Censorship and Sinology in the Era of Chinese Neo-Authoritarianism

Censorship and Sinology in the Era of Chinese Neo-Authoritarianism

As China changes, so does Sinology or the study of China. Under President Xi Jinping, China has become more repressive at home and more assertive internationally. These changes are having direct impacts on the Chinese studies community in Australia and beyond, causing scholars to make some difficult decisions about what they say in public, what they choose to study, and how they manage their relationships with colleagues, students, friends and even family members. Similarly, a more authoritarian China brings new pressures to bear on academic institutions that simultaneously seek to uphold academic freedoms while maintaining valued collaborations with Chinese partners. This is not a new problem for the field, but rather one that has become more complex as the geopolitical rivalry between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the West intensifies.

Scholars who have had a deep and sustained connection with the PRC have found themselves in a position – for one reason or another – where they needed to modify their words and actions, if only to protect their research participants, colleagues or friends in China from potential harm. Are these acts of self-censorship, tactical decisions or simply cross-cultural courtesies?

Kevin Carrico calls out our “moral culpability” and provocatively labels the failure of Sinologists to speak out about ongoing human rights abuses in Xi’s China as “the epitome of narcissistic self-absorption.” American journalist Isaac Stone Fish claims there is “an epidemic of self-censorship” among China scholars, with the PRC’s growing economic and political might curtailing debate and subtly reshaping the research agenda. Others argue the problem is overstated and poorly understood. Based on a survey of over 500 China scholars, Sheena Greitens and Rory Truex conclude “repressive research experiences among China scholars are a rare but real phenomenon,” while also arguing that tackling sensitive topics can sometimes prove beneficial to one’s profile and career.

A failed effort to collaborate has embroiled the three of us in this debate. In response to previous speculation and inaccuracies and after weeks of discussion – including frank exchanges over whether we could agree on a collective response – we thought it was important to set the record straight and offer our own reflections on the new challenges confronting Sinologists. The incident, we believe, offers broader lessons for the study of contemporary China, as well as those who study other authoritarian countries in Asia.


Following a December 2016 symposium at La Trobe University, the three of us, along with other scholars, developed a journal special issue proposal that we pitched to The China Quarterly in early 2018. Leibold wrote the proposal and the other authors worked individually on their papers in preparation for submitting a final proposal and the articles to the journal. However, before final submission, Erie and Joniak-Lüthi decided to withdraw their papers from the proposed special issue.

Erie’s and Joniak-Lüthi’s decisions were motivated by a number of factors, such as the cohesiveness of the special issue and duplication among the papers, the special issue’s impact on the safety of research participants and collaborators, and the chosen venue for publication (a China-focused area studies journal rather than a disciplinary one). As a result of these disagreements, the proposed special issue was abandoned.

Still, each of us published our research in other venues: Leibold published his paper on surveillance in Xinjiang in the Journal of Contemporary China in May 2019; Erie published his paper on Islamophobia and sharia in China in the Journal of Law and Religion in April 2019; and Joniak-Lüthi published her article on infrastructure construction and environmental degradation in Xinjiang in Political Geography in December 2019. At no point did any of us suppress the writing of anyone else. Yet the collapse of our collaboration revealed some significant disagreements.

At the time, Leibold was upset and frustrated over the wasted time he put into the project, and disappointed by Erie’s and Joniak-Lüthi’s decisions. He dismissed the idea that any negative ramifications would flow from the special issue or their participation in it. He failed, at the time, to understand their perspective. Censorship and repression were forefront in his mind as Cambridge University Press and other academic presses admitted censoring information on their PRC websites, including articles published in The China Quarterly and other leading area studies journals. Evidence was also beginning to emerge of the Chinese Communist Party’s mass extrajudicial internment of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

Leibold believes the Sinology community has an ethical responsibility to probe the darker corners of the Chinese Party-state system and ensure their research findings are made publicly available well beyond narrow disciplinary or even academic outlets. Informed public debate requires a holistic picture of China and its efforts to reshape global norms under Xi Jinping. Yet his situation – tenured academic position, no family in China, reliance on open-source Chinese-language documents and related methodologies – puts him in a position of greater comfort to explore and write about sensitive topics like Xinjiang and Tibet. He must also accept the consequences.

An Australian Research Council funded project on the impacts of urbanisation on Tibetan communities in Western China led by Leibold, for example, has elicited significant harassment. Someone claiming to represent the Chinese Embassy in Canberra threatened La Trobe’s Research Office with unspecified consequences if the university proceeded with the project. Colleagues associated with the project in Australia and China were warned to disassociate themselves from the project. Leibold was denied a visa to visit China in October 2018, as was one of his colleagues in 2019. He is subjected to constant online trolling and cyber-attacks.

Erie and Joniak-Lüthi, like other junior or pre-tenure scholars, particularly those who conduct long-term ethnographic research, have different strategies as they grapple with trade-offs. Joniak-Lüthi shifted her research temporarily to the other side of the border due to the incarceration and harassment of her Uyghur and Han research collaborators in Xinjiang, and the fact that her presence exposed her research participants to police harassment. Since 2018, east Kyrgyzstan has been her main field site. Erie has experienced surveillance and harassment during fieldwork in China, which has resulted in him prematurely ending fieldwork so as not to endanger interlocutors.

