Talking Censorship

About a year ago, I got to hear a talk by a China-watcher I really respect. During the presentation (or actually the Q&A, I think), he stated his personal position that he would not publish something in China that would have to be censored. This gave me something to think about – both because it seemed like a reasonable position to hold and because I have published something in China (in translation) that has been censored.

During my first year of graduate school (not at my current institution), I was fortunate enough to participate in a really wonderful research seminar that became the basis for an edited volume, which was published in 2015 as 1943: China at the Crossroads. Fairly early on, our editor had raised the possibility of a Chinese translation, and, as we went through the editing process for the English edition, I already knew that there were some parts of my chapter that I would probably need to change for publication in China. In particular, I knew the conclusion, where I highlighted parallels between the historical events that were the focus of my chapter and contemporary developments (something I’ve written about before), would need to be changed.

I was surprised to see some of the other parts of the chapter that were flagged as problematic. Even donning my Communist Party thinking cap (which I try to do sparingly, for obvious reasons), it was hard to rationalize why these sections of the chapter – which were closer to the crux of my argument – should be objectionable. I can only explain it in light of the increasingly repressive attitude towards political but also cultural and intellectual activities adopted by Xi Jinping’s regime. This kind of repression works directly but also indirectly – by getting people outside the government to conduct their own censorship out of fear of running afoul of the authorities.

But, does agreeing to publish something that has been censored make you complicit in an illiberal and unjust practice? I have mulled this question personally for the last couple years. This weekend, the China field as a whole is grappling with it, as news has just come out that Cambridge University Press agreed to the Chinese authorities’ request to remove over 300 articles from China Heritage Quarterly – a highly regarded academic journal – from its Chinese website.

This news and the reactions to it are inseparable from a series of recent events that have left China-watchers, including myself, bewildered at the country’s direction. Last month, Nobel Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo died of cancer while serving a prison stemming from his authorship of Charter 08, which called for the realization of democracy and human rights in China. His death has been followed by concerns about the motivations behind his hastily arranged cremation and burial and sea and the well-being of his wife, Liu Xia. In late July, Apple, bowing to pressure from Beijing, removed VPN apps, which allow users to circumvent the “Great Firewall,” from its Chinese app store. Just this week, Hong Kong’s Court of Appeals sentenced three young activists to prison terms for their roles in pro-democracy protests. This followed close on the heels of the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, which was accompanied by military parades and further indications that the Communist Party has little use or respect for Hong Kong’s political autonomy and democratic institutions.

Sadly, the list could go on.

The Chinese government’s moral and political legitimacy does not depend on the approval of foreign pundits. Nor does it need to fulfill unrealistic expectations that its economic development will lead to political reforms that reproduce “Western-style” democracy. But, by the same token, observers – foreign or not – are not obligated to stand by mutely when the government turns its appreciable powers against academic inquiry and its own people.

But there’s the rub. Speaking out – at least in some forums – requires playing by the rules. But when is the cost for having one’s voice heard greater than the benefits – political, economic, intellectual – that are reaped?

I don’t have a comprehensive answer, but I can reflect on my own experiences. For an academic piece of writing, I would have refused to publish something that I could not defend as historically accurate. And, as a translation of a piece already out in English, I would not have been comfortable significantly altering the core of the chapter’s argument. Fortunately, I was able to avoid this. I did have to alter how I structured that argument and presented evidence to support it, which I would have preferred not to do, but that was not a dealbreaker for me. Nor was the fact that I had to modify my conclusion, even though it was painfully ironic that passages highlighting parallels between the repressive nationalism and censorship of the Nationalist Party in the 1940’s and the Communist Party in the 2010’s fell victim to…well…repressive nationalism and censorship.

It was also important to me that, when published, my chapter and others that had to be altered included notes indicating this fact. This both alerted readers that there was more to be found in the English edition and highlighted the fact of censorship itself. Based on online reviews, I know that at least some readers stopped to wonder why censors might have singled some chapters for censorship. These reviews also confirmed my suspicion that intelligent readers would be able to read through the redactions, to see the parallels that I was not allowed to draw explicitly. Ultimately, then, I was reasonably satisfied that the chapter could still achieve my goals for increasing understanding of history and explaining why that history matters to the present.

It also mattered a great deal that I, as an author, was signing off on the version that would be published. This is very different from Cambridge University Press apparently unilaterally acceding to censorship without input from the authors or even the journal in question. Decisions about how to deal with issues of censorship and academic freedom look much different when they are being made by a business that is trying to maximize its ability to profit from the intellectual products of others.

This may seem like an issue that applies only to the small percentage of graduate students who are publishing in foreign countries that censor academic works. But what to say in public – or even whether to speak at all – is a question most graduate students have to face. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would say that publishing something like my chapter was, at best, a waste of time. Others would suggest that writing about my experiences with censorship (not to mention graduate school generally) might have a negative effect on my career prospects. Such questions will grow in currency so long as tenure and respect for academic inquiry continue to decline across the U.S.



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