Repression, Surveillance, and Censorship in Chinese Academia

Outline of China and its flag covers smartphone
(Image: Geralt/Pixabay)

Imagine going for a coffee with a colleague, somewhere on campus. Imagine that, after you have settled down in your chairs with a mug of coffee, your colleague goes on to tell you about an international conference they did not attend, as they were concerned about being punished for doing so by the authorities in their home country. Imagine also that your colleague then mentions that four other academics, from the same country, did attend the conference, only to disappear after their return home and not be heard from ever since. Also imagine that you cannot speak about this with anyone, lest you are punished yourself.

All this happened to me at the Chinese university where I was working, shortly before I left the country. The conference in question took place in Europe and adopted a critical stance regarding certain aspects of Chinese politics. The ‘disappeared’ academics, all working the social sciences, were apparently punished by the Chinese authorities for taking part in this conference, as well as for their ethnic and religious background. Even now, I have to write about this anonymously, to protect my former colleague and myself from possible reprisals.1 Throughout my time working at a Chinese university, there were numerous other incidents of this sort. I feel that I cannot write safely about many of these, for fear of compromising the identity of the people involved.

I am writing this nonetheless because there is, in my view, an urgent need to document the escalating repression on China’s campuses and the consequences this has for both academics and students. Having witnessed this repression first-hand, I am stunned by the lack of knowledge and by the willful indifference with which universities, academic organizations, and scholars in democratic countries often approach academic collaboration with the Chinese state and Chinese universities. Chinese universities differ from their counterparts in many other countries in that they are not functionally independent from the state and the political party that dominates the latter. Chinese universities are a function of the totalitarian party-state, as illustrated by the presence of Communist Party structures at all levels of academic life. 2 This has significant implications for the organization of surveillance, censorship, and repression on university campuses.

There is much to unpack in order to understand how repression works at Chinese universities, and why it is a signal feature of Chinese academic life in the first place. My attempt at explaining the issue is grounded in the personal observation during the years I spent at a Chinese university, and in the by now extensive academic literature on the topic. This being a short blog post, I will not reference the latter as I would in an academic publication. I will, however, give some pointers where relevant.

A useful starting point for this discussion is the public function of Chinese universities. For the purpose of my argument here, it is useful to draw attention to two key functions that universities in China perform.3On the one hand, they form part of the party-state’s social engineering apparatus,4and priorities in research and teaching are closely aligned to socio-economic development priorities at any given point in time. This gives scholarship a distinctly applied character, with an emphasis on a narrow band of disciplines in the natural sciences, engineering, and the social sciences, and it closes down intellectual horizons against which Chinese society might be imagined afresh. The meaning and desired outcomes of scholarship are always already established in advance. On the other hand, universities contribute materially to the construction of a cognitive and emotional environment in which China cannot be imagine beyond the Communist Party’s rule. In line with this function, the party directly curtails academic freedom.

This curtailment happens in several ways. First, there is the academic surveillance apparatus.5Going to teach? Classroom cameras will observe your actions, and those of your students, from every angle, microphones will listen in, and sometimes you may find an unannounced, nameless inspector sitting in and taking notes. And expect your students, at least some, to report on you too, if you say anything that’s politically undesirable. Going to a conference, especially abroad, and especially in the social sciences or humanities? Hand over your conference paper for an ideological audit before the university grants you permission to deliver it. Just doing your work? No problem, but you know that the university keeps a secret file on you and your political ‘reliability’, by which you will be regularly assessed and which will be passed on from employer to employer, should you decide to move jobs. And so on. A pervasive administrative apparatus keeps academics in check, alongside the taken-for-granted assumption that passive obedience to administrators’ demands is the way to go. It is not a realistic option to speak out about (let alone against) invasive measures, such as requests to spend hours or days at indoctrination events or the recent upscaling of on-campus surveillance during pandemic (via facial recognition software installed at campus gates, location tracking on smart phones, ‘health code’ apps, etc.)

Surveillance, second, is directly and indirectly bound up with with censorship and punishment. On-campus internet may be censored even more heavily than off-campus connections. Foreign-language academic books, especially on non-technical subjects, are increasingly hard to come by, and I am aware of cases in which scholars have even found their own foreign-published books barred from import into China. Equally, I have witnessed punishment for perceived ideological infractions, from Chinese colleagues being reported on by their students and punished by their universities to foreign academics losing their jobs for allowing oblique discussion of the wrong topics in their classrooms. Moreover, just belonging to an ethnic minority or religious group that has drawn the resentment of China’s leaders may create trouble for academics, who may find themselves punished for who they are.

Finally, there is the heavy-handed indoctrination that works alongside surveillance and punishment to keep students and academics in line. At least a third of students’ degree courses typically consists of modules with political content, geared towards aligning students’ ways of thinking, feeling, and acting with Communist Party ideology (i.e., these days, a sort of pink-tinged, revanchist ultranationalism). Academics, in turn, are routinely requested to take part in on-campus and off-campus indoctrination events. Communist Party members, in particular, may also be requested to spend a substantial amount of time on self-study of propaganda materials, for example via the app ‘Xuexi Qiangguo’ (学习强国), which is geared towards indoctrination with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’.6 A lot more could be – and should be – written about the mechanisms of ‘thought management’ on Chinese university campuses and its uses in the creation of a uniform worldview defined by the Party.

And yet, a diversity of beliefs, values, and ideological orientations persists even in the claustrophobic environment of Chinese academia. My point here is not to claim that the Party has achieved its objective of ideological uniformity. My point is to draw attention to the forms of repression that the Party employs in its pursuit. I recall, for example, sitting down for dinner at an academic conference in China with an widely recognized Chinese scholar who might be characterized as a liberal intellectual. For her views, this scholar has faced escalating surveillance and continuous punishment by her university, from a demotion to teaching bans.

For foreign universities and for foreign academics, the escalating scope of regression entails the question whether cooperation with Chinese universities is still justifiable. The argument that international engagement might lead the Communist Party to embrace liberalization does not hold any longer, as China’s ongoing totalitarian turn demonstrates.

At the same time, cooperation with Chinese universities entails the risk of legitimizing the Party, and of providing it with important scientific knowledge and technologies. As the Party only cooperates on its own terms, moreover, questions need to be asked about the extent to which international cooperation enables it to extent its surveillance and censorship apparatus to foreign campuses. However, cutting off ties to Chinese academia might exacerbate the situation of liberally minded scholars and students in the country and accelerate China’s retreat into an ideological bubble. The question how to approach international academic cooperation with totalitarian China therefore leads to no easier answers. It nonetheless merits much greater attention than it has received so far.

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