As with other scholars who use ethnographic methods, Erie and Joniak-Lüthi have ethical commitments to protect the wellbeing of their interlocutors in the field. These commitments inform all stages of knowledge production, from data gathering and data analysis to write-up and dissemination. Each of these stages requires tactical choices to advance scholarly debate without creating excessive risk, first and foremost for their research participants and collaborators in China to whom they owe a duty of care, and secondarily for themselves. The critical knowledge produced is circulated through various outlets, not only in university teaching and academic publishing, but also through lectures for non-academic audiences and policy consulting.

Despite our differences of opinion, we all agree that each scholar needs to navigate this fraught landscape in light of their own situation and relationship to their interlocutors and their disciplines, and thus it is foolish to expect or demand some uniform standard of knowledge production and distribution. Generally, we agree that self-censorship is exercising control over what one says and does to avoid negative repercussions. Beyond this, however, we have different understandings of what this means in practice, and we view these differences as productive and conducive to an engaged debate.


Some Sinologists in the West have decided to moderate their language and actions or be far more circumspect as to where and under what circumstances they will speak and publish. For some this is about maintaining access to China for field research, protecting informants, friends and family back in China or being able to closely collaborate with Chinese colleagues and institutions. Motivations vary from complex ethical concerns over the very real possibility that their actions may be used as justification to inflict harm on individuals and communities, to efforts to balance academic and more activist work (whether public or behind the scenes), or simply the desire to remain apolitical and focus on their scholarship.

Meanwhile our Han, Uyghur and Tibetan colleagues are in a far more invidious position. Some are PRC citizens or work inside PRC institutions. We know many of them are deeply concerned about the direction China is heading under Xi Jinping and feel frustrated by their inability to speak out publicly. We should not pass judgement on their decisions, especially when we do not fully understand the details of their personal circumstances. There is a range of contributions that scholars can make to our understanding of China which require not only different methods but also different sorts of questions.

At the same time, however, we would be foolish to ignore the consequences of censorship and the erosion of academic freedoms on our university campuses. The increased reach and opacity of the Chinese Communist Party means we can never be certain when we will cross the line and become persona non grata. The path from a “China hand” (中国通) to “anti-China force” (反华势力) is a convoluted yet real one. The need to navigate this tightrope does have a chilling and transformative effect on the Chinese studies community, and shapes (often unconsciously) the decisions of individual academics and their institutions.

Area studies has long been complicit in the projection of imperial power. Sinology sought to know China in order to transform China—and some now argue Sinology in the West can function as a form of “academic colonialism” (学术殖民) when it comes to the production of knowledge about China. Meanwhile Geremie Barmé continues to espouse the benefits of “New Sinology” (后汉学) in the West, a nuanced and multifaceted understanding of China that is “grounded in an ability to appreciate critically the living past in China’s present.” That means, of course, coming to terms with the messy politics of the PRC’s place in the contemporary world, and the way knowledge and power are co-constituted and ever-shifting in balance.

Where there is power, of course, there is also money. Many Western academic institutions and publishing houses profit handsomely from China through the enrolment of students and the making of publication deals, and the desire for new sources of revenue can sometime cloud the judgement of senior executives and erode academic freedoms and autonomy over time.

Researchers working on China are constantly making decisions about what they will study and how they will study it, which requires a delicate negotiation with autocracy, surveillance and corporate profiteering. These pressures not only constrain what we know about China but also constrict what people are willing to say about China in public. This is a real problem for the field and requires further discussion and research, but little is to be gained by ad hominem attacks on individual researchers for the decisions they make.

China’s authoritarian turn under Xi Jinping is splintering and polarising the Sinology community and social media seems to feed this sense of factionalism. China watchers are making judgements, often unconsciously and without any factual basis, about the politics of colleagues, placing them in binary pro (red) or anti (blue) camps in ways that belie the complexities of the individual situations and favours emotion over evidence.

This divide is regrettable and unnecessary. Divisiveness and hostility among China scholars weakens the field, and can play into the hands of those who seek to use our research findings for political and financial gain. Scholars will naturally disagree about these issues and what to do about them, but, minimally, we must find ways to work together and support one another.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of empathy and kindness. Studying China is now more difficult than it was in the past as the Party-state system and its censors grow increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to control the narrative about China and our sources of information on it. Sinology needs to encourage a culture where these new challenges can be openly and robustly discussed without fear of condemnation.

The doyen of Chinese studies in the United States, John King Fairbank, was in the habit of stating that a new generation of Sinologists “must stand on the shoulders and faces of the older generations” in order to advance the profession. Fairbank’s salutary kind of face-standing is distinguishable from destructive attacks. As we learned through our failed collaboration, the latter benefits no one, and can actually prevent us from discussing our healthy disagreements.

James Leibold is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy at La Trobe University in Melbourne Australia, and a Council member of the Australian Asian Studies Association.

Matthew Erie is an Associate Professor of Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford.

Agnieszka Joniak-Lüthi is Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies at Zurich University and heads the research project “ROADWORK: An Anthropology of Infrastructure at China’s Inner Asian Borders.”

Share On: