Teaching Chinese students

The first time I encountered a Chinese student in a university classroom was a harrowing experience. As a first year PhD student working on a thesis about Taiwan I was invited to give a guest lecture for comparative social policy Master’s class. My lecture about Taiwan was one of six case studies introducing students to social policy in different societies. I had taught a lab-based stats class, but this was my first experience in a lecture theatre. I struggled with anxiety and low self-confidence throughout my PhD and I was nervous. Within the first few minutes of the lecture, still in the grip of nerves, one of the only Chinese students in the theatre raised her hand. I wasn’t expecting or inviting questions at this point. “Hi, you have a question?” She didn’t have a question, it was more of a statement: “Taiwan is not a country”.

I was at a loss for words. The lecture was about social policy, and I had no idea why this student felt the need to intervene with such a statement. As she didn’t offer further comment, I continued the lecture. Halfway through the lecture the student raised her hand again. “Taiwan is not a country”. This time, I was a little less patient. “I’m talking about healthcare why are you telling me this?” It seems that I’d compared Taiwan’s health insurance system to that of “other countries,” thereby implying that Taiwan was also a country. I was astonished, annoyed and embarrassed. But it was a useful lesson. More than a decade has passed and I’ve taught hundreds of Chinese students since, and I have never been interrupted like this again.

I confess after that first lecture, decompressing with a beer on campus by myself, my thoughts were rather uncharitable to the Chinese student. Later, I was better able to empathize. Imagine if everything in your environment since childhood had instilled in you “incontrovertible facts”, and then an outsider, who you’ve also been primed to believe is biased against you and hell bent on denying what you “know” is right, does exactly that. It isn’t the fault of the Chinese students who turn up in your classes that they have grown up in an authoritarian information environment where the Party is highly motivated and capable through control of the media and education systems to instil a particular worldview.

Does that mean we should avoid talking about certain issues, or modify the way we talk about them, for fear of upsetting our Chinese students? Absolutely not. To do so would be a disservice to the profession, the discipline, and all of the students in the class, including the Chinese ones. For any HE professional, avoiding or sugar-coating a legitimate and necessary topic (like Tiananmen or Taiwan), is anathema. But, we also know that cognitive dissonance is one of the biggest impediments to positive learning outcomes, so we do need a strategy. For colleagues in most disciplines this is not a huge issue – it is for me because I teach Chinese politics and society, often to Chinese students.

At the outset of my classes I explain and exemplify how there are usually two sides to any story, and seemingly “incontrovertible facts” have their own distinct provenance and meanings. I then explain that we will be discussing and interrogating western and Chinese understandings of China. I explain that there is instrumentality on all sides in the construction of these understandings and I always ensure that different views are provided and critically assessed. I require all students to ask why different actors evince the views that they do.

This is the broad context in which my classes are taught and it is the approach I take to all issues, including ones that might elicit “emotional” or “unquestioning” responses. I assure students that any viewpoint is valid, and encourage them to voice “unpopular” or uncomfortable ones; but they must agree to make a reasoned argument and to respect and engage with others who do so. We don’t shy away from interrogating the education system and information environment in China that Chinese students have grown up in.

In all cases I treat students respectfully, tactfully and non-confrontationally. Deliberately making students uncomfortable or attempting to negate their prior knowledge is a recipe for disengagement and potential conflict, none of which improves learning outcomes. We can address any issue in class, but we do so in an atmosphere that encourages exchange and learning. That may sound idealistic – but it has allowed me to deliver on my duty as a teacher.

I am there to provide my students with all the relevant knowledge I have at my disposal, some of which will certainly challenge that made available in Chinese curricula and media. I want students to learn how to critically evaluate information, critically engage with different viewpoints and to compose reasoned arguments. In the process of implementing these techniques, some Chinese students will come to question some of their assumptions, go beyond and challenge previously acquired knowledge. Others won’t, and that’s fine.

I have had many Chinese students thank me for illuminating their own understanding about China. As I commented for a recent piece, many Chinese students understand that the worldview they receive in China is partial and are receptive to different perspectives. As a teacher, it is extremely gratifying to see students learn and develop. But it isn’t my job to try to change their worldviews.

