'We fight for ourrights inch by inch'

December 3, 2004

UK universities are racing to enter China, but will they get 'arrows in their backs' from a government that disdains free inquiry? Chris Bunting reports

Adam Roberts remembers Xu Zerong as a quiet fellow. He was "sort of solid, serious and devoted to his work. He certainly wasn't a flaming firebrand. I think he was someone who felt that his country was moving in the right direction and he discovered, in a very unfortunate way, that there are limits to that," says Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford University.

"Xu Zerong comes from a military family. I think he had the idea that because he came from loyal roots his research was safe. I remember once asking whether he was taking a risk, and he assured me he wasn't."

Xu studied at St Anthony's College, Oxford, where he completed a masters and a doctorate in international relations between 1989 and 1999. He is now serving a 13-year term in a Chinese jail for sharing state secrets and failing to get the right permits for publishing books and journals.

"The most serious charge in formal terms, when he was arrested in 2000, was that he had obtained a semi-private publication circulated within the Chinese military about the Korean War and sent it to a South Korean research institute," Roberts says. "The problem was that he had published an article about the communist resistance in Malaya in 1948 that showed that the Chinese Government of the day was supporting the communists. They did not like this because it cut across China's claims that it has always stood pat on other nations' sovereignty."

Tohti Tunyaz, an ethnic Uigur historian specialising in the history of Chinese government policy towards minorities, is serving an 11-year sentence. In 1998, during a visit to China to research his doctorate at Tokyo University, he was arrested and charged with advocating separatism and "illegally acquiring state secrets". The "secrets" are believed to be a list of 50-year-old documents provided by an official librarian.

For He Qinglian, an economist who was forced to flee China in 2001 after police broke into her home and seized documents, both cases fit into the Chinese approach to silencing unwanted scholarly activity. "They are quite sophisticated," says He, a visiting scholar at Princeton University. "They look at it on a case-by-case basis. If you have an international profile, they will be a little careful. But there are two general rules they adopt: they never immediately punish you for what they don't like - they wait for an opportunity later - and they never list the real reason for their action. They like to dress up political punishments as punishments for corruption or stealing secrets that, in fact, were not secrets."

Awkward cases such as Tunyaz's and Xu's never make it into the glossy brochures for the stream of joint ventures in China emanating from British higher education. And the enthusiasts for such projects do not often mention that the London-based Network for Education and Academic Rights puts China at the top of a league table of violations of academic freedom, ahead of countries such as Iran, Zimbabwe and Russia.

When Western academics involved in joint projects in China are questioned about these issues, the response is almost invariably to talk about the importance of "engagement" in developing respect for human rights among the country's authorities.

Sharon Hom, professor emerita of law at the City University of New York and executive director of the New York and Hong Kong-based Human Rights in China, supports group engagement but says it is important to have an unclouded view of what is being engaged with. "The Government controls the information on which debate is based, the topics that can be debated and the terms that can be used in the debate. The State Secrets Law classifies as secret almost anything you want to name: the number of forced abortions, the number of deaths due to abortions, the amount of child labour."

The regulations on writing about a topic are themselves a secret, she adds, and the definition of a state secret is broad. "It can be a secret after the fact: it might not have been a secret when it was published, but if it is later seen as having 'harmful consequences', you can be imprisoned for revealing it."

Academics can be imprisoned, but they can also be sacked, demoted, banned from teaching, overlooked for promotion or put under surveillance. Journals are routinely closed and websites taken offline.

There can be significant differences between the extent of academic freedom in different institutions - by no means all senior staff are puppets of the authorities - and there is also wide variation in treatment depending on the subject being censored.

Talk about the trinity of Taiwan, Tibet or Tiananmen and you are likely to find yourself in serious trouble but other subjects drift in and out of the Government's cross hairs.

Ironically, a clear example of how apparently quite innocent topics can suddenly become dangerous was a debate on the role of intellectuals in society that briefly thrived this summer in the mainland media. Hom says:

"Earlier this year, some prominent intellectuals in China began using the concept of 'public intellectual' and this was picked up by the China Youth Daily , which ran an article on July 1 that identified three types of intellectuals: government, enterprise and public intellectuals. The article questioned whether intellectuals privately hired by enterprises could serve the public interest." The Southern Daily newspaper also published a list of the top 50 public intellectuals in the country and this helped spark a public debate.

"Who knows what goes on in the minds of authoritarian regimes but it seems someone at the top got nervous," Hom says. A leaked internal order from the Propaganda Department in Guangdong province, dated October 28, was posted on Chinese overseas websites. It seemed to be based on an order from the central authorities, and it specifically addressed the issue: "In terms of paying attention to the issue of 'public intellectuals'," it said, "this reflects a Western capitalist tendency which emphasises the independent and critical nature of a public intellectual."

It pointed to such intellectuals' attempts "to go outside their areas of specialised expertise" and continued: "They like to claim that they are objective and they like to call themselves opinion leaders. This notion is a Western class concept... and violates Marxism."

In China, orders from the Propaganda Department are a serious matter.

Anyone trying to continue the debate about "public intellectuals" risks becoming a target of the security apparatus. Song Yongyi of California State University, in Los Angeles, was imprisoned for six months in 1999 and his wife was held for four months after he was arrested during a visit to China to research the Cultural Revolution. The charge was obtaining "secret documents". In this case, they were newspaper articles. Song believes there is hope for greater academic freedom but that many foreigners misunderstand the nature of that hope.

"Western people always expect a Gorbachev to change everything, but this is too romantic a notion. Academic freedom isn't coming from the Government.

It is the people fighting for it. The people continue fighting and fighting. For instance, research into the Cultural Revolution is banned but, if you count, every year there are about 20 books that are called something totally different from the Cultural Revolution, that are really about the Cultural Revolution. I say to people that, if we are going to have a Gorbachev, everybody is a Gorbachev in China. We will fight for our rights inch by inch.

"Many Chinese scholars are disappointed about Western cooperation in China," Song says. "They talk about raising China's human rights and academic life to a new level, but we have to ask whether what is happening is that they are descending to China's corrupt standards."

Hom, whose organisation provides human rights and consultations for groups planning to work in China, supports engagement but warns that Western institutions that do not think hard about what they mean by it are likely to find themselves "pulling the arrows out of their backs" in the long term.

"They are dreaming if they think China will say: 'You are a foreign institution. You can do whatever you want.' The idea of foreign spheres of influence is strictly in the past. They belong to the post-Opium War period," she says. "What are these institutions going to do, for instance, if they want to set up internet access for their students? Are they going to sign the agreement on self-censorship for internet use? Are they going to use content-filtering software? Are they going to give up the identities of students using the internet when the authorities come calling?"

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