The coming crackdown in China’s social sciences?

November 17, 2014

There have been ominous developments in China’s cultural politics recently. In October, Chairman Xi gave a speech at the Peking Forum on Literature and Art, a high-profile event whose title paralleled one in Yan’an, at which Mao defined his cultural policy, one that mandated art’s subordination not only to class struggle but also, more specifically, to party discipline. Since Mao’s demise, party leaders have generally not taken on the role of arbiters of art, leaving specific acts of promotion and censorship to specialised government bodies. Xi’s speech was notable for naming specific positive examples, among them the nationalist, anti-Western blogger Zhou Xiaoping causing great uproar not only among liberal intellectuals but also by literature buffs who made fun of the quality of his writing. This is almost tantamount to acknowledging that the nationalist and stridently antiliberal tabloid Global Times, where Zhou is an occasional commentator, now counts for China’s official voice. (Foreign Policy, at least, seems convinced that GT really is the voice the silent majority, as it claims.)

A bit earlier, universities and social science research institutes received a circular ordering them to report what research projects they have with foreign funding, and a text circulated online, written by a party official at the China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and warning of the infiltration of Western agents into the social science research system. Then, on 5 November, a much scarier text appeared in the official newspaper of the China Academy of Social Sciences, 中国社会科学报 (Chinese Social Science). Entitled “Absolutely Not Allowed to Break the Communist Party’s Pot” (绝不允许砸共产党的锅), it was a report on a conference held by the Red Culture Studies Society of China (中国红色文化研究会) and the Special Committee on Scientific Development and Political Harmony (科学发展与政治和谐专业委员会) of the Chinese Poilitical Science Association on “seizing the initiative in the ideological struggle” (掌握意识形态斗争主动权).

According to the report, the conference stated that “foreign enemy forces” (境外敌对势力) were relentless in their attempts to subvert China’s political system and that “certain organisations and individuals” in China were spreading lies, stoking fires, and sowing chaos in thinking so as to compete “with us” for people’s hearts and minds. These individuals include “certain opinion leaders, online Big V’s [VIPs] and ‘dissidents’ within the system (体制内‘易见人士’)”. Worse, there were some “leading cadres” who wanted to “please both sides”.  “So-called ‘experts’ and ‘scholars’ with Western backgrounds who have infested/infiltrated (混入) some government organs, some cadres who are in bed with the Party but have different dreams have not only not been criticized but been promoted and given important assignments.”

Participants concluded that it was necessary to “tell people clearly joining whom will bring benefits and prospects and joining whom will bring no benefits and no prospects,” to “leave no room for people flirting with foreign enemy forces” (让和境外敌对势力眉来眼去、沟沟塔塔的人风光 不再). “It is absolutely not allowed to eat the Communist Party’s rice and break the Communist Party’s pot,” and those who do so must have their rice bowls taken away. China should learn from Russia where organisations that receive foreign funding must register as “foreign agents.”

The idea that China suffers under a cabal of liberal public intellectuals is staple for Global Times, as is the deliberately crude language, reminiscent of Maoist times. But so far, the formula that Andrew Nathan called “resilient authoritarianism” has meant that the government allowed much greater freedom of expression in the academic sphere than in, say, the press, because this was conducive both to upgrading the international respectability and the actual quality of Chinese academia and because it was deemed to have little influence outside academic institutions. Of course, occasionally academics do lose their jobs and are even jailed for their political views, but both liberal and left-wing critics of government policies have thrived (notably in sociology), and even some actual critics of the system have been allowed to retain their chairs. A similar leniency has prevailed in the arts. And,  overall, it has worked: most critics are loyal to the regime and so are useful both as sounding boards for policy and for bolstering legitimacy abroad.

If this article is a sign of things to come, then this period may be over. Academics will no longer be allowed to sit on the fence, accruing Western kudos while not being disloyal to the party, all in the name of scientific objectivity.

Is it  a sign, then? Participants of the conference named in the report are mostly retired cadres, the highest-ranking of whom is Zhang Quanjing 张全景, a former director of the Party’s Central Organisation Department. They also include the sitting president of the Chinese Historical Association, Zhang Haipeng 张海鹏. But is unlikely that the official organ of CASS would have published this bombshell of an article without approval or indeed instructions from a high place, particularly since it contains threats addressed to officials, not just academics. Moreover, the report was followed, on 14 November, by a front-page article in the provincial paper Liaoning Daily, entitled “Professors, Please Don’t Talk About China Like This” (老师,请不要这样讲中国), complaining that university professors keep talking about China in a negative way, leading to uproar on the Internet and an editorial in Global Times (19 November).

The question is whether the attack comes from a hardline faction of the leadership that is being challenged by other Party elites or a direction already decided upon. If the latter is the case, then we may in fact witness some version of an Anti-Rightist Campaign that will involve public self-criticisms and perhaps purges. (Similar things may be in the offing in the arts. And overall, the post-1978 tenet of “he who is not against us is with us”, 非敌即友, may be changing. For instance, Global Times just published an opinion piece demanding a public apology from Hu Na, a tennis player who sought asylum in the U.S. over 30 years ago and has now returned to China. It used to be the case that such individuals were tacitly welcome as long as they gave up any political opposition, in order to encourage others and forge a united front. But Hu is now being labelled a traitor.) The fact that two of the Party’s main ideological publications, Guangming Daily and Qiushi, jumped to Liaoning Daily‘s defence after an open letter by liberal intellectuals protested against the article, and especially that Qiushi used the same Cultural Revolution-era language as the CASS publication, suggests that a broader campaign may be in the offing. On the other hand, a Global Times editorial took a moderate line, defending the article and asserting the need for a “political and moral bottom line” in the classroom, but appealing for calm and arguing against factional battles (despite the fact that on other occasions GT’s contributors have not hesitated to attack those they saw as breaking the ranks). This suggests either that there is no consensus on the issue among influential Party elites or, more likely, that they have let a radical group play up the issue in the media as a way to warn academics but not as an imminent threat.

This is all slightly off the blog’s topic. Unlike some other social science fields, Chinese scholarship on China’s “development export” has been dominated by self-appointed spokesmen for the government. But in the last years, there have been some salutary developments towards a more reflexive or at least evidence-based, ground-up scholarship, by researchers more interested in international collaborations. It would be a shame if they were nipped in the bud.