If Chinese students are going to have a more profound experience studying overseas, I believe it will come from their experience outside the classroom, from their interactions with host populations and local cultures. Chinese students are often critiqued for hanging out together to the exclusion of others. But in their defence, little thought has been put into how to create and manage a more holistic overseas study experience that enables them to go beyond the comfort zone created by associating with their compatriots. For instance, we organize lubricated “socials” for freshman students to get to know one another – but what about Chinese students who don’t drink, or have insufficient confidence or language skills to engage socially in this context? In some schools, cohorts of Chinese students are taking degrees and classes in which their classmates are also mostly Chinese. Few opportunities exist for facilitated exposure to local communities.

In the UK, “student experience” has become a buzzword, mainly because of the National Student Survey and other League Tables that can affect recruitment. As domestic student fees have risen and students have been framed as “customers”, universities have made huge investments in fancy gyms, dorms and catering facilities. But as a sector we need to think more specifically about the “Chinese student experience”, inside and outside the classroom.


Taiwan and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation

China’s core leader, Xi Jinping, believes the time has come for the country to grasp a “strategic opportunity” to advance the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. He intimated as much in his work report to the 19th Party Congress. And this week the Communist Party paper the People’s Daily published a “manifesto” in the People’s Daily, explicitly stating that China stands on the cusp of writing a new chapter in the history of the nation.

The “manifesto” is an extraordinary document, part cheer-leader for the Party’s achievements, part call for a newly robust Chinese posture. It reflects the Chinese leadership’s belief that China has a historical opportunity to stake out a global leadership role. Enumerating the numerous ills facing western societies, which have accelerated the long-held feeling that the west is in decline, it is a statement that China is ready to seize the moment and restore China’s rightful position in the world. “Rejuvenation” is no longer a distant aspiration.

This isn’t a surprise for anyone with an understanding of the CCP’s “historical determinist” worldview. The Chinese leadership has watched its economic, diplomatic and military power grow, and “bided its time” as the west’s fortunes have waned. The election of Donald Trump has hastened the feeling that American hegemony has begun its inexorable decline. Trump’s abdication of American global leadership combined with a global system that was already in flux, has accelerated the feeling that China’s time has come.

Chinese leaders remind us that China does not seek hegemony and does not have a history of imperial expansion. Indeed, China has not invaded and occupied other sovereign nations, engaged in covert security operations, enforced regime change, or any number of other foreign interventions carried out in the name of American national interests.

But, a newly robust Chinese world view informing its foreign policy behaviour has important implications, not least for Taiwan, a mere hundred miles away and the locus of contemporary Chinese nationalism. After the violent denouement of the Democracy Spring movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the CCP has staked its legitimacy on economic growth and nationalism. As growth has slowed, the balance between these two pillars has shifted.

For Chinese nationalists, the “manifesto” is a long-yearned for assertion that under the Party’s leadership China’s rise necessitates a recalibration of the world order – one in which China will play a much more prominent role. Symbolic Centennials of the founding of the CCP (2021) and the PRC (2049) are no longer on the distant horizon. Xi has risen to unassailable power, but a paramount leader needs to deliver more than tub-thumping rhetoric.

The CCP has found nationalist causes, especially Taiwan, useful for entrenching popular support. It has also primed the Chinese people to believe that the CCP leadership is the only means to restoring China to greatness. But on one part of the “national rejuvenation” puzzle, it has failed to deliver. The desire to “recover” a Taiwan “lost” during the “hundred years of national humiliation” has been so relentlessly affirmed through the education and media systems that it is the sina qua non for patriotic Chinese.

Separated by vastly different socio-economic development experiences, most Taiwanese identify with Taiwan as a discrete, democratic society that is manifestly not-China. The desire for unification in Taiwan is virtually non-existent. Decades of Chinese carrots in the form of economic opportunities and sticks in the form of enforced international isolation and underlying military threat have removed “Taiwan independence” from the political agenda, but failed to move opinion towards China. The CCP’s favoured political partner in Taiwan, the KMT, was unable to change opinion in a meaningful way and alienated voters in trying to do so.

