In Nantes, the castle of the Dukes of Brittany has deprogrammed an exhibition dedicated to the Mongol emperor Gengis Khan, after refusing to give in to pressure from the Chinese authorities. Another example of the Chinese desire for control, as evidenced by a sinologist in the Belgian daily The evening.
The Chinese state’s efforts to manipulate academic discourse have caused much ink to flow in the research world. Interference in the programs of Chinese departments and publication committees, censorship and self-censorship in the databases of internationally renowned academic journals, intervention by Chinese embassies and student associations related to them to prevent activities relating to Tibet or to Uighurs on campuses, intimidation of academics to their homes, instrumentalization of researchers who are not specialists in China seduced by the economic giant, threats not to issue visas …
These incidents continue to multiply and represent significant barriers to academic research on China, including in Europe and Belgium.
The daily life of sinologists
These insidious mechanisms by which Beijing tries to obstruct the right to free and independent research are not well known to the public, although they constitute the daily life of sinologists. Here are a few examples.
We understand that you can make misinterpretations. The next time you organize an academic activity, we will help you find professors who can come and explain to the Belgian public the objective reality of China. ”
This is how two attachés of the Chinese Embassy in Brussels address me during a lunch to which they kindly invited me. During these two hours around a table in a Chinese restaurant not far from the campus, offering me the best dishes, they did their best to convince me that I was doing my job as a researcher and teacher wrong, and that the embassy was ready to give me its full support if I accepted their “Objective reality”. Diplomats have also reminded me time and again how important relations with China are to my university and that it would be damaging for our partnerships to maintain research. “Lies” on Chinese policies towards its ethnic groups.
It was at the beginning of 2016, shortly after the ambassador had sharply lectured me, in front of the authorities of my university, for having invited to an academic conference on the Uighurs of “Terrorists” – in this case, a support committee for Uighur researcher Ilham Tohti, arrested and sentenced to life in 2014, to which the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize for human rights in 2019. A few weeks before the Bataclan attacks in Paris, the formula had had its effect.
Subsequently, I declined these frequent “Invitations to tea”, as we say in Chinese, in other words these disguised summons, launched by the authorities, which aim to seduce or intimidate (and sometimes to obtain information or to create relays) in informal sessions. This widespread practice, rarely disclosed, can have very concrete effects on academics (or journalists) who are worried about their careers, the reactions of their employers or access to the field in China: self-censorship, withdrawal from “Sensitive subjects” or compromise.
Between enjôlement and admonestation
But the interference of the Chinese state in the European academic (or journalistic) world does not stop there. Another practice of Chinese embassies, when the academic (or journalist) does not respond to their requests or threats, is to send employers outraged letters to urgently ask, “In the name of the Sino-Belgian friendship”, the withdrawal of articles or Internet pages criticizing Chinese policies.
In these letters, often carried by hand by a seconded from the embassy to reinforce the seriousness of the injunction and to impress the recipient, the rhetoric once again navigates between coaxing and admonition.
It is also common for Chinese embassies to invite themselves to international relations services to obtain “for information” lists of partnerships in China or of Chinese students, particularly Uighurs, on Belgian campuses. When the researcher or his institution does not meet the requirements of the Chinese regime, it is indeed through the student members of their community that we try to reach them.
Pressure on students
Chinese students can testify, on condition of anonymity, of remonstrances or attempts by the Chinese Embassy to recruit them to collect information on movements within the diaspora and in the community of expertise on China in Belgium.
Many of them depend on the embassy that issues their scholarship and have no other choice but to accomplish the tasks entrusted to them, with varying degrees of zeal. These practices place the researcher in an extreme dilemma: how to conduct honest academic work without endangering Chinese students and colleagues?
In addition, the embassy does not hesitate to approach European students to ask them for “reports” on the words and activities of their comrades, in particular Hong Kongers, Tibetans and Uighurs.
In 2018, the Chinese Embassy in Brussels even tried to hire students from Brussels campuses to show their disapproval of a Uighur demonstration. The objective was to mediate a small group of young Europeans and Chinese who “Was not fooled” false campaigns by “Terrorists”Uighurs, and publicly proclaimed the virtues of Chinese policies through posters “Against violence and for peace”.
The students were therefore invited to counter-protest for a non-negligible salary, which amounts to a worrying instrumentalisation. A gesture that is reminiscent of the false demonstration organized by the Chinese authorities in Canada in favor of the financial director of the Huawei group, Meng Wanzhou, arrested and awaiting extradition to the United States for fraud.
Canadians hired to figure in a film, they believed, found themselves outside the Vancouver courthouse to support the release of the director of the Chinese telecommunications giant – with signs in English, in view handwriting, all apparently from the same hand, and curious messages such as “Stop bullying us!”
As in Belgium, the appeal had been launched on social networks in the form of a recruitment announcement without further precision, and the salaries were paid by an obscure association, showcase of the local Chinese embassy.
Undermine democracies from within
We can therefore see that Beijing’s strategy consists in targeting academics, intimidating them and paralyzing the entire community in order to put an end to any debate or to elude any perspective that contradicts the discourse of the Chinese regime.
This is called sharp power, an ability of authoritarian states to undermine democracies from within by misinforming for unfriendly purposes. Such treatment is not reserved, far from it, to English-speaking colleagues in the background of the Second Sino-American Cold War, as we sometimes hear.
It applies precisely to our campuses, and our universities are still very poorly prepared for it.
In fact, by such means, the Chinese regime “Slap his face to make it swell and make it more imposing”, a Chinese expression which means that one seeks to impress by pretending to make oneself more powerful than one is.
However, to use the words of MEP Nathalie Loiseau, in response to the Chinese ambassador to France a few days ago: in the university, “There is no enemy of China”, but researchers who demand rigorous research without intimidation, without endangering their students and colleagues, and free not to take Chinese state propaganda at face value.
Launched in 1887, The evening is with La Libre Belgique, one of the two leading daily newspapers in French-speaking Belgium. Rich in supplements and a pioneer on the web, it has nevertheless seen its sales erode strongly over the years.