Academic Freedom in China

By He, Qinglian | Academe, May/June 2002 | Go to article overview

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. …

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