Douglas Todd: China scholars feeling the chill of intimidation

“It’s important to have some compassion for scholars who are feeling intimidated,» says UBC China expert Pitman Potter.

“It’s important to have some compassion for scholars who are feeling intimidated,» says UBC law professor and China expert Pitman Potter, who signed a public letter protesting China’s arrest of two Canadians. Paul Joseph / PNG

If you’re a scholar whose specialty is China, you learn to be careful about criticizing the leaders of the world’s second major power.

Yet such self-censorship has grown worse in the past year. Some China scholars are deciding to keep their mouths more or less entirely shut. Others are avoiding travelling to China.

Most China experts have grown cautious because, naturally enough, they want to maintain access to the halls of power and universities in the planet’s most populous country – while some fear direct reprisal or arrest.

For all the faults of America and Donald Trump, few academics are afraid to criticize him or virtually any aspect of U.S. society. The dictates of political correctness might be strong on North American campuses, but compared to China, free speech is still fairly well protected in the U.S. and the democratic West.

But the detention in Vancouver of a senior executive of Huawei, at the request of the U.S., has exacerbated a censoring trend in China that had already grown tighter in early 2018, when Chinese President Xi Jinping changed the constitution so he could rule for life.

It’s now conventional wisdom that China’s rulers responded to the detention of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou by imprisoning two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor.

And many scholars believe a Chinese-Australian writer and free-speech advocate, Yang Henjun, was also detained last month in China as retaliation for Meng’s house arrest. Australian academics, supportive of Canada, have spoken up about escalating hounding by China.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is out on bail and remains under partial house arrest in Vancouver, as the U.S. seeks extradition. DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS

A University of Melbourne Chinese studies professor, Anne McLaren, a critic of China’s clampdowns, has the police investigating whether China’s agents are behind her computer and other equipment being stolen last year, as well as her car being sabotaged.

McLaren is among those especially worried about the careers of young Mandarin-speaking academics who have been interrogated while conducting field work in China – causing them to rethink their specialty.

Distrust is definitely escalating, say the 100 China scholars and former diplomats who signed an open letter calling for the release of the two Canadians.

“We who share Mr. Kovrig’s and Mr. Spavor’s enthusiasm for building genuine, productive and lasting relationships must now be more cautious about travelling and working in China and engaging our Chinese counterparts,” said their letter. “That will lead to less dialogue and greater distrust, and undermine efforts to manage disagreements and identify common ground.”


UBC law professor Pitman Potter, an expert on Chinese law, said he signed the public letter because he’s long praised China’s successes, while also acting as a “friendly critic” of its failings.

Growing self-censorship among Chinese experts is a real issue, Potter said. While citing the alleged mistreatment of Australia’s McLaren as a prime example, he said the concern of Western experts who may run afoul of China’s authorities is not necessarily in regards to the consequences “for their own individual access to China, but for the potential impact on the friends and colleagues they work with in China.”

Two other Metro Vancouver-based China scholars who have been critical in the past of the Communist Party’s treatment of critics did not respond to questions from The Vancouver Sun. Other China experts have privately confided they know their access will be cut off if they cast aspersions on China.

One of Potter’s regrets is that some anxious China experts are reacting to the atmosphere of intimidation by offering either “distorted” or “timid” public analysis of the country.

Nevertheless, Potter urged empathy for China specialists who are not ready, willing or able to speak out about repression by those overseeing the world’s second largest economy.

“It’s important to have some compassion for people who are feeling intimidated. People are at different stages of their careers. They have different levels of need for access in China. So it’s really important to not take too purist a view on it.”

While working on another book about China and advising business organizations, Potter said he isn’t jetting across the Pacific Ocean these days, partly for health reasons. Even though a computer was recently stolen from his office, he doesn’t believe Chinese agents have anything to do with it.

UBC’s Paul Evans, author of Engaging China, responded to The Sun’s questions by saying that, somewhat like Potter, he has sometimes been accused of being too “soft” on China.

Along with several other UBC colleagues, Evans declined to sign the public letter urging the release of Kovrig and Spavor, even though one is a close friend. “Having the greatest respect for those who did sign. … I did not feel that the letter would hasten their unilateral release.”

While Evans doesn’t personally fear reprisals for expressing his views on China, he said free speech is a “complicated issue” for academics in both the West and East.

“Do I know that speaking publicly about China has potential consequences in China and at home regarding access and credibility? Yes indeed. Do we calculate how to have maximum long-term effect? Yes indeed. Is freedom something more than the opportunity to say what we feel? Open to debate,” Evans said.

Since China and its people are far from monolithic, Potter has a tip for those who think the powerhouse is on an inevitable downward slide into repression. “As with so many things about China, the best advice to a political commentator is: ‘Wait,’” he said, laughing.

“There is a long-standing trope about China moving in cycles of openness and restriction. And we’re clearly in a period of tightening. But these have been followed by periods of openness, in part because Chinese people want it.”

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