hard for the person to find another formal job, because no university or research institute wants to invite trouble by hiring a person the regime has defined as having a "political spot." A research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Xiaoya Chen, suffered such a fate. In the early 1990s she wrote an academic book titled History of the June Fourth Political Movement, which touched on the most sensitive research topic in China: the democratic movement of 1989. She was immediately fired. She has been unemployed for about ten years now and has to struggle to survive without income or housing of her own. The most terrifying penalty the regime imposes against independent intellectuals is to put them under surveillance by the state security police. This penalty is often applied to intellectuals who criticize government policies or uncover evidence of corruption.
In recent years, the regime has developed a new strategy of political persecution. It no longer charges people with criticizing the government. Instead, it accuses them of taking bribes or of engaging in "economic crime." The latest case took place in Shanxin Province last fall. A journalist, Qinrong Gao, wrote about corruption in the provincial government and was arrested and charged with economic crime. Espionage or "threatening state security" are other charges that have become familiar to westerners. The regime keeps such charges secret when it imposes them against intellectuals inside China who have a high social reputation or those who visit China from abroad, particularly from the United States.
The efforts of the Chinese regime to control intellectuals extend to its treatment of western scholars who study China. The government selectively invites as visiting scholars those who praise the policies of the Chinese government, giving them information about opportunities to conduct research in China. Scholars who have published criticism of the regime are, however, considered "unfriendly to China" and may see their visa applications rejected without explanation.
The careers of many western scholars of China depend on their conducting fieldwork in the country, leading some to maintain a "good" relationship with the regime by restricting their research programs to topics the government favors and avoiding criticism of government policies. Not all scholars are willing to apply such a strategy to get access to China. Some who have declined to do so have faced pressure for not being able to do research in China. As a result of its approach to western academics, the Chinese government has been quite successful in influencing images of China's current situation in western scholarship.
Since Mao's era, the method of controlling intellectuals and academic activities in China has moved from "hard and bloody" tactics to "soft and hidden" ones. The new approach is to encourage the "voluntary cooperation" of intellectuals with the regime. Reliance on such "cooperation" can be found in many other countries. What is so disturbing about China is that the regime's "marketization under dictatorship" is often identified both in and outside China as a progressive process that is superior to democratization efforts in the former Soviet Union and eastern European countries. In terms of academic freedom, however, the process has hardly been progressive. The Chinese government may have improved its image in the eyes of the world, but it has continued its tradition, albeit in a less visible way, of restricting free expression.
The regime is learning that the Chinese people are no longer naive; they want to find the truth.
The efforts of the Chinese regime to control intellectuals extend to its treatment of western scholars who study China.
Qinglian He, an economist well known in China, is author of Pitfalls of China, published in 1998 in China. She is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago.…
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Publication information: Article title: Academic Freedom in China. Contributors: He, Qinglian - Author. Magazine title: Academe. Volume: 88. Issue: 3 Publication date: May/June 2002. Page number: 26+. © American Association of University Professors Nov/Dec 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.