Recent political developments in China have attracted significant attention in the western world and have posed wider questions about the potential rise of authoritarianism in the country. While the decision by the Chinese Communist Party to approve the right of the sitting president to remain in post for life (replacing the previous two-term limit) raised concerns in many parts of the western world, the decision was carefully choreographed in China as being one that was necessary for the wider national interest. Nevertheless, bigger questions remain concerning whether these changes will have a fundamental impact on society. It remains the case that China has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world – a fact that many within the ruling party attribute to what they see as the stability brought about by the current political system. It is true that the centralized control exercised by the government is different and greater than many other western countries. The question concerning the extent to which this influences academic freedom in China needs to be explored further. Nevertheless, the long-term ramifications of recent developments are unlikely to be seen for some considerable time.
Western media accounts of academic freedom in China, while useful in their own way, are subject to severe limitations. It is worth emphasizing that the information to which both foreign and domestic journalists have access to is heavily censored by central government. For me, as an academic in China, I have no connections whatsoever to the Chinese government, and my observations are based entirely on my own experience and the information I receive from the state-controlled media. Having used newspapers and other forms of media extensively for my research, I am completely aware of the drawbacks that are connected to using the media as an information source. With this I mind, I can say that initial concerns expressed by both Chinese and western journalists about the curtailment of free speech may be true to a certain degree, but there is the potential for over-exaggeration. Indeed, while criticising the current administration is likely to result in some significant consequences (the imprisonment of so-called ‘dissidents’ would be a case in point), the reasons for such action has often been based following sustained and explicit disparagement using a variety of media platforms over a prolonged period. The whole notion that the state tells academics what to write and exerts undue pressure on what can be published, in my opinion, and experience, is entirely false.
Just as in any academic system, it is advantageous to know the rules of the game as a means of achieving the best results that will work to your advantage. In China, aspects such as obtaining research grants require the applicant to consider carefully the ramification of their research on wider national discussions within China. In this respect, it is potentially easier in certain respects for scholars researching aspects outside the immediate area of Chinese affairs to publish and write with greater freedom. The precondition for awards normally is that the research will, in some way, be able to help the Chinese state to learn and develop ideas from other countries. Naturally, any work that criticises the Chinese state is likely to be rejected and could even be subject to sanctions. Thus, while in western countries there is a degree of freedom to which scholars can be critical of the government, it is worth noting that this tends to be an area that is off-limits within China, particularly if it is critical, no matter how thinly-veiled, of the creation of the People’s Republic post-1949.
Finally, there is the thorny issue of intellectual property. This remains an ongoing debate and was the subject of a spat between the US and China very recently. While there appears to be no immediate solution to this issue for the foreseeable future, it could be argued that this has some tangential connection to academic freedom. Much of what is financially supported by the state in terms of publications in China must demonstrate that they will make a significant contribution to Chinese society and/or that the ideas originated from Chinese-based academics (the latter is of particular importance in the scientific and medical sciences). The debate concerning who owns the ideas expressed in publications remains an ongoing debate in China. For those who publish with the aid of government support, central authorities ensure that they retain significant power over the ideas and its dissemination. In the same way, they may encourage research in certain areas for the purpose of social advancement and incentivise researchers to pursue this with the allure of large research grants. On the other hand, those researching topics that are not deemed to be in the interest of the state will need to find their own sources of funding. The extent to which this influences the degree of academic freedom in the nation, however, remains open to debate.
Thus, as in many other countries, the argument concerning the ability of authors to publish could be linked to the level of financial support that they receive. In China, unlike the UK, very few sources in the private sector are available as funding streams for academics searching for research grants. In this respect, funds for researchers will come from either central government or provincial government. Since much of these funds are based on the level of perceived interest and impact it could have on the Chinese state, this may, even implicitly, have some bearing on the freedom of academics to write what they want to write about topics that interest them. In many respects, it may lead to a decision between writing about what interests you (and maybe not get any money) or force you to target your research towards the topics that are of interest to the education ministry as a means of receiving financial support. When this situation is expressed in this blunt fashion, it doesn’t appear to be wholly different from many other academic systems in the west! Nevertheless, since education policy is constantly evolving in China, it may take some considerable time to see whether the state exerts additional controls on what academics publish. At the moment, these controls, certainly from my experience, are not explicit.