Self-censorship and the Gleichschaltung of Sinology

The recent publication of James Leibold’s paper “Surveillance in China’s Xinjiang region: Ethnic sorting, coercion, and inducement” warrants revisiting the act of outsourced censorship that delayed it.

The paper was once expected to appear in a special issue of China Quarterly, a Cambridge University Press (CUP) journal. That didn’t happen: in 2018, the Hong Kong media organ affectionately known as the Alipaper (阿里报报) reported that “two fellow academics from European universities” had objected to their papers sharing a venue with Leibold’s, being “concerned they wouldn’t be granted visas to China”. The issue was never published.

To the best of my knowledge, the names of the “two fellow academics” were not made public at the time. Personal communications with various relevant parties and an examination of the programme of an academic event have led me to conclude that they were Matthew Erie (Oxford) and Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi (currently at Zürich).

The papers were first presented at a 2016 symposium at La Trobe University (where Leibold works). According to attendees I consulted, the participants decided to publish their papers in special issues of two journals. The programme lists only four persons “from European universities” (one of whom was highly unlikely to self-censor for a visa in 2018). People with knowledge of the matter confirmed Erie and Joniak-Lüthi were the ones who didn’t want their papers published alongside Leibold’s. Last year I emailed both to ask if this was correct; neither replied.

It’s hard to say if Erie and Joniak-Lüthi’s fears of visa refusal were justified. Their subsequent achievements, however, suggest they might continue to see self-censorship as beneficial to their careers.

In 2018, the year of Leiboldgate, Erie received a €1.5m grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for a project titled “Illiberal Law & Development: China and the World”. Unless he obtained a second ERC grant for the same amount, the project now appears to have evolved into the more harmonious “China, Law and Development”. The new title is perhaps more conducive to the exchanges Erie and his colleagues are now discussing with Tsinghua University. The Silk Road Legal Exchange and Research Network, promoted on the project’s website and presumably also funded by the grant, is even less compatible with the lack of positive energy in papers such as Leibold’s. This component of the project joins the collection of BRI-themed ‘networks’ through which the propaganda and cooption work central to Xi’s geopolitical initiative is outsourced to foreign institutions.

Joniak-Lüthi’s current project (“Roadwork: An Anthropology of Infrastructure at China’s Inner Asian Borders”), under a Swiss grant, is also BRI-themed, if less intelligibly so. At any rate, the deconstruction and connectivity it appears to involve will require Joniak-Lüthi to obtain a valid China visa. If her views haven’t changed since 2018, the project can thus be expected to meet her standards of self-censorship. Conceivably, the journal she edits enforces similar standards.

China Quarterly (affectionately known as 拆哪: Quartered) and its publisher CUP (“Censor U Poshly”) were mentioned on this blog in 2017 (“CUPped: Relevant Organs, Tudor zombies join forces, attack”). That year, CUP’s censorship of hundreds of articles its PRC partners had impugned was undone after a major scandal. (That temporary setback has not, of course, stopped the outsourcing of censorship and propaganda to Western academic publishers.) The success stories in this post illustrate mechanisms at play at a more basic level: that of individual academics and their institutions. Were CCP-coopted businesses like Springer, CUP or Brill to go bankrupt, or to discover a more profitable niche than collaboration with totalitarian propaganda, the patterns of behaviour exhibited by academics like the heroes of Leiboldgate would remain available for the CCP to exploit.

I recently wrote about the CCP’s weaponisation of mediocrity as instantiated in the cooption of think-tankers who enjoy junkets and eschew serious research. Such cooption work can reach decision-makers quickly, in obvious ways. The cooption of the field, or fields, of “China studies” likewise relies on the habits of key members of the target group. The effects achieved may be less evident, but should be irreversible within a generation or two: China experts trained in the climate of conformism and collaboration illustrated in this post can be expected to dominate the teaching and research of everything China-related by then. Just like the Gleichschaltung of Springer was remarkably easier in this century than in the last, innocuous “roadwork”, BRI networks, CASS junkets, Hanban appointments, PLA apiculture, Ronnieshop fun, the peculiar goings-on at Notts and a self-censorship omertà now dominate academia at little cost to today’s totalitarian power.