Quick take on Fan Bingbing

Fan Bingbing is a bona fide A-list actress in China. She hasn’t made a public appearance in months amid speculation about detention on tax evasion. The case has captured the world’s attention, not least because the equivalent ‘disappearance’ of an equivalent Hollywood star is unimaginable (the disappearance, not the tax charges, if that is indeed what is Fan is facing). Having studied the way that the entertainment industry works in China, it is somewhat less mindblowing.

The celebrity industry is embedded in a dense layer of formal and informal regulations, subject to overlapping government ministries and frequently articulated ‘guidance’ on how to operate and manage its stars. The state has lots of sticks and carrots at its disposal, and has successfully ‘coopted’ the entertainment industry, adding another layer of (self-)regulation. The Chinese entertainment industry is extremely lucrative for companies and individuals, and the threat of being denied access to this market looms all the time, because the state can decide on a whim to ban a certain performer or show.

The Party is keenly aware that celebrities have large audiences and believes in stars power to exert influence over their fans. Thus it is crucial for the Party that stars use their influence in a way that promotes what the Party wants it to. The emphasis changes from time to time, but almost always includes things like promoting “core values” and patriotism, and never challenging the Party line. Celebrities are encouraged to demonstrate their ‘political correctness’ and bring ‘positive energy’ to their roles and public behaviours, whether its demonstrating filial piety, marital faithfulness, love for the nation, extolling the virtues of hard work and perseverance, or embodying the “Chinese dream” (of a moderately prosperous country) etc. Celebrities’ reach is so great that if they promote the ‘correct’ message they can be very powerful (‘soft’) weapons for the state; but the reverse is also true, which is why they are so carefully managed.

This case is interesting because Celebrity performers have long been known to sign dual contracts (so they can declare lower earnings to the tax bureau), but have very rarely faced sanction for it. The fact that Fan is an A-lister may be deliberate – sending the message to the industry that no one is above the law. The fact that information about Fan’s alleged dual contracts became public (via a malevolent whistleblower) may have encouraged the state to intervene when it did – but it fits the broader campaign under Xi to crack down on various sectors. Certainly the massive riches and extravagant consumption of celebrities have exercise state media for a long time, worried as they are about rising inequality in the country and the potential for super-conspicuous super-wealth to create negative reactions in society.

My paper “Truth, good and beauty” forthcoming this month in The China Quarterly takes its title from Fan’s speech at the launch of an ethics pledge launched by the authorities in 2015 taken by 50 organizations in the entertainment sector. Fan was once the poster child for the state’s harnessing of celebrities – it now looks like she is an exemplar in a different way.

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Fu Manchu, Yellow Peril and Sinophobia

Sax Rohmer, penname of the journeyman British writer Arthur Henry Ward, wrote music hall routines, serial fiction and popular novels to make money. From a working class background and unblessed with great talent or connections, Rohmer was forced to develop an eye for what would sell. He struck gold with a creation that tapped into a rich seam of anti-Chinese racism, and exploited the prevailing Anglo-Saxon sense of racial superiority combined with a growing feeling of vulnerability vis-à-vis “the Chinese”.

By the time Rohmer’s Chinese supervillain Dr Fu Manchu emerged on the scene in London in 1912, the “Yellow Peril” idea had been around for several decades. Gina Marchetti’s classic study of romance and race in Hollywood film traces the popularization of the narrative to late 19th Century America. A dialectic characterized the “Chinese masses” as a threat to the lives of morally superior and yet physically vulnerable (by dint of their smaller numbers) whites. Yellow Peril discourse typically advanced a “semantics of spread”, with images of expansion, takeover and appropriation. Fears of an influx of Chinese labour to West Coast America, following major migrations during the gold rush of the 1850s, led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a ban on Chinese immigration that was not repealed until the 1940s.

Such narratives have recurred over time and are not limited to the Chinese (consider fearful projections in some quarters about “Hispanicization”). Unsurprisingly, when it was later exported to the US, Rohmer’s work found a receptive audience, particularly in the screen version where Fu Manchu was played by Warner Oland (later reincarnated as Charlie Chan) and Boris Karloff in the 1930s. Christopher Lee reprised the role in a series of five films as late as the 1960s. In the early 20th Century Yellow Peril discourses resonated powerfully with British audiences too, although for a more nuanced reason than American fears of impending or imagined Chinese migration alone (despite British historical sensitivities about invasion). For the British, it was the alleged malevolence of the Chinese, reflected and reinforced by the Fu Manchu character, rather than sheer numbers, which triggered feelings of vulnerability heightened by a sense of decline, if not impending loss, of the Empire.

