China’s Troubling Crackdown on Research


Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.

Censorship of academic research in China is nothing new. Back in 2008 as I was finishing a long stint in rural China, Chinese officials and academics were talking about the “good old days of Jiang Zemin.” At first it seemed to be a joke; how could you possibly miss former premier Li Peng? He was still the butt of most political jokes, skewered either for his fabled stupidity, a voice so high-pitched that it was voiced over on the evening news, his love of karaoke, or all three. But grassroots officials – always the most sensitive to political winds – recognized that with the Beijing Olympics looming, things were tightening up.

Sure enough, it soon got tougher to carry out my rural research. To begin with, officials wanting to keep an eye on me wore me down with the dreaded phrase “I’ll escort you” (wo song ni), but few kept it up for more than a day or two. And nothing put cadres off faster than pointing to the top of a mountain inaccessible by motorbike and expressing the intent to visit families in a distant hamlet. These and a few other tricks overcame most barriers, but in 2008 I experienced house arrest for the first time. Two bobbies sat in the marble lobby of my three-star hotel, overseen by dateline clocks and a sign proclaiming the hotel’s proudest boast, “Trained By The Holiday Inn.” My guards were thoroughly bored, but ensured that I didn’t go forth. Neither asked for my Nokia handset, and my team of local researchers continued to wander up green valleys to chat with rice farmers about their propensity to redistribute land among themselves, despite a central government ban on this “backward” practice.

That incident was sparked by a township official, who thought that several chats and a few drinking sessions meant I’d steer NGO funding the way of the primary school his daughter was attending, even though it was the richest for miles around. When I didn’t, he made a formal complaint about a foreigner doing research in his county. My work unit went through the motions of dressing me down; the policemen went through the motions of watching me for the weekend; and room service fare was endured (the horror of mayonnaise on fruit salad). Yet subtly, the mood had shifted. I would never again be able to spend weeks up in the hills working alongside Chinese academic colleagues.

A decade on, state control of troublesome foreign researchers is more heavy-handed. In this month’s episode of the Little Red Podcast, we hear from four academics with startling recent experiences. University of Melbourne doctoral student Dayton Lekner fronted his local Shanghai police station to register his residence, and found himself whisked off to the interrogation room by three officers coy about whom they worked for. Over the next three hours he discovered his crime had been talking to a bunch of septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians. Their crime, six decades ago, was to be swept up in the Hundred Flowers Movement, a time when Mao encouraged people to speak up about the Party’s shortcomings, and engage in debate about everything from China’s legal system to the purpose of class struggle. It did not end well. Over half a million people, including former premier Zhu Rongji, were labelled “rightists” and most endured two decades of persecution. In Xi’s China, the climate is turning against them once more as the Party ramps up its campaign against “historical nihilism,” or anything critical of the Party’s legacy. In the words of Glenn Tiffert, a legal historian based at the University of Michigan, it has become “the black cloud over historical research in China.”

In the Shanghai police station, Lekner found himself in a surreal place, both terrifying and intellectually stimulating. The three operatives, who later invited him out to a French restaurant for dinner, displayed a command of post-revolution history that was “better than a lot of conferences in terms of their knowledge,” Lekner says. He was not clear on why a New Zealand literary historian talking to men whose teeth fell out during interviews merited the attention of three security agents, but the threats faced by Chinese scholars interested in the topic became clear at a conference held in Hong Kong to mark the 60th anniversary of the anti-rightist crackdown. Some of those invited to the conference had had visits and phone calls that alluded to cuts in their pensions, while younger scholars found their jobs in question. About half did not attend.

Digital sleight of hand

Accessing the archives is often more crucial than interviews or conferences, and here things are even more worrying. Censorship of the digital archive affects anyone doing historical research on China, or any state with an inclination to airbrush its historical record. Tiffert came across the extent of Chinese censorship by accident. He was about to trash his paper copies of journal articles from the 1950s as they were, in theory, now available on Chinese digital databases his library subscribed to at great cost. But on a hunch, he checked and found something awry.

He then lined up the paper copies of two journals – Political-Legal Research and Law Science – and compared then with the digital record. He found 11% of content was missing from the digital versions, including many of the journals’ most-cited articles. The censorship was extremely fine-grained. It was a world away from the crude, keyword search approach used in the recent Cambridge University Press case where CUP initially complied with a request from Chinese censors to remove content from The China Quarterly. In Tiffert’s case, those unfamiliar with the paper version would not notice the censorship. Tiffert widened his gaze to other social science journals, including the influential legal journal, Studies in Law. Here, he found 87% of the page count missing from 1978 to 1979, so ‘the record of the reconstruction of the legal system and how they grappled with doing that has been excised’.

Timothy Cheek of the University of British Columbia has noted censorship within renowned scholar Yu Jianrong’s articles in Strategy & Management, not just removal of the articles themselves. He sees analogies between the current mood and the literary inquisition to purify the historical record conducted at the height of the Qianlong reign in the 18th century, another age when China was prospering and the state seemed to face no threats. In an article outlining his analysis, Tiffert highlights the crucial edge modern Chinese censors enjoy:

Now, they can tinker endlessly with the digital record to achieve their goals without ever leaving their desks, making one non-destructive edit after another, each propagating nearly instantaneously around the globe, leaving behind no discernible trace or loose ends.

Explaining his decision to talk to the Little Red Podcast about his experience, despite the warnings of his interrogators, Dayton Lekner says, “It’s important not to be bluffed.” In the case of Chinese databases being censored in real time, it’s unclear how scholars can push back. Perhaps the first step is to be aware that it’s happening and to think before committing fully to the digital dream. Librarians should pause before pulping dusty Chinese journals tucked away in compactors. We no longer live in the good old days of Jiang Zemin. Those journals might be the only ones left.


Dr. Graeme Smith hosts The Little Red Podcast, is a research fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University and a visiting fellow at Sun Yatsen University’s Centre for Oceania Studies. His research interests include local politics in rural China, China’s engagement with the Pacific and the geopolitics of search engines.