The Long Shadow of Chinese Blacklists on American Academe

The following is by Perry Link, a professor of comparative literature and foreign languages at the University of California at Riverside.


A blacklist somewhere in the Ministry of State Security in Beijing bears my name. I study Chinese language and literature, and since 1996 have been denied visas to the People’s Republic.

The news media have recently reported on China’s decision to deny visas to American journalists and put pressure on companies like Bloomberg and The New York Times because of their reporters’ critical coverage of China. Such efforts have raised the question of whether the Chinese government is engineering American perceptions of China. The problem exists—and has far-reaching implications—in academe as well.

I do not know why I am barred from entering China. There are many possible reasons; I speak and write often in support of human rights in China and in criticism of the Chinese government. But no one in the government will say exactly where or when I crossed a line.

Giving clear punishment for unclear reasons will cause any person, whether directly involved or merely an observer, to be cautious and to censor what one says on politically sensitive topics. The Chinese Communist Party has used this technique on its own people for decades. I wrote about the problem in a 2002 essay in The New York Review of Books that I called “The Anaconda in the Chandelier.”

I miss going to China. My latest book, An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics (Harvard University Press, 2013), draws examples from many kinds of language, including alleyway brogue and graffiti at tourist sites—things that not even Google, but only on-site observation, can yield. (My on-site data are all from 1996 or earlier.)

But—by a wide margin—this is not the most painful part of being on a blacklist. The worst part is that I become a tool of the Chinese government and there is nothing I can do about it. Long-term blacklistees, like me and my friend Andrew J. Nathan, a political-science professor at Columbia University, have become known in China studies as examples of what happens to you if you cross a line. Since my blacklisting I have had countless inquiries, especially from younger scholars, who are invariably polite but always want to ask, one way or another, “How do I not end up where you are?”

Here are some examples:

  • Two assistant professors who were blacklisted a few years ago, apparently for having attended a conference on the Chinese region of Xinjiang (for the Chinese government, a politically sensitive “minority peoples” area), approached me for advice. Both were preparing to travel to Chinese consulates (in New York and Chicago) for interviews with Chinese officials about their visas. In the interviews the officials advised both, in general terms, to be more careful in what they said and wrote. “Do not hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Both young scholars felt humiliated and outraged, but neither would say anything in public, and both asked that I keep their names confidential. Both soon faced tenure decisions and felt that their careers could be at stake. One of them later did get a visa to go to China.
  • In the late 1990s, a graduate student at Princeton (where I taught most of my career) asked me for advice on his dissertation topic. He wanted to write about Chinese democracy, but his advisers in the politics department were cautioning him that this might not be a wise career move.  What if it cost him his access to China? The young man decided to write on something else. I wanted to nudge him back toward his first love, but could not in good conscience do it.
  • A bright undergraduate at Princeton, who had studied Chinese language with me, was delighted when she told me she had secured a summer internship with Human Rights Watch. A few days later she heard about the blacklist and came back to me. “Do you think I should still do it?” she asked. “Of course you should,” I said. In this case, the student was being far too fearful. The anaconda in the chandelier was looming too large. A stint with Human Rights Watch would not ruin her future, I said. In the end, she declined the internship.
  • Another smart Princeton undergraduate, then president of the student body, came to me for advice because the Chinese government had invited the student-body presidents of all the Ivy League schools for a three-week junket in China. He wanted to go, and I encouraged him, but he was extremely worried about how to behave. Can I mention the Tiananmen massacre? Can I even say the words “Dalai Lama”? Can I talk about my friends from Taiwan? Here, too, the anaconda loomed, and was causing much deeper self-censorship than was necessary.

As these examples show, blacklists induce self-censorship not just in people who are blacklisted but, far more broadly, in people who merely fear that they might be. (Actually, for people like me on long-term blacklists, fear gradually subsides. A knife fallen loses the deterrent power of threatening a fall—or, in the Chinese farmers’ proverb, “Dead pigs aren’t afraid of hot water.”)

But if the circle of affected scholars extends beyond those who are blacklisted, another affected circle, wider still, is the general public. I have a dear friend, a distinguished historian, who declined a few years ago to go on the PBS NewsHour to talk about the Falun Gong religious movement (another topic super-sensitive to the Chinese government).  She wanted to preserve her research access to China, so for that evening, anyway, PBS viewers did not get the best commentary they could have had.

This might be called a “direct cost” to the public, and such costs are real; but they are far smaller than the indirect costs that are embedded in the ways China scholars, wary of the anaconda in the chandelier, shape their speech on sensitive topics. One avoids a term like “Taiwan independence”; one speaks instead of “cross-strait relations.” The word “liberation” appears as shorthand for the Communist victory in 1949. One does not mention Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who sits in prison, at all.

It would be unfair to say that Sinologists are naïve about their verbal accommodations. Most of them are not. Their ways of speaking are a sort of professional code that insiders understand and that, with time, comes to seem utterly normal. But when scholars use their code to write and speak to students and to the public, which they often do, wrong impressions are communicated. Listeners understand that 1949 really was a liberation, that Taiwan independence really isn’t much of an issue, and that a Nobel Prize winner in prison is really not worth mentioning.

American universities—NYU, Duke, and others—have begun to build campuses in China or offer courses and degrees on Chinese campuses, and many others have set up exchange programs and offices. American administrators uniformly vow loyalty to academic freedom but on the whole have very poor understandings of the cultural and political contexts they are entering.

I have personally spent many hours on study-in-China programs for Americans and am a strong supporter of more and better exchange. On the question of protecting academic freedom, I am not optimistic that American university administrators will dare to take my advice, but will offer it here anyway.

The American side should be explicit and concrete in raising the very most sensitive of topics. Hold seminars on the thought of Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Establish a speaker series on Tibet that honors the Dalai Lama. Offer a regular course on the pros and cons of one-party dictatorship. The point here is nothing so small-minded as to “stick a finger in an eye.” The point is that only by planting flags at the outer boundaries can you insure the integrity of the entire field. Without the flags, the wordless anaconda will take over, the boundaries will creep in, and academic freedom will be strangled. It is also crucial to bear in mind that, when you raise sensitive topics, you will not be affronting “China.” Communist authorities will not like what you do, but most students and intellectuals will welcome it, and many will be secretly cheering for you.

In the end, administrators at American universities should understand the fact that a dozen or so China scholars who cannot work in China is only a very small part of the cost of Chinese-government blacklists. The much larger problem is the subtle but pervasive self-censorship that blacklists help to induce.

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