The character of Fu Manchu is spectacularly stylized, to the extent that he is the Yellow Peril incarnate. At one point in The Mask of Fu Manchu, the detective Nyland Smith comments in awe of his nemesis that “the spread of the thing is phenomenal”. As Ruth Mayer puts it in her investigation of the ideology behind the Yellow Peril, Fu Manchu’s “volatility and intangibility, his expertise at masquerade, infiltration and impersonation render him at the same time impossible to locate and ubiquitous”. Racial stereotypes were an important feature of colonialism, strategies to cultivate the self-image of the colonizers while Othering their subjects. Constructing “the heathen Chinee”, to quote Bret Harte’s poem of 1870, was to justify acts of subjugation in the name of “civilizing missions” to force open trade, expropriate land or secure converts to Christianity. Chinese men, if they were considered as individuals rather than a mass of coolie labour (from the Chinese苦力meaning hard or bitter work), were portrayed as despicable, disgusting and physically, mentally and morally inferior. They could also be devious, villainous and inscrutable, as with Fu Manchu. Asian women were sexualised, available and in need of being rescued, a fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu’s Eurasian slave-girl Karamaneh.

Sax Rohmer’s own fantasies were served by a passing familiarity (which according to Christopher Frayling he greatly exaggerated) with the goings on and the characters of Limehouse, a riverside district in London where Chinese sailors, labourers and sundry merchants and associates resided. Known as ‘the Asiatic colony’, in the popular imagination (fed by Rohmer and others) Limehouse became synonymous with opium, crime and squalor, a microcosm of the “Far East” by the Thames. Rohmer, like many of his compatriots at the time, was fascinated with the “mysterious” Chinese underworld, secret societies, and the violence, drugs and prostitution that surrounded them. Movies like Big Trouble in Little China (1986) show the longevity of such fantasies. Edward Said argued that Orientalist fantasies were the externalized fictions of Europeans, essentially a made-up view of the world. Said didn’t study China (a regret expressed to Frayling which inspired the latter’s recent book), but the China scholar Colin Mackerras has shown how western images of China are consistent with Orientalist projections and the Orientalist schema. As Frayling says of the Fu Manchu series, “the stories were about us—they were not really about China at all”.

Racist stereotypes like Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril are repugnant and utterly anachronistic. And yet they underpin racist discourses, which serve as the basis of world views that are extraordinarily resilient and hard to budge. For instance, Emma Mawdsley’s analysis of UK broadsheets’ contemporary coverage of China’s engagment in Africa invokes striking stereotypes about “the Chinese”. Ono and Pham’s book on Asian Americans and contemporary US media speaks of the “structured embeddedness of the Yellow Peril”, which they find is deeply “entrenched within the cultural fabric of the US”. Frayling notes that “some of the most indelible visual images from popular culture were of ‘Chinamen’”. Unfortunately they were mostly Yellow Peril stereotypes like Fu Manchu and Ming the Merciless, of the subservient Charlie Chan variety or played by white actors like David Carradine (who was cast ahead of Bruce Lee in the TV series Kung Fu). Another genre is the mocking “yellowface” impersonation of Asians by white actors, like Mickey Rooney’s lamentable Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It remains to be seen how the PRC’s recent rise to economic and political prominence, and increasing competition with the US, affects depictions of Chineseness. Racism doesn’t require or attract creative genius, as reflected by the limited repertoire of Fu Manchu’s fiendishness, and one wonders if the Yellow Peril will simply find another target without China’s economic clout (North Korea for instance, which appears to have replaced China as a source of Hollywood baddy). The Yellow Peril has changed little over time. Consider a complaint by Rd. EJ Hardy, Chaplain to the Forces in Hong Kong and published in the periodical Tit-Bits in 1896: “the peril is that China will manufacture things cheaper than Europeans can and dismiss us from trade in the Far East” (quoted by Frayling). This could easily come from the lips of any contemporary American or European politician. The target for Yellow Peril can change over time (it is hard to imagine, now that it has become a diplomatic and military bulwark against China’s rise, the fear and loathing Japan inspired in the US merely thirty years ago), but it won’t go away.

The Dark Road

The Dark Road, by the exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian, is a dystopian road movie following family planning fugitives Meili, Kongzi and their One Child Policy-compliant daughter Nannan down the Yangtse. The plot begins with Meili pregnant for a second time just as the family planning militia descends on rural Kong village. These shock troops are here to collect fines for violations of the state’s population policy, and to force abortions and sterilizations on women whose husbands can’t pay up. They manage to escape, but the state’s pursuit of domination over Meili’s body won’t stop there.

Kongzi is a 76th generation heir of Confucius, and his raison d’être is to produce a 77th. Kongzi (a nickname that literally means Confucius) feels very keenly the pressure of his obligation to continue the illustrious family line, and he pursues his mission to sire a son relentlessly throughout the families’ travels and travails. A village girl with traditional values, Meili accepts her part in this quest and despite the grubbiness and general peril of their surroundings there are moments of genuine shared intimacy. Not surprisingly, Meili feels the pressure more than Kongzi; agonizing about the gender of her unborn babies (girls won’t do) and the consequences of getting caught with an out of plan child falls solely to her. Little wonder Meili feels her body isn’t her own, musing that a woman’s genitals belong to men and her womb to the state.

