In my last post about my time lecturing on property rights in China, I mentioned that many Chinese academics and intellectuals are very open about criticizing their government in private and semi-public settings. There is little question that there is greater intellectual freedom in China today than several decades ago. But, as I saw during my trip, there are still important limitations on freedom of speech as well. Often, the exact boundaries of what the government will tolerate are difficult to figure out.

I. The Challenge of Figuring out What Can be Said When

Many of the Chinese I spoke with emphasized that the negative things they said about their government could not be repeated in public formats such as speeches or published articles. In such more public settings, they suggested, it is still permissible to criticize specific government policies, but not to call for fundamental changes in the system, such as an end to one-party rule, or to challenge core elements of the regime’s ideology (which is now more nationalist than communist), such as the idea that the government in Beijing has the right to rule Taiwan. Scholars and intellectuals who violate these rules risk professional sanctions, or worse.

Often, however, the boundaries of exactly what can and cannot be said are unclear even to experienced Chinese academics. I heard stories of scholars who got away with little or no punishment for saying things that are considered forbidden, as well as tales of people who were punished for statements that would normally be considered safe. Such uncertainties make life difficult for professional intellectuals and create anxiety and insecurity.

There are also cases where the government officially restricts access to some types of speech, but the limits are often easy to circumvent. For example, the “Great Firewall of China” blocks access to numerous websites, including Google, Facebook and Twitter. But the Great Firewall can be circumvented by using a wide range of relatively inexpensive VPN servers. The use of such VPNs is almost universal among Western expatriates living in China, and a good many Chinese resort to them as well. VPN users do, however, have to reckon with the small but nonzero risk that they will be detected and sanctioned. The government’s goal seems to be not to completely block access to these websites, but to make it difficult enough that many casual websurfers will decide it isn’t worth the trouble and risk.

II. Testing the Limits

The uncertainty also affects Western scholars who lecture and teach in China. In my case, the issue came up in the course of planning a lecture on “Property Rights Under Socialism,” which was part of my lecture series on a variety of property rights issues at the law faculty at Zhengzhou University. My original plan for the lecture included a section on how the abolition of private property in agriculture had led to massive famines in the USSR and China. The reading I assigned to students for the China section included this article by historian Frank Dikotter, which notes that the death toll of Mao’s Great Leap Forward was likely even higher than the conventionally accepted total of 30 million deaths. More controversially, from the standpoint of the Chinese government, Dikotter emphasizes that much of the killing was deliberate, part of an effort to eliminate real and imagined potential enemies of the regime. The present Chinese government admits that there was a massive famine but blames it on a combination of mistakes and bad weather, rather than deliberate malfeasance by Mao Zedong and other communist leaders. While the government no longer endorses many of Mao’s specific policies, he is still a major official hero of the regime, and the government derives some of its claims to legitimacy from his supposed achievements.

No one on the Chinese side objected to the reading list or to anything else in my plan for the lecture series. But when I actually got to China, I saw that the Dikotter article had been literally cut out of the packet given to the students at the last minute (it was even possible to to see where scissors had been used to remove it; interestingly, it was still listed in the official syllabus for the lecture series). Clearly, someone had belatedly decided that I had crossed a line.

At that point, there was nothing I could do about the packet. But I did give careful consideration to what I would say in the lecture itself. I even consulted with a number of American academics with previous experience in China.

The China hands were divided in their opinions. Some argued that I should just say what I planned to say anyway, possibly with minor modifications. Others urged omission of the material on the Great Leap Forward. They argued that I could make most of the same points simply by focusing on the very similar experience in the Soviet Union (which was also included in the assigned readings, and had not been altered by university officials). The more cautious camp argued that going ahead with my original plan might prevent me from being invited to lecture in China again and – worse – possibly create problems for those Chinese who had arranged to invite me.

In the end, I decided not to pull my punches. To give a lecture on socialism and property rights in China without mentioning the massive slaughter of the Great Leap Forward – the largest mass murder in the entire history of the world – would be like giving a lecture on anti-Semitism in Germany without covering the Holocaust. And I felt it would also be wrong to cover this case without emphasizing that much of the killing was deliberate, and that this was a predictable result of the perverse incentives and concentration of power created by a socialist economic system. Perhaps most important of all, I thought it was essential that Chinese be able to discuss this horrendous aspect of their history openly, which is less likely to happen if even foreign scholars are afraid to do so when speaking in China.

The audience reaction was interesting. There were some noticeable gasps and shocked expressions when I put up a power point slide of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong together, with the death tolls of their respective collectivization-related mass famines underneath their names:

Many of the people in the audience surely knew that Mao and his regime had committed this mass murder. But they were obviously not used to it being spoken of so explicitly. Yet as the lecture went on, people quickly calmed down. Many of those who asked questions actually expressed agreement with the points I had made. Afterwards, no one seemed particularly bothered by what I had said. I was still invited to return. And, as far as I can tell, no one involved got in trouble. In retrospect, I wondered whether I had worried too much, and whether I should perhaps have been even more forthright about some of the issues covered.

Even so, the uncertain limits of free expression in China are a real problem for the Chinese themselves, and also for some visiting foreign scholars, especially those who (unlike me) need to have access to China in order to do their work.

Some of the uncertainty may be just a matter of unintended inconsistency. In a large, bureaucratic government, some officials may simply be more tolerant than others. But it is also possible that the ambiguity is deliberate. Unlike in the days of Mao, the Chinese government does not want to suppress all criticism. They know that doing so is likely to undermine the regime’s efforts to promote economic growth and scientific research. But they also don’t want to allow unlimited free expression, which could lead to the end of one-party rule. Instead, they seek to engage in just enough repression to keep the present rulers safely in power without stifling innovation and growth. The uncertainty I describe may help with this strategy, since people who aren’t sure exactly what the limits are may be more cautious and less likely to challenge the ruling party. If the limits were easy to discern, critics of the government could perhaps get around them more easily.

It is difficult to say whether this strategy of ambiguity will work in the long run. As economist Timur Kuran points out in his book Private Truths, Public Lies, it is often difficult for a moderately repressive government to precisely calibrate its level of censorship in such a way as to allow some criticism, but not enough to undermine its grip on power. Whether China’s rulers have successfully overcome this difficulty remains to be seen.

For now, all I can say is that some Chinese scholars and intellectuals are pushing the limits of free expression, despite the dangers that remain. That may, over time, help promote political liberalization. On the other hand, the fact that both Chinese and visiting foreigners spin their wheels wondering what is safe to say represents a victory of sorts for the government’s strategy of limited repression.