Blocking research is certain to backfire
Statistical evidence has emerged of overseas researchers being pressured by Chinese authorities not to investigate sensitive issues. But academic exchange and input from the outside is important to China’s development as a global power
Anecdotal evidence of political boundaries on academic freedom in the mainland abounds. Sensitive issues remain no-go areas. Visiting researchers are no exception. Statistical evidence of this has emerged from a survey of more than 560 China specialists working for overseas institutions by two United States-based academics. They found that about 10 per cent of overseas social scientists doing research in China have been pressured by the authorities not to investigate sensitive issues over the past decade. Typically, they had been “invited to have tea” with Chinese police or security personnel to discuss – or be warned about – their area of study. In addition about 25 per cent of the respondents involved in archival research reported denial of access to documents.
Curbs on independent scholarship are negative for well-informed policymaking and could affect the policies of other governments, and even lead to policy mistakes, according to overseas China research chiefs. They say the survey may not tell the whole story, since the perception of repression prompts academics to steer away from “grey” areas and in effect does the work of censors for them.
The report’s authors – political science professors Sheena Chestnut Greitens, of the University of Missouri, and Rory Truex, of Princeton University – say repressive experiences may be relatively rare but collectively present a barrier to research in China. The results come amid concerns that Chinese authorities are trying to muffle criticism of China among academics at home and overseas. Last year Cambridge University Press bowed to pressure and blocked online access on the mainland to articles in The China Quarterly. CUP reversed the decision after pressure from the academic community.
Academic exchange and input from the outside is important to China’s development as a global power. The world’s second-largest economy cannot just shut itself off. It needs outsiders to have a better understanding. Blocking research into so-called sensitive topics is self-delusionary. Independent scholarship can improve mutual understanding. Visiting researchers are more likely to engage with China’s point of view and explain it objectively. Pressuring them does not make sense and will only backfire on China in the long run.