Imagine if the British government could eradicate the miners’ strike from history. Not just by deleting all news coverage but by preventing the academic study of it. Imagine if, at university courses on the history of modern conservatism, all mention of it was banned. Imagine if, on top of that, a major global academic publisher voluntarily deleted all discussion of the miners’ strike from a prestigious journal.
You now have a sense of the scale of what Cambridge University Press had done by deleting more than 300 articles from China Quarterly, following a request from the Chinese government. The decision, which has been reversed and the articles reinstated in the face of a threatened academic boycott, could lead to China blocking this and other related content. To which conflict I say: bring it on.
Coming after the decision by Apple to stop selling, and Amazon’s Chinese partner to forbid hosting of virtual private networks – the tool needed to evade internet censorship in China – the move is part of a widespread and craven acquiescence by western corporations and governments with Xi Jinping’s project.
It is important to understand what that project is. I certainly did not, when I stood in the Great Hall of the People to watch Hu Jintao hand the baton to Xi in 2012. China watchers in the press pack debated whether he would be tougher or more lenient on corruption; whether the marketisation and closure of state-owned industries would continue or reverse. My minder – a hack from the party’s mouthpiece – even disputed the basic premise of my questions: China, he said, is a “mediumly developed communist country” and to treat it as in any way capitalist was to misunderstand it fundamentally.
In the end, we were all asking the wrong questions, premised on the idea that the Communist party bureaucracy was just a committee for managing the affairs of Siemens, Toyota, Apple and the rest of the foreign investment community. Xi, instead of merely stewarding the process of marketisation begun in 1978, has made a decisive change in China’s global strategy. By setting up the $50bn Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and targeting $900bn at infrastructure projectslinking China to Europe in the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, Xi signalled China’s willingness to reshape the entire world economy around its own needs.
Its simultaneous expansion of hard diplomacy and military capability into its own vicinity – the South China Sea and, most recently, the Indian border region – have convinced some that this is merely a regional muscle-flexing, similar to Putin’s in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine.
But the chances are that it is more. Xi, who made headlines with his clear defence of globalisation at Davos in 2017, even as Putin and Trump vied to dismantle it, embodies the beginnings of the answer to a question: what will the world look like if China matches its 21st-century economic dominance with the desire to be more than a regional power?
We only know a tiny part of the answer and it is not encouraging. Xi’s crackdown on corruption has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent and a new determination to bend “truth” to Chinese reality. According to the China Policy Institute, Xi has “tightened control over research and academic facilities, focusing on strengthening Chinese instead of western ideology”. In 2015 a government directive ordered the creation of new thinktanks to combat western thinking, while the education ministry announced a ban on textbooks promoting “western values”.
The crackdown on the human bearers of such values has been relentless. Academics have been banned from teaching; NGOs supporting the work of 280 million migrant workers, which once functioned as a low-level network of proto-trade unions, now have to concentrate on sewing classes and folk singing. In Hong Kong, three leaders of the 2014 Occupy movement have just been jailed.
The tragedy is, if China does want to stride into a world leadership role, defend globalisation, develop Central Asia and become a world leader in science and technology, this attack on knowledge and criticism is the worst way to go about it.
You only have to dabble in the world of China-focused academia to understand how violently foreign experts on China disagree with each other. Did the 1980s and the village enterprises do more for anti-poverty than the creation of an export industry? Is China’s declining annual growth rate real or illusory? I’ve sat in seminars where people with good local knowledge say real growth is closer to 4% – signalling impending chaos – while others with equally good knowledge say the official 8% GDP number is correct.
The scale of disagreements in academia over fairly basic analytical points reveals something frightening: even for western-based scholars who have no fear of a knock at the door, constructing a basic mental model of the Chinese economy, its troubled banking system, its corrupt elite and its enigmatic leadership is an unsolved task.
Xi and his leadership group are desperately mugging up on Marxist textbooks in a quest, as Xi put it, “to master the precepts that the world is unified as matter and that matter determines consciousness”. This in turn suggests that for all the inside knowledge they possess, the Chinese leadership has a poorer actual understanding of its own society and economy than western academics. Thus the information contained in the 300 restored articles – mainly concerning Tiananmen Square, Tibet and Taiwan – is less important than the method they embody: of criticism, peer review and the determination to base social science on facts.
I write this in full knowledge that it will be read, amid resurgent Chinese nationalism, as a claim that once again the west knows best. But it is the opposite. If Xi and his generation of officials really do want to study Marxism they should start by understanding where it came from: among rebellious students at Prussian universities where critical research was banned. They should understand that it drew on three strands of critical western thought – philosophy, political economy and utopian socialism – whose core concepts can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Marxism, for all its flaws, was a product of the west’s critical culture; so was the theory of relativity; so was the internet protocol. Unbridled criticism is essential to true academic thought.
So while it’s good that CUP is restoring the articles, we now need to front up to the principles that decision embodies. Defying China’s wish to subordinate academic research and publication to its current political needs is no mere act of principle. It is an act of self-interest. Thanks to China’s “Great Firewall” there are already two internets on the planet. Facilitating the creation of two academies – one devoted to truth, the other to securing the power of Chinese officials – will backfire massively on ourselves.
By Paul Mason