Is there really an epidemic of self-censorship among China scholars?


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This week’s Sinica was recorded at UPenn’s Center for Study on Contemporary China. Jeremy and Kaiser speak with three prominent scholars on China: Sheena Greitens, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri, Rory Truex, assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, and Neysun Mahboubi, research scholar at the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. The group tackles a topic that has long beleaguered China-watching circles: self-censorship. In addition, it focuses on a paper that Sheena and Rory published last summer, Repressive Experiences among China Scholars: New Evidence from Survey Data.

What to listen for on this week’s Sinica Podcast:

22:41: Sheena describes the categories in which she and Rory organized “repressive experiences” in China, the center of their research, comprising 13 types of repression divided into three buckets: “The three broad categories that we looked at were restrictions on access to China itself, restriction on access to materials once you’re in China doing research, and monitoring and surveillance of that research by authorities in China.” According to their research, 20-25 percent of those interviewed had difficulty accessing archived materials, and 10 percent of visiting China scholars had been “invited” by authorities to speak with them and explain their research. When Chinese colleagues and interlocutors at host institutions are included in the sample, the figure jumps to 15 percent.

29:45: Rory’s hypothesis going into this project was that there would be a spike in repressive experiences and research after Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2012. Perceptions certainly trend in that direction. However, data from their research didn’t reveal major temporal trends related to these repressive experiences, with one caveat: “I talk to people who do a lot of fieldwork, and they say it’s actually much harder even to have interviews at all anymore. The one thing where there was a temporal trend was access to archives. If you talk to historians, they’ll talk a lot about how the archives are being sanitized, and projects, books, and dissertations that were feasible 10 or 15 years ago are no longer feasible today.”

39:43: Rory: “Why are we calling it ‘self-censorship’? That’s in some sense putting the onus on the researcher and sort of blaming them, blaming the victim. We should be calling it what it is, which is censorship. These are people that are interfacing with an authoritarian government that is pressuring them to not speak out their minds. Do we describe the Chinese population as ‘self-censoring’? Well, often we say they are being repressed or being censored.”

48:05: What exactly is self-censorship? Neysun, Sheena, and Rory all take slightly differing views on what characterizes it. Rory discusses the calculus behind self-censorship, and identifies external stimuli that may have an impact on research and published materials in the United States: “We might be at the opposite [point of the problem], where the professional incentives [of researching contentious topics], plus the political environment in the United States are such that saying anything positive, or even neutral about the Communist Party is difficult to do, and difficult to publish.”

1:08:59: What role do China-watchers play in the larger conversation that, in the modern era, seems to be undergoing constant recalibration? What of the dichotomy among China-watchers, à la hawks versus doves? Here, Neysun, Sheena, and Rory all offer insight into these questions and suggestions on the way forward.


Jeremy: Two jazz albums, Live at the Pershing, by Ahmad Jamal, a live recording from 1958, and Money Jungle, a studio album by Duke Ellington.

Neysun: Evening Chats in Beijing: Probing China’s Predicament, by Perry Link.

Sheena: Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westwood, and Harry and the Terrible Whatzit, by Dick Gackenbach.

Rory: The website, a website that provides reports, commentary, and analysis on human rights in China.

Kaiser: Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, by Sulmaan Wasif Khan.

This podcast was edited and produced by Kaiser Kuo and Jason MacRonald.