Commentary / Japan

China's growing threat to academic freedom

by Shaun O'dwyer

In “The Scholars,” the classic 18th century Chinese novel on the lives and misadventures of Ming Dynasty literati, there is an episode that departs unnervingly from the book’s satirical, moralizing tone. One day the Nanjing scholar Chuang reluctantly obeys a summons to consult with the emperor in Beijing. On the way to Beijing he meets a fellow scholar, Lu, who excitedly tells him of a banned book he has just purchased, written by a scholar unjustly executed 160 years before. Chuang praises Lu for his “respect for learning”, but warns his new friend to avoid “forbidden books.”Nevertheless, he invites Lu to stay with him when he returns to Nanjing.

Back in Nanjing, Chuang keeps his promise to host Lu. But not long after Lu’s arrival, hundreds of soldiers arrive and swarm over Chuang’s estate; their commander orders Chuang to tell him if a scholar possessing a forbidden book is staying there. Lu surrenders himself, but in the following days Chuang works his Beijing connections to get Lu released. This story conveys vividly the vulnerability of scholars to a state authority that spares no expense to hunt them down if they stray from its narrow orthodoxy.

Chinese academics now struggling under what the Scholars at Risk Network describes as systematic Chinese government policies intended “to constrict academic activity and to intimidate, silence, and punish outspoken academics and students” might find much to relate to in Wu’s story.

Yet foreign scholars may also find this story relatable. China’s universities today are now deeply invested in an interdependent global system of research and educational collaboration. Since the Chinese Communist Party seems intent on instrumentalizing that system to influence global opinion of its governance and ideology, and to police foreign academic opinion it deems inimical to its interests, it was inevitable that foreign scholars would become vulnerable to such policies.

Recently, one foreign scholar was arrested in China, apparently for possessing a “forbidden book”: the Hokkaido University historian Nobu Iwatani, who was just released following over two months of detention.

Iwatani’s detention marks a potential new, dangerous phase in the CCP government’s undermining of academic freedoms for its expansive regime security interests. However, the circumstances of his release may provide some indicators for how academic associations and institutions can push back against such infringements.

According to news reports, Iwatani was detained by Ministry of State Security officials shortly after his arrival in his Beijing hotel in early September, having been invited to China by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) for two weeks of research collaboration. He had been invited by CASS the previous year, with no apparent problems. This time, it was different.

The Chinese government notified the Japanese government of Iwatani’s detention without providing any official explanation of the charges he faced, though unofficial allegations of “violating domestic laws” were made. According to one China Studies scholar I spoke to off the record, the Japanese media had received unofficial information about his detention by early October. There was apparently a collective agreement not to publicize this information, presumably to respect Iwatani’s family’s privacy and to safeguard “behind closed doors” efforts by the Japanese government to secure Iwatani’s release.

On Oct. 18, Japanese news organizations finally broke the story, though without releasing Iwatani’s name. Soon Iwatani’s detention had become international news. In hindsight, this publicity generated welcome effects, beginning with indignant reactions from Japanese media and academics which may have stiffened the resolve of the Japanese government to demand Iwatani’s release.

In late October the Japanese Association of Scholars Advocating Renewal of the Japan-China Relationship published an open letter signed by many prominent China studies scholars. It stated that they were “shocked beyond words” by Iwatani’s detention, warned that academic exchange between China and Japan was being undermined and demanded an explanation for Iwatani’s detention. Other research groups posted similar letters of protest.

In early November during a meeting between senior administrators of 40 Japanese and Chinese universities, some Japanese university representatives addressed Iwatani’s detention with unusual candor. The president of Ritsumeikan University insisted that academic freedoms be protected, while the vice president of Kyushu University remarked that “(this matter) can’t just be swept aside.”

Meanwhile, as word spread of Iwatani’s detention, Japanese academics began canceling research trips to China. One scholar told me of being the only Japanese researcher at a recent conference in China, all the others having pulled out. A high level Japan-China policy forum scheduled for Nov. 2 was also canceled in reaction to Iwatani’s detention.

Dismay over lack of Chinese transparency regarding Iwatani’s arrest was compounded by anxiety over what he could possibly have done to provoke it. Information about his research specialization published in the media enabled many to guess his identity before it was formally announced. He is a historian specializing in early 20th century Kuomintang politics and the Second Sino-Japanese War. None of his research touches on the “taboo” geopolitical topics that could presumably provoke Chinese suspicions.

In the absence of any clear reason for Iwatani’s detention beyond unofficial allegations of spying, speculation ran rife in social media and the mass media. Iwatani had been entrapped by CASS; he was a victim of “hostage diplomacy”; or perhaps, given his prior employment as a research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in the Defense Ministry, he might actually have been spying. Or, as an anonymous informant suggested to Aera magazine, maybe a researcher doing their job diligently by reading and copying sources has become an unexpectedly risky undertaking in China.

The Aera informant’s hunch may have been correct. During a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Bangkok on Nov. 4, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hinted that the prospects for President Xi Jinping’s scheduled state visit to Japan next year might hinge on a proper handling of Iwatani’s case. This strategem seems to have paid off. With Iwatani’s release on Nov. 15, the Chinese government finally made public the charge that Iwatani had confessed to, as a condition for his release.

Iwatani had confessed to “collecting inappropriate historical materials.” At the time of his detention, he had allegedly been found in possession of a book of documents relating to 20th century Kuomintang Party history. Unlike the literati Lu and his “forbidden book”, however, Iwatani had legitimately purchased his book at a bookstore.

This bizarre pretext reminded me of something the German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote about the fundamental, if opaque job description of totalitarian regime police. It is not to “discover crimes,” but to do a regime’s bidding in detaining categories of persons, and of populations, the regime arbitrarily deems criminal, and to attribute to them “probable crimes” that fit the criminal persona assigned to them.

The collection of “inappropriate historical materials” would be a suitable crime to slap on to someone who fits the arbitrary category of “suspicious” foreign researcher, and similar considerations may have held for other, mostly Taiwanese researchers, who have also been detained recently.

But this is also speculation. It is time to draw some conclusions on how universities, academics and governments can deal with such arrests of academics in China, if this is becoming a trend. A China Studies scholar involved in organizing one of the open letters protesting Iwatani’s arrest said to me that he was unsure how much influence academics’ petitions, protests and cancellations had exerted, but he “wanted to believe” they had some say in the final outcome.

The East Asian Studies scholar Ezra Vogel told me when we met during his recent visit to Fukuoka that “the timing had been right” for negotiations over Iwatani’s release, meaning that the Japanese government could use Xi’s scheduled state visit next year as leverage in negotiations. But, he agreed, “the pressure” from Japanese academics “might have helped.”

The now silenced Chinese jurist Xu Zhangrun warned last year that under Xi’s rule China is becoming “a polity that is fundamentally totalitarian in ambition … this is something that should unsettle the whole world.” Yet among China’s elites there are also anxieties over the profound tensions between such totalitarian ambition and the norms of global systems of commercial, scientific and geopolitical collaboration upon which China is so dependent.

These anxieties must be leveraged by international governments concerned to protect those norms, and like-minded international scholars must push back with solidarity and with resolution when academic freedoms are endangered.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University.