The Other Political Correctness
There is an epidemic of self-censorship at U.S. universities on the subject of China, one that limits debate and funnels students and academics away from topics likely to offend the Chinese Communist Party. This epidemic stems less from the hundreds of millions of dollars Chinese individuals and the Chinese Communist Party spend in U.S. universities, or the influx of students from mainland China—roughly 350,000 in the United States, up more than fivefold from a decade ago. Rather, it is that some people in American academia, too eager to please Beijing or too fearful of offending China and the Chinese people, have submitted to a sophisticated global censorship regime. This weakens not only their scholarship and integrity, but also their negotiating power with Beijing over issues such as access for research, conferences and other academic collaborations, and joint programs between American and Chinese institutions.
More than 100 interviews over the last six months with professors, students, administrators, and alumni at U.S. universities reveal a worrying prevalence of self-censorship regarding China. In a previously unreported incident, Columbia University’s Global Center in Beijing canceled several talks it feared would upset Chinese officials, according to a person familiar with the matter. Some graduate students admitted to regularly censoring themselves. “It has gotten to the point where I don’t engage with anything overly political relating to the Chinese state,” said a white graduate student at a top American university, who described her views as “middle of the road” for those studying China. “I would not willfully do anything that would endanger my ability to get a visa to China in the future,” she added. (Like many of the people I spoke to for this article, the student asked to remain anonymous, because of the real and perceived risks of openly discussing self-censorship. She also asked that I identify her race because she believes there is even less freedom for people of color and Chinese-Americans to speak openly about China.)