Academic freedom with Chinese characteristics

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Academic freedom

I may have mentioned a couple of times two interesting essays about academic freedom in the field of Chinese studies: Jay Nordlinger’s “Scholars with Spine,” and Marshall Sahlins’ Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware. The issue of “academic freedom” has been in fact actively discussed by libertarians. An interesting column by Walter Block, “Is ‘Academic Freedom’ a Special Kind of Freedom?,” compares scholars with plumbers in order to demonstrate the unsustainability of the concept “academic freedom”:

‘Academic freedom’ has a very special meaning: the freedom to teach the subject matter in whatever way the academic in question wishes the subject taught, despite any wishes to the contrary that his employer may harbor. In other words, the employer may not fire the academic as long as he teaches the subject matter in any manner that the academic, not the employer, wishes. | Now this is a very special, not to say spectacular, doctrine indeed! This point may easily be proven by applying the doctrine of academic freedom to almost any other occupation. Let us consider ‘plumbers’ freedom,’ for instance.

I agree with Block that a professor should teach the subjects and contents demanded by his institution –his employer– and, although we all wish for a more freedom-centered academia, as long as we live in an ideal libertarian society, the employee can resign and look for a more suitable position in a different institution. However, this is not the definition of “academic freedom” I want to defend here.

When I talk here or elsewhere about “academic freedom,” I am basically speaking about our freedom as scholars to engage, explore, and publish our findings or views, as long as these views are supported by evidence –or are deemed as provisional hypothesis– and, of course, as long as the contents do not violate the “Instructions for authors” or any other “norm” the journal is supposed to follow. Thus, I may understand that a journal from mainland China refuses to publish research related to, let’s say, the Tian’anmen Square Massacre, because the journal belongs to an institution which in turn belongs to a government that, in turn, kills its own citizens when they disagree with it. Of course, these journals are rarely recognized outside of China.

The problem is, how should we understand “academic freedom” in the context of (Western) leading journals that are supposed to advocate these freedoms and liberties? Some weeks ago I received a very warm message from a reader of this blog who was particularly delighted because I dared to criticize the unscholarly sloppiness of Chinese scholarship in a very reputable journal from Hong Kong. I personally cheer the publisher and the reviewers for allowing its publication, because that same day I received this message, I also got the results of another reviewer from another very reputable journal based in the US.

The US is not currently under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Its journalists and publishers are not disappearing and it is very unlikely that China will invade Spokane as long as we have Hollywood to protect us. However, the aforementioned reviewer was very concerned about my criticism of Chinese scholarship. He even pointed out one mistake in a footnote: the title of a very well-known work, which I noted was misprinted by a Chinese author, was in fact correctly printed (so he said) and, hence, my criticism was obviously void or biased. I checked and re-checked, and the typo was there. You can find it in all printed editions, in the publisher’s website, and in the scanned copy stored by Google Books. The editor basically shrugged me away: “Just let it go,” he said. This is the kind of censorship mentioned by Sahlins in his essay –and it is not only self-censorship, but also scholarly neglect. Thus, scholars who comply with these policies –and we have if we wish to publish– are consequently caught between the Scylla of reporting bad scholarship, and the Charybdis of not reporting it and being accused of bad scholarship themselves.

As I said before, it is ok if some authors do not wish to engage in career-harming activities. But it should also be ok for others to do so if they wish to risk themselves, rather than be advised by editors to refrain from criticism because it’s going to offend a foreign government that is actively engaged in Cyber War with the US, among other many despicable things we all know about. This is a basic libertarian principle, but it is also common sense. Let’s just extrapolate this problem to a different and more practical field: Science. If one day the CCP decides that gravity does not exist, should we refrain from criticizing this position? Should we even say that gravity certainly does not exist? Should we look for other fields of study that do not include gravity-related issues? Sure this is not going to happen, but we have already witnessed many cases of fake peer-review among Chinese scholars. All these cases included papers on topics related to science, and they have all been retracted. Why? Well, because it’s science –it either flies or crashes. But the humanities are just so… subjective that you can basically shrug all your concerns away –whether it flies or crashes is just a matter of subjective hermeneutic interpretation.

Or, in Austrian economics slang, the humanities are highly unproductive because, if their results had any impact in the real world, they wouldn’t be subjective at all. It either flies or crashes, and that’s all it is. Designing a plane, building a skyscraper, turning on a particle accelerator, or even fixing the toilet, they all require a complex, exact, and not-subjective-at-all set of skills. It either works, or it doesn´t. Writing about philosophy, politics, literature, or even history, despite Block’s comparison, truly seems to require a very different set of skills –or a lack of them. And that is indeed a shame.

Going back to the main topic of this post, let me put it in free verse: Many are the dangers Chinese studies are being exposed to / in these dark days of Chinese political correctness. This is the topic of an upcoming paper I’m working on that will be given at a conference in Taipei. In this new age of information, in which all data is accessible anywhere, it makes little sense to get rid of the evidence, as the Chinese government used to do during the Cultural Revolution or the Tian’anmen Massacre. The new vogue in authoritarianism is to control the information, rather than destroying it. Chinese culture and Chinese studies are thus being appropriated by the Chinese government, for instance, though the establishment of Confucius Institutes, where Western scholars who only learn Simplified Chinese won’t be able to read any research published in Taiwan or Hong Kong, and will have a limited access to ancient Chinese texts, restricted to the censored versions published in the PRC in Simplified Chinese. Also, many universities in China have increased restrictions on access to ancient and rare books (“ancient” as in pre-1949, of course). Because it is very unlikely that these books can be read by anyone in the long run, many librarians have decided that it may be a good idea to make some profit, so they are selling these “rare” books online and in the black market.

But the last issue comes from the image licensing firm Corbis, which has sold a bunch of historical photographs to Visual China Group, a Chinese company that “owns and manages China’s largest premium digital visual content platform, and is the first destination of choice for creative and media professionals to search, purchase and manage such content in China.” Why should we care about this? Well, because someone had the amazing idea of including some of the pictures of the 1989 Tian’anmen Massacre among them. So these pictures are now in the hands of a government that denies their existence. Good move, Mr. Bill Gates.

Of course, Corbis is free to sell anything they like to anyone who is paying for it, even if he/she is going to destroy it (it’s a shame, but it’s not a matter of law). But the point here is that no one is paying for it. It is being sold to a government, not an individual. Cronyism anyone? And that’s the most anti-capitalist, anti-libertarianism, and anti-free market thing to do. Now, let’s accept that, for the sake of the argument, Corbis is free to do anything they like with their pictures. By selling the rights to another company or even to a government (Intellectual property cronyism anyone?) they are doing something else. They are taxing those pictures. And they are putting them in the hands of an authoritarian government. How can that even be called free market?

One of the possible outcomes of this decision is that, when someone wishes to legally use one of these pictures to illustrate a book about the Tian’anmen Massacre, the Chinese company may deny them permission to use these images on any random grounds. By controlling these pictures, the Chinese government may have found a new way to control information about their past deeds.

At the end, it’s not like the pictures are just going to vanish from libraries and websites, but it is possible that some important publishers would refrain from any kind of conflict and just avoid publishing them in the future. They will “just let it go,” as an editor said, and do something else. And they are free to do so. Just as we should be free to do the opposite.

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