WASHINGTON - It’s well known that Chinese censors shape and limit the news and history their people can learn. What may be more surprising is how Chinese officials shape and limit what Americans learn about China.
Last month, a cultural attache in the Chinese embassy in Washington invited Perry Link to attend a Forum of Overseas Sinologists in Beijing in December.
Given that Link is one of America’s eminent China scholars, this might not be surprising — except that he had not received a visa to enter China since 1996 for reasons the Chinese have never explained.
Link replied that he would be interested in attending, but would he receive a visa?
Absolutely, he was told.
You’re sure? Link emailed back.
Of course, the attache replied. Just send your passport, “and I can help you to finish the visa application.”
Link sent his passport and application, and on Nov. 8 received the following message: “After review, I’d like to inform you that you will not be invited to the forum.”
The Lucy-and-the-football quality of this exchange is striking, but Link is far from the only foreign scholar to be blacklisted. In 2011, 13 respected academics who had contributed chapters to a book on Xinjiang, a province of western China that is home to a restive Muslim minority, found themselves banned.
Link, who has forged a distinguished career at Princeton and the University of California at Riverside can survive a visa ban. But for a young anthropologist seeking tenure, the inability to do field research could be terminal. And because China never explains its refusals or spells out what kind of scholarship is disqualifying, the result is a kind of self-censorship and narrowing of research topics that is damaging even if impossible to quantify.
“The costs to the American public,” Link told me, “are serious and not well appreciated. … It is deeply systematic and accepted as normal among China scholars to sidestep Beijing demands by using codes and indirections. One does not use the term ‘Taiwan independence,’ for example. It is ‘cross-strait relations.’ One does not mention Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who sits in prison. … Even the word ‘liberation’ to refer to 1949 is accepted as normal.”
Academics understand the code, he added, “but when scholars write and speak to the public in this code, the public gets the impression that 1949 really was a liberation, that Taiwan independence really isn’t much of an issue, that a Nobel Prize winner in prison really is not worth mentioning.”
Increasingly, foreign journalists are subject to similar pressure. Paul Mooney, a veteran Asia journalist for Reuters, recently was denied a visa, with no reason given, according to the agency. Knowledgeable China hands for Bloomberg News, the New York Times and The Washington Post have met similar fates.
Bloomberg provides a telling case. Last year it published groundbreaking investigations on the wealth that China’s elites are accumulating. Corruption is a sensitive issue for Communist Party leaders, and, given Bloomberg’s business interests in China, the journalism took courage.
After the reports, Bloomberg’s website was blocked to Chinese viewers, and journalists were denied visas. Recently, according to the New York Times, Bloomberg spiked an investigative report about a billionaire’s connection to Chinese leaders, with its editor in chief arguing that it was important to maintain his reporters’ access to the country.
The editor denied the report, telling the Times that the stories remain “active and not spiked.” Until they appear, Chinese officials will likely be emboldened to believe that their hardball tactics can succeed in shaping what Americans read — and don’t read — about their country.
Visa denials are only one way the Communist Party attempts to influence how China is depicted. American universities increasingly depend on money-making campuses in China and on Chinese students paying full tuition here. Hollywood rewrites scripts to ensure access to China’s screens.
As Sarah Cook of Freedom House writes in her recent 67-page report, “The Long Shadow of Chinese Censorship: How the Communist Party’s Media Restrictions Affect News Outlets Around the World”:
“In many cases, Chinese officials directly impede independent reporting by media based abroad. However, more prevalent — and often more effective — are methods of control that subtly induce self-censorship. …” Many Chinese-language newspapers outside China, she notes, have become more pliant because of pressure on advertisers or threats to relatives of journalists still inside China.
But what the Communist Party sees as propaganda success may not help the country in the long run, for at least three reasons. Debates overseas on the most contentious issues — Tibet, Taiwan, the one-child policy — are waged by the sharpest partisans, while China scholars who might bring more nuance to the discussions stay silent.
The leaders’ desire to have China be seen as a confident new power on the world stage is undermined by their apparent fear of honest scrutiny.
And stifling scholarship and journalism doesn’t just harm Americans’ ability to understand the complexities of the world’s most populous country, it also limits information and analysis for China’s decision makers. In the end, that can’t be an advantage.
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.