Contemporary censorship

Technological advancements making censorship easier may echo China’s repressive past, but that is not necessarily history repeating itself. Still, RUG English literature lecturer John Flood cautions that academic freedom in modern China – including on branch campuses – is not a given.

2016 is the fiftieth anniversary of the commencement of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a reign of terror that severely disrupted Chinese urban life. Schools were closed and the Red Guards waged war on university teachers and intellectuals who were seen to be part of old values that were counter-revolutionary.

Famous examples of Chinese dissidents attest to the fact that intellectuals are no longer routinely executed for their dissidence. These same examples attest to the continuing imprisonment of enormous numbers of ordinary citizens who may have to undergo ‘re-education through labour’. One such person was Ming Zhao, a postgraduate in computer science at Trinity College, Dublin, while I was studying there. During a trip home, he was arrested for being a member of the Buddhist-inspired Falun Gong movement and imprisoned for two years. His account of this time details torture including beatings, sleep-deprivation and electric shocks. The main threat of Falun Gong to the Chinese government is mass meditation.

China is a case-study for discussions of contemporary censorship: the state stays up-to-date and takes technological advancements seriously. It is unsurprising that this year, China Daily (an official newspaper) reported that the draft plan for improvements in the national security system would include enhancements in censorship and the policing of cyberspace in the service of ‘strictly preventing and cracking down on infiltration and subversion activities of enemy forces, and other activities involving terrorism, separatism and religious extremism’. New legislation requires real name registration for apps and online gaming as well as the retention of two months of users’ activity records. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) that are used by those, including academics, who are trying to circumvent their government’s control are being closed down (Index on Censorship link for RUG users).

Alongside this goes good old fashioned censorship of literary works through state pressure brought to bear on publishers and a 2015 ban on TV dramas showing ‘abnormal sexual relationships and behaviours, such as incest, same-sex relationships, sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse…’ (CNN article). In China, reading the news has become creative as, amongst the 668 million Chinese internet users, those who seek to evade censorship express themselves in coded terms, read between the virtual lines, and employ social media (but no Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube), software, and electronic communication systems in a manner that leaves the uninitiated amazed (New York Times video overview of the ‘Great Firewall’ ).

In July 2016, the New York Times (link) reported the closing of the scholarly journal Yanhuang Chunqiu (Chinese Annals) with its then editorial board. The 92-year-old founding publisher was fired. He had lost his job as a newspaper editor during the Cultural Revolution: ‘I was in my office, and the rebels came… They declared that I was a capitalist roader and a counter-revolutionary. They said, now we’ve seized power. You should leave.’ Given the trauma of the period, it is hardly surprising that an elderly man should return to this historical moment, although the incident with the journal is an echo rather than a repetition of the past.

Ordinary life in China is not convulsed by universal turmoil and its economy is growing. As a result, foreign universities are establishing themselves in China. One of these will be our own branch in Yantai. This will be an oasis of academic freedom in the midst of a country that dwarfs Europe as the university has committed that ‘If academic freedom cannot be guaranteed, the plans will not go on.’

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan body that advises Congress issued a report in August of this year about academic freedom and American university campuses in China. It found that: ‘Faculty, students, and administrators we interviewed generally indicated that they experienced academic freedom at U.S. universities’ institutions in China, but they also indicated that Internet censorship, self-censorship, and other factors presented constraints’. The internet was a predictable bone of contention. Seven out of the twelve US universities reported that their internet access was restricted. The five whose access was not restricted used VPNs. At one of these, ‘the university is required by the Chinese government to track and maintain records for several months of faculty, student, and staff Internet usage, including the Internet sites visited by faculty and staff. The administrator added that, to date, no Chinese government official had asked for these records’.

The GAO also looked at library provision. Clearly civil servants rather than modern librarians, they actually counted the books and more specifically the ones on the open shelves: ‘Administrators at both of these universities told us that no book had ever been removed from the library by Chinese government officials, though one of them noted that, in the past, Chinese Customs officials confiscated some books intended for the library. To compensate, faculty traveling from the United States to China had occasionally brought books for the library in their personal luggage’.

Naturally, bringing books in your luggage is not a guarantee that they will get to the library. Except for diplomats, foreign students and staff are expected to adhere to the ordinary laws of the country and baggage is searched in Chinese airports just as it is in Schiphol. Apart from this inconvenience, the professors faced other challenges: ‘an administrator at one university told us that he assumes there are Chinese students and faculty in the institution who report to the government or the Communist Party about the activities of other Chinese students’.

The GAO suggested that universities with Chinese partners tended to be more controlled: two of these even refused permission to allow the GAO to visit (an amazing carelessness for foreign opinion!) and several others limited freedom of speech regarding religion or discouraged public speaking events. There may also be a correlation in freedom between institutions designed for American students and ones for mainly Chinese students. One benchmark the GAO used was the presence of books dealing with the Cultural Revolution, still so fascinatingly disturbing half a century on.

 John Flood is a senior lecturer in English Literature at the RUG.

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01 November 2016 | 8-11-2016, 14:05