Saturday, November 9, 2013

Will Colleges Self-Censor?

There is an important article in the New York Times today about the awful compromises facing news organizations reporting out of China. My guess is that similar questions are going to face universities doing business in China, Singapore, and other countries where the regimes are authoritarian and the universities stand to gain vast influence and money through their engagement with those regimes.

Bloomberg pulled some of its investigative reporting out of fear that it would be expelled from China if it exposed the lavish lifestyles of the families of senior Chinese officials. Bloomberg reports world financial news; it can't be a credible authority if it can't report from inside China. What a terrible dilemma. I feel sorry for any news organization today. There are only a few news organizations that have enough money even to try to operate multiple foreign bureaus. But China can credibly reason that Bloomberg needs China more than China needs Bloomberg. And no decision of this kind is ever black and white. In not publishing something that its investigative reporters uncovered, it is not withholding from its readers some essential news, some story of a major typhoon or a default on the US debt. Who would ever know the difference if it failed to publish a story that no other news organization even knew about?

I am afraid that American colleges are going to face similar choices. Plenty has been written about Yale in Singapore and NYU in Shanghai, and whether there can really be academic freedom without political freedom. So one set of risks is that the compromises needed to operate a pseudo-liberal arts campus in an authoritarian state will seem unproblematic, and could be imported seamlessly to the American side.

But there is another risk, that teaching controversial subjects will seem to the authorities in American colleges more trouble than it is worth if it seems likely to incite wrath from Chinese educational partners. For example, Harvard offers a freshman seminar on the Tiananmen massacre and its aftermath. I could imagine that this could come up as Harvard engages China in any of the various research and educational collaborations it is establishing with the mainland (which, happily, do not include any liberal arts campus). If the seminar quietly disappeared from the books, who could know why that happened? No one has a right to teach a freshman seminar. I'll bet it would actually have a large audience if it were offered as a General Education course. Would Harvard dare do that? No way to know, since there are plenty of reasons for a course not to be offered, other than reluctance to offend an important business partner. The screening for Gen Ed courses is vigorous, and Rowena He, who teaches the Tiananmen seminar, is not a ladder faculty member.

In recent years I have started to travel regularly to Hong Kong. I happened to fly from the mainland to Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the massacre--there was no notice on the mainland that June 4 was an unusual day, but I joined a rally in Victoria Park with tens of thousands of others remembering what had happened. Here is a photo I took.

The people of Hong Kong are much more acutely aware of the fragility of their liberties than Americans are of theirs. Could you imagine thousands rallying anywhere in the US to protest curricular changes? It happened a year ago in Hong Kong. Heck, in Hong Kong they even protest the paucity of television stations.

I don't know that any educational compromises are happening in American universities in order to facilitate international partnerships. We may be seeing in the skittishness of Wellesley College about its links to China an indication of what is to come. But that case involves a well known individual professor. What we teach--that is in any case subject to so many pressures and compromises and decisions taken for vaguely judgmental reasons of one kind or another, we might never know the difference between deference to authoritarian power and ordinary academic horse trading, unless the faculty remains vigilant and asks hard questions.


  1. Dear Prof. Lewis,

    I read this post with great interest. I wonder what your take on your colleague Ezra Vogel's decision to accept censorship of his biography of Deng Xiaopeng in China is.

    “To me the choice was easy,” he said during a book tour of China that drew appreciative throngs in nearly a dozen cities. “I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero.”

    Is this not a compromise? What would you say would be "the difference between deference to authoritarian power and ordinary academic horse trading" in Vogel's case?

    We're heading into our last week of classes at Yale-NUS in Singapore. I'm happy to report that we've had no cases of internal or external self-censorship. We've hosted the outspoken local blogger Alex Au, the parents of the slain gay teen Matthew Shepard, and next week Cherian George, the professor who was denied tenure at Nanyang Technological University, is coming.

    We're teaching Augustine's Confessions in Literature and Humanities. My colleagues are reading the Buddhist classic Questions to King Milinda in Philosophy. And in Comparative Social Institution they're talking about race and politics.

    The intellectual and political life of the college is flourishing.