And so China continues to exert pressure on Taiwan, each turn of the screw designed to undermine, isolate and incapacitate Taiwan and the Tsai administration. A symbol of the new world order, it does so with impunity. PLA Air Force planes can circumnavigate Taiwan and the Civil Aviation Administration of China can unilaterally establish new routes in the Taiwan Strait because no-one bar the Taiwanese object. It can jail Taiwanese activists or bar Taiwan from WHA meetings. When it requires Taiwanese criminals are repatriated to China, countries from Spain to Kenya oblige. All are demonstrations that Taiwan is subordinate, that the privileges of “functional autonomy” extend only so far.

While western countries like Australia are newly discovering a sting in the tail to their ‘win-win’ engagements with China, Taiwan is used to dealing with Chinese pressures. The question is how much pressure China will dial up. Courting Taiwan’s small number of diplomatic allies, barring Taiwanese representation from international meetings and enforcing the political correctness of multinational companies’ drop-down menus is pressure at a much lower level than China is capable of exerting. And it is unlikely to deliver results commensurate with the aspirations of a new era of national rejuvenation.

Indubitably nested within the relationship between the US and China, it is easy to forget that Taiwan was, until relatively recently, a geopolitical hotspot. In the mid-1990s, Chinese missile exercises prior to the first direct election of the president in Taiwan, necessitated President Clinton’s dispatch of the Pacific Fleet to the Taiwan Strait. In the mid-2000’s Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian’s rhetoric threatened to cross Chinese “red lines”, and the PRC passed legislation requiring a military response to prevent “Taiwan independence”.

In the past decade, cross-Strait relations have receded from the global stage. While not resolving the underlying militarization of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s entente cordiale added a veneer of stability. Underpinned by the diplomatic fudge of the “1992 Consensus”, economic cooperation reduced tensions between Taiwan and China to an unprecedented extent. The partial detente was good timing for a hands-off Obama administration preoccupied with the Middle East and Afghanistan, and the first Xi administration dealing with monumental domestic challenges.

Donald Trump has an uncertain China policy that veers between extreme deference and spiky rhetoric: No one really knows what his intentions are towards China, possibly least of all, Trump himself. His preferences, unstable as they are, may become clearer if and when a House Foreign Affairs Committee bill that would authorize high level official visits between the US and Taiwan and an act of Congress encouraging consideration of US Navy port calls in Taiwan progress. These would likely be seen as unacceptable provocations by a country no longer shy about its aspirations.

Dr Jonathan Sullivan is Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham

Sage’s position on censorship in China

I have had some correspondence with Sage today regarding their position on the censorship of academic publications in China. The publisher provided a clarification of the company’s position in response to this piece I wrote for D&C, which included the line “Sage meanwhile suggested that it would [remove content] if asked”. The line was referencing this report in the Financial Times, written by Ben Bland who has become the leading chronicler of academic censorship in China.

Sage’s clarification of its position is as follows:

As a matter of general principle, SAGE does not block or remove content in response to such a request. It is possible that the Chinese importers or authorities could themselves block access to content. In that case, our preference would be that the entire product is withdrawn as far as that is possible in order to preserve its intellectual integrity. However, in all cases we would first consult with the content owner, society or journal editor as appropriate to ascertain their preferences in the situation.

To also clarify, we have not received a request from the Chinese authorities or other entity to remove or block access to certain documents or content within China. We have however, as have other publishers, been warned that there is a risk that this may happen. If you have become aware of any SAGE content that appears to be blocked in China, we would very much like to receive details of this so that we can investigate the situation.

It is important that publishers are called out for any acts of censorship, but it is equally important to note where they are resisting such pressures. I hope that this clarification is noted therefore, and invite colleagues who do notice any Sage material that appears unavailable in China to contact the publisher as requested.

The slippery slope of western academic censorship

Every sector of Chinese society has become more constrained under Xi Jinping. The Communist Party, private business, the media and internet, civil society and academia have all been affected by moves to reign in their “degrees of freedom”. For better or worse, this is the prerogative of the Chinese leadership. What I am about to write is thus not about imposing my “western values” on China or dictating how China should be run. Instead, it is about “us”, western societies, institutions, businesses and individuals, and how we conduct ourselves in our interactions with China.

Given the tightening parameters of China’s authoritarian information order, it was only a matter of time until western publishers became a target for exerting greater control. The first target, Cambridge University Press, initially acceded to demands from Chinese authorities to remove content from its website in China, only to reverse track when the backlash from academics threatened lasting reputational damage. Other publishers have followed. Some, like MIT, Oxford and Chicago University Press have said they will not self-censor. Sage meanwhile suggested that it would if asked.

Springer Nature stands out, not only because of its status as one of the world’s largest academic trade presses, but because it actively barred access to some of its content to Chinese internet users. Moreover, Springer Nature has been admirably forthright in defending its decision to do so. Its rationale is that removing a small portion of its catalogue (albeit over 1,000 articles) was a small price to pay for continuing to provide access to material deemed agreeable to the Chinese state.
As an economic argument, it is unassailable. The offending materials come exclusively from journals publishing work on Chinese politics and related fields – a negligible part of Springer Nature’s output. The economic impact is especially minimal when compared to consumption in China itself, where medical, engineering, business and language-learning texts are in high and lucrative demand.

It is when we go beyond purely economic cost-benefit analysis that Springer Nature’s decision raises serious issues. By allowing the Chinese government to decide what is legitimate knowledge the publisher undermines the ethos (freedom of thought and dissemination) and the process (review by peers not political officials) on which academic research is predicated. If that is so, we might question the legitimacy of Springer Nature’s role in the academic sector. How can we trust the integrity of an academic institution (which is what presses are whether they are also commercial enterprises or not) if the ultimate arbiter of academic research is outsourced to an unrelated body whose primary criteria is not academic but political?

When I submit my work to an academic publisher (based on my labour that is paid for by the British taxpayer), I enter an informal contract based on trust that the submission will be stringently but fairly reviewed by academically competent persons who are picked by the publisher and whose identity I do not know. If my work is deemed by blind peer review to make a contribution to knowledge, I trust that the press will publish it in accordance with the sector’s standards in a timely fashion and make it available to all subscribers.

If this process is not adhered to, that betrays not just my trust but that of all academic colleagues. The decision whether an essay is a contribution to knowledge must not be outsourced to a government whose primary concern is political correctness.

This may sound overly abstract given the “negligible” practical impact. The readership of the blocked content in China is likely very small. However, there are practical implications. In some cases, for example where Chinese academics have had their articles removed, it could affect professional advancement. The years of dedication and hard work required to publish academic research could, in theory, be negated as authors are denied promotions or tenure due to the idiosyncrasies of a crude keyword search (the method Springer Nature appears to have employed).

At the present time, the likelihood of such extreme hypothetical scenarios is low. But, my major concern is that we are at the beginning of a long downward spiral. A precedent has been set. What can Springer Nature do but accede to the Chinese authorities’ wishes next time it decides to demand content removed? Today it is “highly sensitive” topics like Tibet and the Cultural Revolution that have been removed; tomorrow it may be slightly less sensitive topics and so on. This is a slippery slope, the end point of which is conforming with the Chinese definition of legitimate knowledge.

As I said, I am not here to tell the Chinese authorities what they should do. But I must state that for academics outside China it is an intolerable intrusion on our fundamental freedoms to have the merits of one’s professional output dictated by a foreign government.

Which brings me to my final point. As China’s global engagement intensifies, as Chinese interests and confidence to assert and protect them increases, it is inevitable that they will come into contact with our own. It is therefore essential that in western academia, and in western societies more generally, we consider our own interests and values. We need to decide what we value and what we are willing to do to protect it. Do we value the freedoms of academic inquiry and expression? Or are those values that we are willing to compromise?

This piece was originally published in Development and Cooperation. 

Dude, where’s my paper?

Back in 2011, weibo was enjoying a moment. Competing platforms were at the height of their popularity and had brought several scandals to light, including attempts to cover up the Wenzhou high speed rail crash. I was fascinated by the potential for weibo to disrupt the authoritarian information order, and wrote about it for the journals New Media & Society and Media, Culture & Society. For the former, in a piece entitled “China’s Weibo: Is faster different?”, I concluded that despite the potential for democratizing information, the state was already proving adept at controlling and harnessing weibo for its own agenda. It doesn’t please me that this proved to be right, as the subsequent crackdown, which neutered weibo’s effectiveness, demonstrated.

In 2011 I was also studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE), and needed to write a teaching-related report. Surveying the literature in China Studies I was struck by the paucity of reflections on teaching practice in our field, and decided to write about incorporating weibo into classes on Chinese politics. This was something I was experimenting with in the classroom at the time, and I imagined that it would stimulate thoughts among academic colleagues about how we might enhance our teaching and increase the knowledge and understanding of students learning about contemporary China. The Editor of the Journal of Chinese Political Science, published by Springer Nature, agreed, using my paper as the stimulus for a special issue dedicated to teaching methods in the China Studies field.

I never imagined that the paper I wrote would end up on a list of articles pulled from publication in China by Springer Nature. When another of my articles, “Chen Suibian: On independence” featured on the list of China Quarterlypublications that the Chinese authorities required Cambridge University Press to remove from their website in China, I could at least perceive the logic to it. Although the paper was a statistical analysis of presidential speeches that sought to contextualise and explain (not endorse!) then-President Chen’s sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, Taiwanese independence is about as sensitive an issue as there is in the PRC.

But what was it about “Teaching Chinese politics: Microblogging and student engagement” that prompted Springer Nature to pull it? Was it the technical discussion of the “pedagogical imperatives [that] increasingly impel university teachers to consider the effectiveness of their teaching methods”? Or the aim to construct a “supportive and collaborative learning environment and demystify China for non-Chinese majors”? I remain mystified myself.

For me personally, removing access to this paper in China is no more than a minor irritation. The paper itself has had negligible impact (a mere 7 cites in the 5 years since publication), and the subsequent decimation of weibo’s popularity and the associated rise of a totally different platform, WeChat, has rendered the practical advice for teachers moot.

However, as I commented in the Financial Times today (FT China correspondent Ben Bland broke the story), there are bigger issues involved. I said, and believe, that it is “a symbol of how unprepared we are in the west for China’s influence expanding outwards.” China sets the rules for what goes on in its territory, and whether we agree with them or not we have to respect that. Censorship by western academic institutions, including trade and university presses, is thus a story about us and our values. China is set on pursuing its own model and it is evident at this point that the west is not going to have much impact on the contours of Chinese norms. The question is whether Chinese norms will start to impact our own behaviours. In fact, there is sufficient evidence that the question is not “whether” but rather “to what extent”.

As China’s global engagement (an unequivocal net positive for the world in my view) broadens and intensifies, and the promise of access to its market exerts an ever greater pull, actions like Springer Nature’s are bound to increase in frequency. Commercial actors of course, from Facebook to Norwegian salmon farmers, work to economic, cost-benefit calculi that do not leave much room for consideration of values. Except, as exemplified by Cambridge University Press’ u-turn, where reputational damage prompts (let’s give benefit of the doubt) a reconsideration of principles. It remains to be seen how Springer Nature will respond, although trade presses have somewhat different considerations than university presses.

Academics are already aware of the inequities of the publishing model in the sector, where companies like Springer Nature and Elsevier have amassed substantial economic gains on the back of free labour. For the weeks of labour I put into writing my banned paper (indeed any paper), and the years of study and training that enabled me to be in position to write it, I didn’t receive a single penny from publishers. Neither have I received any compensation for the time (hundreds of hours at this point) dedicated to peer reviewing submissions to journals, the imprimatur of quality assurance on which academic publications are predicated. Acceptance of this predatory and parasitic relationship is being eroded across the sector, but it, like Chinese censorship, won’t go away any time soon.

And so, in a small token act of resistance against the worst instincts of western capitalism and the Chinese authoritarian information regime, I make all of my published papers freely available to anyone to download at the tabs above.

Xi Jinping Thought – implications

It is a very significant, and staggeringly rapid, achievement for Xi to have his Thought elevated to the Party charter. The comparisons with Mao are becoming harder to resist, simply because he has accumulated such incredible power in such a short space of time. We should resist the temptation though, because there is no indication that Xi has any Mao-like proclivities or intentions. And, the one caveat to Xi Thought is that it is an add-on to Deng’s, rather than a unique stand alone – which suggests that behind the scenes there is resistance to giving Xi an even stronger mandate.

What he does have though, is the basis for shaping China in his image almost without obstacle in the near term, and the foundation for continuing to influence the country for a long time, far exceeding the next 5 years. With Xi Thought ensconced as guiding ideology, it is unlikely that China will diverge from Xi’s vision in the short-medium term and, potentially, for decades to come.

In one way this is good news for the rest of the world: at least we know what we are dealing with. In another, it represents a very real challenge, because Xi’s vision includes, for the first time in contemporary Chinese history, staking out a global leadership role. This will inevitably bring China’s interests up against those of other powers, and a strategy for managing relations and expectations of a more “robust” Chinese global engagement policy is crucial.

America’s foreign policy disarray and leadership vacuum represents a “strategic opportunity” for China as Xi noted in his work report and I expect taking advantage of this opportunity to be a major feature of Xi’s second term.

Meanwhile, the issue of succession has been rendered much less significant by the elevation of Xi Thought, which will tie the hands of anyone who follows. Xi is looking more and more like a “paramount leader” a la Deng and Mao, albeit one who still has a lot to prove.

CUP reverses pledge to remove CQ content in China

Cambridge University Press (CUP) has announced that it is reversing its decision to comply with demands from the Chinese authorities to remove more than 300 articles appearing in the China Quarterly (CQ), the field leading China Studies journal that CUP publishes. CUP apparently took the decision following a weekend of intense criticism from the academic community and other China professionals after the news broke on Friday. In a statement, CUP pledged its support for freedom of expression and argued that it had agreed to the authorities demands in order to protect the accessibility of its other published material in China.

It goes without saying that from the point of view of the integrity of the academic endeavour CUP has made the right decision. While we wait to see how CUP’s business in China may be affected, we can also say it was a necessary decision to control the damage that was being done to the CUP brand, especially among academics who supply much of the labour, a lot of it free of charge, for CUP’s product. Despite receiving praise for reversing course, the esteemed press has suffered a blow to its prestige and diminished trust among many academics.

Questions remain about CUP’s prior handling of Chinese demands and the fate of around 1000 e-books removed from its catalogue in China. CUP’s statement notably falls short of pledging to reject any future ‘requests’ to remove content. Indeed it states that it will consider removing work “when asked to do so” if it endangers “the wider availability of content”. Is that not what has just occurred? The line may be a sop to the Chinese authorities, or on advice of the lawyers, but it leaves an opening for similar episodes to arise in the future.

The prospect of future interventions by the Chinese authorities is high. China is in the midst of a concerted program to enforce ‘discipline’ across diverse sectors, including the media and internet, NGOs and lawyers, business and the Communist Party itself. Chinese academia is under substantial pressure to adopt ‘politically correct’ attitudes in research and teaching. Under these broader conditions, the application of a more systematic means of control of western academic material in China would not be surprising. I suspect that CUP’s volte face, on the heels of a crowing Global Times editorial before the reversal, will lead to an escalation upwards and repercussions for western presses in China. Needless to say, the constrained conditions prevailing in Chinese academia will continue.

The parameters of the China Studies community’s “victory” are thus circumscribed, which is not to diminish the extraordinary efforts of colleagues to push back against CUP’s original decision. CUP has been compelled to stop abetting the censorship efforts of the Chinese state. If the Chinese authorities want to censor material, they have the right and the means to do so, but a western academic institution (in this case a world-renowned press associated with one of the world’s great universities) should not be helping them. The activism of the past 72 hours is a demonstration of the integrity of our field and our willingness to stand up for the values of our profession.

CUP’s reputation has been damaged, but it remains an influential and prestigious press. A CUP book or articles in CUP journals like Journal of Asian Studies or American Political Science Review, remain extremely valuable currency in the profession. The larger question is how the press will fare having crossed the authorities. If the Chinese authorities’ original demand was an exercise in power, the reaction to the reversal demands a robust response. Things could get unpleasant yet.