The Long Arm of China’s Transnational Censorship

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Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly expressed the hope that a new “special relationship” could be forged between the United States and China over the coming years. Until now, the phrase has been used almost exclusively to refer to American ties with two countries: Great Britain and Israel. The reasons for America’s close relations with these two societies are complex, but they are rooted in a shared commitment to the fundamental values of democracy, including freedom of expression. China’s political leaders have rejected these values. Going a step further, Beijing has devoted enormous resources to developing what is now the world’s most intricate and sophisticated system of censorship, both online and off.

An especially troubling feature of the Chinese Communist Party’s drive to restrict access to ideas that it finds uncomfortable is its global reach. The party hierarchy is not content to cut the Chinese people off from news about religious minorities, Tibet, popular uprisings in the Middle East, or political dissidents. Increasingly, the authorities in Beijing have made it a priority of their diplomacy to prevent foreign governments, universities, media, or cultural institutions from providing a platform for critics of the Communist system, particularly those with a following inside China.

The most recent in a growing list of these transnational censorship efforts involves the University of Sydney, one of Australia’s most respected institutions of higher education. According to a Reuters report, the university’s Institute for Democracy and Human Rights had invited the Dalai Lama to speak at a campus forum during his planned visit to the country in June. Subsequently, university authorities demanded that the event be moved off campus, that the university logo not be displayed, that there be no press coverage, and that attendance by campaigners for a free Tibet be barred. Not surprisingly, organizers called off the event instead.

The university administration’s intervention came in a context of increasingly close economic ties between China and Australia. Trade between the two countries has mushroomed in recent years, reaching $120 billion in 2011. Earlier, Prime Minister Julia Gillard had refused to meet with the Dalai Lama, a move that triggered strong criticism. As for the University of Sydney, it has recently opened a Confucius Institute, part of an international network of facilities funded and overseen by the Chinese government that provide instruction on Chinese culture and language. It is unclear whether Chinese officials directly asked university leaders to disinvite the Dalai Lama or the administration took preemptive action. The initial result, in any event, was a serious blow to the once-sacred value of academic freedom.

Beijing’s attempts to purchase soft-power influence through academic institutions in Australia is not limited to higher education. In the state of New South Wales, China provided funds for the creation of a Confucius Classrooms Program, a branch of the Confucius Institutes network that focuses on students below the university level. Again, there are strings attached, as China’s lack of democracy, the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, and other sensitive themes are supposed to be out of bounds.

Similar patterns and incidents have cropped up around the world, though presumably most of Beijing’s attempts to control curriculums or blackball speakers like the Dalai Lama take place without embarrassing publicity. It is worth noting that many of the developing countries where China’s money and influence are at work have few of the defenses—such as a watchful press, a robust civil society, and strong opposition parties—that might prevent the Communist Party leadership from unilaterally shaping the portrayal of its unique brand of authoritarianism.

The good news is that Beijing does not invariably prevail in this campaign to control its image abroad. Indeed, less than a week after it announced that the Dalai Lama had been disinvited, the University of Sydney reversed itself and said he would be allowed to give a lecture for students. One would like to believe that university leaders reached their decision after realizing that they had sent a damning message about their institution’s commitment to unfettered intellectual inquiry. It seems more likely, however, that they were forced to backpedal in the face of a massive campaign launched by Students for a Free Tibet and public protests by political figures.

In his first months as secretary of state, John Kerry has tried to avoid the early mistake of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, who at the beginning of her tenure spoke dismissively about the importance of raising human rights concerns with Beijing. Kerry seems to have used the phrase “special relationship” to describe an aspiration for the future. Even so, the choice of words is deeply disturbing. Right now, the “special” aspect of China’s relationship with the United States and other democracies is the degree to which this autocratic regime has been able not just to escape the kind of serious condemnation to which other, less economically powerful rights abusers are routinely subjected, but also to reach into democratic societies and attempt to bend their institutions to its will. If a “special relationship” in the classic sense is built on shared values, one hopes that major changes in China, and not in its democratic counterparts, will make such a bond possible in the future.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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