The Chinese title 陰之道gives a sense of the book’s complexities. The character yin 陰is the yin in “yin and yang” 陰陽, the contrasting but complementary sides of nature so fundamental to Chinese conceptions of the world. Yin is the side representing darkness, hence the English title. Darkness can be sinister, but it also represents the feminine side of nature (to yang’s male), so the book could equally be titled ‘a woman’s road’. 之is a particle with no substantive meaning here, but Dao 道is another word with complex potentialities. It can mean a literal or figurative road or path. It can also indicate a doctrine. Dao is the character that forms the word Daoism or Taoism 道教, a philosophical system where the focus is on the ‘way of nature’ 道之天. Dao is also the central component of Confucianism, where it is usually translated as ‘the Way’, and focuses on the ‘way of man’人道. Much of the Analects is about extolling the virtues and prescribing how to attain the Way. Thus Ma’s Chinese title is full of potential meanings; invoking the perniciousness of Confucianism; the sinister one child doctrine; a literally dark pathway in the form of the polluted Yangtse; a figurative dark path to the margins of society symbolising the families’ exile; the trauma of a woman’s path in China confined and compelled by the twin demands of Confucianism and Communist (family) planning; the path of China’s development that has mutilated the land and people’s values. Removing the 之particle produces the noun vagina陰道the part of Meili’s body that is contested throughout.

Determined to give birth in hope it’ll be the anticipated male heir, Meili, Kongzi and Nannan flee Kong village for a life on the road. They seek temporary refuge on the Yangtse, living on boats with other family planning fugitives. It is a squalid and precarious existence, but left alone the family manages a homely tenderness. Kongzi is a teacher turned demolition worker (Jia Zhangke’s Still Life provides a perfect visualization for this part of the story). He affirms his intellectual status and noble lineage by quoting pompously from the classics, and providing a pious rationale for his libido. The family make do raising ducks, growing vegetables and repurposing bits and pieces. Their daily lives are a mix of shivering cold, duck shit and river stench, but they get by. But one day, with her baby almost at full term, Meili is captured by a family planning squad. The male foetus they named Happiness, is forcibly aborted in an indelible scene of shocking brutality juxtaposed with shocking transactional nonchalance (the physician calmly offers a knock down price for the operation). Meili and Kongzi take Happiness away in a plastic bag and give him a water burial in the Yangtse.

The family continues on its way again downriver, slowly making towards a town called Heaven, where rumour has it you can have as many kids as you like. Despite the horrors inflicted on his wife, Kongzi doesn’t take long to resume his mission, and soon enough Meili is pregnant again. It is a period where Meili finds some minor economic success selling vegetables in a small market, and she starts to dream of a materially better future and vows that this will be her last child. But when the baby is born, it’s a girl. The tenderness that Meili lavishes on her second daughter, who is appears to suffer from a mental disability, is to no avail, and one day she returns to the family’s boat to find that Kongzi has gone off to sell her to a mutilated child begging racket. So much for Kongzi’s moral piety. Setting off in anger into the nearby town, Meili is detained and sent to an ad hoc labour camp for not having the proper documents. At the labour camp she shares a dormitory with an urban sex worker, who provides another view of the woman’s body, as an economic instrument. Meili rejects such a possibility, only to be let out of the camp into forced labour in a brothel. A nasty rape scene with the brothel owner ensues, but Meili escapes by burning the place down (an improbable twist, but at this point the reader is so desperate for a respite that it doesn’t matter), and is soon reunited with Kongzi.

The family finally reaches Heaven, which turns out to be a Guangdong cancer village recycling electronic waste. The melancholy cycle repeats again: the indefatigable Kongzi continues his mission and sure enough Meili becomes pregnant again. Traumatized by her experiences she is determined to protect her baby inside her womb. Meili refuses to relinquish the baby until many months beyond the usual gestation period. Finally she gives birth to a green alien-like thing mutated by the poisonous e-waste—Heaven’s kicker is that you can have as many kids as you like but none will be healthy. Finally released from her duty Meili lets herself sink into the river to reunite with the spirits of her babies. Her passage down the ‘dark road’ is over.

Set amid the uncomfortable realism that characterises Ma’s narrative, this surreal last twist is disconcerting, until you realise that the entire reality that Ma has constructed is an inversion or perversion of the ‘natural order’, that it is all “unreal”; Happiness is a murdered baby; Heaven is a cancer village; pregnant women are criminals; aborted foetuses are sold to restaurants; babies are produced for mutilation and the begging trade. This is a very grim book, an unrelentingly negative portrait of contemporary China. If you only read this book you would imagine that the fate of Chinese women is unimaginably horrific. This is an exaggeration—there are positives about China’s development and there is a more balanced tale to tell about the opportunities and challenges for Chinese women. But if it makes people think more carefully about why China has such a gender imbalance, or the prevalence of female suicide, or can label them “leftover” if they don’t marry in their 20s, then it is worth the discomfort. It is therefore all the more regrettable that Ma’s books are banned in China.

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.