    Andrew Hui

    Yale-NUS College

    1. My own experience with Chinese translations is interesting. "Excellence Without a Soul" was translated in its entirety by ECNU press. They did a superb job, which I know because the translator worked with me and I had a native Chinese speaker at Harvard check every word. I had nothing to do with the translation of "Blown to Bits" by Posts & Telecom Press. When I received a copy, I was curious to see how the chapter on Internet censorship was handled. It seems to be missing in its entirety! I can't read the text but I can identify the chapters by the illustrations, and the illustrations from that chapter are not in the translation.

      Since that chapter is only 30 pages out of a 350 page book, I suppose I could say that more than 90% of the book is now available in China and I should think that is a great thing for China. Instead I am resolved to read my next book contract more closely and to retain editorial control over my translation. I respect my friend Ezra's different choice, but it is not one I would wittingly make.

      I am glad things are going well for Yale-NUS. But the two halves of your post are dissonant. The first suggests that some censorship is OK because getting something published is better than getting nothing. The second part says that censorship does not exist at Yale-NUS, even self-censorship -- a remarkable assertion: nobody thought but decided not to say something out of fear of the reaction. The fact that you claim to know that makes me skeptical about the rest of your cheerful account, though I have no doubt it has in fact been a very nice experience for all.

  2. The "arrangements" abroad strike me as obviously reprehensible, but the weakness I find in all these discussions is the apparent presupposition that all is quite well with respect to freedom of expression here in America. In reality, we have our own "arrangements," with members of the academic community either benignly shrugging their shoulders in the face of oppression or even, on occasion, actively participating in it when their own interests are at stake. Here are a few examples:

    1. Prosecutors press charges against Aaron Swartz, driving him to suicide, after he seeks open online access to thousands of articles freely available in many a public library.

    2. Prosecutors in the nation's cultural capital, with the cooperation of several NYU officials, instigate a witch hunt against an academic whistle-blower who sent out emails mocking a well-connected university department chairman for his alleged plagiarism. See:

    At the ensuing trial, the accused is prevented from introducing any evidence that his accusations (first made by an Israeli journalist in 1993) were true, on the grounds that "neither good faith nor truth is a defense"; but the prosecution is allowed to argue that the accused made "false accusations." According to New York prosecutors, "the allegations of plagiarism are false." This claim by government prosecutors does not seem to trouble anyone in the academic community. Nor does it seem to trouble anyone that the judge who presided over this persecution was specifically selected by the prosecutors.

    3. Prosecutors, again in the nation's cultural capital, hunt down and arrest an artist who created fake "NYPD drone" ads, an obvious act of political satire. See:

    4. Authorities arrest and prosecute individuals who write anti-bank slogans in chalk on the sidewalk in San Diego and elsewhere.

    5. A journalist, Barret Brown, faces over 100 years in prison for posting a link on the Internet. Other whistle-blowers are notoriously persecuted. We read about these things in the newspaper, but there is no sign whatsoever of any concerted movement to stop it in the academic world.

    Is this the humane America of our ideals? The line between democracy and fascism is very thin, and one worries that a combination of various factors (e.g., hypocrisy, back-biting, cowardliness, arrogance and indifference to suffering) has resulted in negligence at home while we naively proceed with our "arrangements" abroad.

  3. My argument (linked by Harry Lewis above under "Plenty has been written") is that many of these ventures will hasten not explosive conflicts or scandals, although they well may, but, more often, an all-too-smooth convergence of what The Economist magazine calls American and Asian "state capitalism" -- a convergence in modes of surveillance and suppression that is already underway in American universities at home as well as abroad.

    A year ago a Yale student group asked me to give a talk in which I caution that "self-censorship of fear" (fear of the state or a corporate employer) meshes easily with what I called the "self-censorship of seduction" that's common on elite American campuses -- the kind of self-censorship that students practice almost enthusiastically if they think it'll get them closer to Power in one form or another. In the talk, I mentioned students in Stanley McChrystal's class on "Leadership" in Yale's Jackson Institute -- a class which its students decline to discuss or describe to anyone who hasn't taken it: