Twitter today lit up with condemnation and partial praise over a report in the New York Times about the growing number of Chinese academics banned from the United State and having their long-term visas cancelled by the FBI. This is understandable, as innocent Chinese-Americans have been swept up by espionage paranoia in the past, and the West in general has a history of racial profiling. Without knowing who exactly have been targeted by the FBI, though, it is impossible to judge the programme as it is implemented. Still, I think there is plenty of justification to change our attitude towards at least some of the supposed academics from the People’s Republic.
As a leninist party-state, a lot of things in China are not what their name claims. The party newspapers are not newspapers, but devices to steer the party machine. Courts do not function truly as part of a truly independent judiciary, but as part of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s mechanism of ‘stability maintenance’ (维稳 wéiwěn). Similarly, although China has genuine universities with genuine scholars, a large number of ‘academic’ institutes are anything but that.
The marxist epistemology that the CCP still instills in all its members through mandatory training and retraining holds that there is no objective opinion, but that power determines who holds sway over commanding heights of public discourse. To secure the PRC’s sovereignty, the Party actively strives for ‘discourse power’ (话语权 huàyǔ quán) in the world. Propaganda outfits such as CGTN and China Daily are a part of that, but so are think-tanks and academic institutions. It is naturally right that Western scholarship should not be the only thing defining China, and quality academic work would also increase China’s soft power. With that, nothing is wrong. But in this case the Party sees a zero-sum game, one where it needs to replace what it regards as threatening scholarship with discourse that supports the CCP’s hold on power.
Albeit within the narrowing constraints of Xi Jinping’s New Era, real academic work does take place. There are genuinely interesting people in Chinese educational institutions whose ideas Western countries such as the United States are missing out on when they do not engage with them. Even when these academics write work that argues for the current political system, these exchanges are fruitful and help deepen mutual understanding (although we should not exaggerate the impact on world peace of a group of academics in a conference room).
That said, not all people that in the PRC carry the label of ‘academic’ do in fact engage in scholarly work. An example is the person mentioned in the New York Times article, Zhu Feng. He is the Director of the Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. The title is classic leninist newspeak: of course the myriad South China Sea institutes found across China in recent years are anything but collaborative. These organisations have been set up with a clear goal as part of the CCP’s battle for discourse power: provide a case for the PRC’s control over the South China Sea, dressed up in academic clothing. This is not scholarship, this is propaganda work.
There are of course people—also outside China—who provide badly argued cases for Chinese policies that are difficult to support, but are still independent academics. It is difficult to decide when someone turns from an academic into a propagandist who dresses up as an academic. That is no reason not to make an attempt, however. Because part of the CCP’s struggle for discourse power consists of the struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the world. This is something that we—the world—have to give them. There is a reason why Xinhua hires white Westerners to do its English-language propaganda. People who work for such obvious factories of fabrication as the South China Sea Centre do not produce scholarly work. They do not even try to; they work backwards from what they are supposed to prove. But by treating them as academics anyway, we give the impression that we do think of their propaganda as scholarship. Thereby we strengthen the Party’s discourse power.
It is not necessary to ban these people. Unless they are actively engaged in foreign influence campaign—such as Huang Jing was accused of in Singapore—these talking heads are not a threat. But they also do not deserve to be treated as academics. That would in fact be wrong, for it legitimises their propaganda. Therefore, if they have been given invitations or long-term visas on the condition that they are academics, those should be cancelled. After all, they are not.