When it comes to China, Americans are victims of an insidious kind of censorship that stunts the debate they hear and read in nearly invisible ways.
The censorship — or self-censorship — stems from fear.
Many academics who specialize in China fear that if they are critical, the Communist rulers will deny them a visa. If you are an anthropologist who needs to interview Chinese villagers, being banned from the country can end your career.
A professor who speaks honestly about human rights abuses may fear a rebuke, or worse, from university administrators, who in turn fear losing their satellite campus in China — or the lucrative flow of Chinese students to their school.
Even if you were willing to risk your own future, you might worry that candor would endanger your colleagues here or in China. Those working at think tanks and other nonprofits must make similar calculations every day.
The upshot is that America’s — and Australia’s, and Europe’s — leading experts on China often remain silent as its regime becomes ever more repressive. Newspaper articles are published without their perspective, op-eds go unwritten, conferences present an incomplete view.
Which is what makes the Xinjiang Initiative so striking — an unprecedented response to an unprecedented, yet little-noticed, assault on freedom.
President Xi Jinping has been narrowing the space for free expression for years. His regime has imprisoned and tortured lawyers, silenced reporters and professors, even kidnapped and jailed critics from outside China’s borders.
But the human rights violations taking place now in the western province of Xinjiang are, as Human Rights Watch said in a recent report, “of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.”
More than 1 million people, by reliable estimates, have been rounded up and put in prisons, detention centers or reeducation camps. They are Muslims of Turkic ethnicity, and the government’s goal seems to be to eradicate their religion and inculcate Communist fealty. “Within these secretive facilities, those held are forced to undergo political indoctrination for days, months, and even over a year,” Human Rights Watch said.
Outside the camps, meanwhile, people are subjected to unprecedented surveillance and control, including the compulsory collection of biometric data, such as voice samples and DNA, and assignment of “trustworthiness” grades. Uighurs abroad are harassed and often unable to communicate with relatives inside China. Families are broken up, children indoctrinated while their parents are locked away.
China denies all this — the camps are for “vocational education,” it says — but won’t let inspectors or reporters in. So news of what is likely one of the greatest crimes against humanity of this young century hardly registers.
Jerome Cohen and Kevin Carrico, China scholars at New York University and Australia’s Macquarie University, respectively, find this unacceptable. They drafted the Xinjiang Initiative, asking for a pledge to raise awareness of these events in every public forum. More than 100 China scholars signed on.
“Hundreds of thousands of people of Uyghur and Kazakh descent are being held indefinitely in extra-judicial internment camps in Xinjiang today,” the joint statement explains. “Prisoners are detained due to their ethnicity or Muslim faith, tearing apart families, destroying lives, and threatening culture. These are horrific developments that should have no place in the twenty-first century.
“The global response to these developments, however, has been muted. Many are still unaware even of the existence of these camps. Reporting on the situation is hindered by an information blockade by the Chinese state, which denies even the existence of any such camps. And those who stand up and speak out openly against these policies may face the wrath of a rising power that is determinedly hostile to criticism.”
You could be discouraged that the number of signers is yet only in the low three digits. You could be discouraged that one signer already has withdrawn his name. “I’m sure it’s too hot for him, and I’m sure his colleagues have asked him to withdraw it,” Cohen told me.
But the list is growing and already impressive: young and old, from multiple continents, respected scholars from top-flight schools.
What’s most striking about the list is that these are, in a very real sense, China’s friends: men and women who have devoted years and decades to learning the language and understanding the people, who wish nothing but the best for China.
When they and people like them do not participate in the debate, the field is left to shills with little credibility and to the most feverish apostles of deterring and controlling China’s rise.
If, with the Xinjiang Initiative, more of them engaged with the public, awareness of China’s crimes would rise. But as they shared their appreciation for the challenges of development and for China’s accomplishments, so would Americans’ understanding. In the long run, China would be so much better off.