Amy Lai is a lawyer, critic, and author of The Right to Parody.
In the past few decades, the Communist Party of China has worked, wherever possible, to limit criticism of its country by foreign voices. Now, the Chinese government has a new weapon for suppressing critical voices that it deems harmful to its national image.
This summer, China passed its draconian national-security law for Hong Kong – aimed at bringing pro-democracy protests to heel – which features harsh punishments for an overly broad array of acts of protest and allows Beijing to pursue offenders regardless of their citizenship and the places where they committed the alleged crimes. This effectively gives the government the ability to place anyone, anywhere in the world, on a fugitive list. Numerous people in Hong Kong and in the West have already been arrested or are wanted by the government under this law.
This has had a real-world chilling effect on the discourse in Western democratic nations, and especially in their academic institutions, where free speech is a matter of paramount importance. In response to China’s proclaimed extra-territorial power, several prestigious British and American universities have implemented measures aimed at shielding students and faculty, regardless of their national origins, from prosecution by Chinese authorities. At Oxford University, students were asked to submit some papers anonymously; at Princeton University, students of Chinese politics will put codes down to identify their work instead of their names. Anonymous online chats and declining to penalize students who don’t want to participate in politically sensitive topics have also been considered.
But these actions are ultimately concessions to an authoritarian regime and prevent genuine debate about the Chinese government. This has no place in democratic institutions, which can, should and must be unreservedly critical about all issues, including China. Such policies risk handing the Chinese government a victory in its efforts to control the discourse in the West – and by making a threat that, for many, is an empty one.
In his book On Tyranny, historian Timothy Snyder cites examples such as Nazi Germany to show how most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given by individuals who “obey in advance” and adapt by “anticipatory obedience” – that is, by conceding to the tyrant without even being asked. This only teaches tyrants that their actions do not have consequences and that they can go further. Today, China is the new global tyrant, but Canadians cannot just roll over in advance. The Chinese government simply cannot pursue or jail all its critics from all over the world. Canadians without ties to China can criticize this government all they want and simply avoid travelling there.
The situation is far trickier for Chinese and Hong Kong international students, who likely have to go back home in the future. They must be protected if discussing politically sensitive topics would put their safety or their families’ safety at risk. But such protective policies can still enable these at-risk students to participate and be assessed. They could be encouraged, for instance, to email their views to their teachers, who could then communicate their views to the class. However, because freedom of expression is so pivotal, students should be allowed to attach their names if they wish. There may be no perfect policy.
But without freedom of speech, a university cannot be said to exist. Sadly, genuine debate about the Chinese government has been intimidated into self-censored silence. According to the Vancouver Sun, some China scholars have decided to “keep their mouths more or less entirely shut,” and there is concern that worried academics would offer up “timid” analysis. Many professors and researchers also referred to this fear in an open letter published in the The Globe and Mail last year, which asked China to release detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. “We who share Mr. Kovrig’s and Mr. Spavor’s enthusiasm for building genuine, productive and lasting relationships must now be more cautious about travelling and working in China and engaging our Chinese counterparts,” they said. “That will lead to less dialogue and greater distrust, and undermine efforts to manage disagreements and identify common ground.”
The new law represents a wake-up call to Canadian universities, which now confront the stark reality that if we give the Chinese government a foot, it’ll take a mile. But it is not too late for them to say no to the tyrant, to affirm their autonomy, and to safeguard our sovereignty and dignity.
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