There is evidence to support a claim that the mission to censor criticism of China is moving into the American workplace. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have been students in the United States, and many move into jobs for American companies after graduation. But as China acquires American companies, existing and newly hired Chinese employees may feel both emboldened and pressured to incorporate a culture of censorship into the new entity.
Last year I gave a publicly listed American company a series of seminars on Chinese business, social, legal, and cultural norms and expectations. The audiences were primarily American-born employees, although many Chinese employees attended the sessions, as well. Some were relatively new hires; a few had been in the United States for years. The reason for the seminars? The company is being acquired by a Chinese company in an acquisition that requires CFIUS approval. (For legal reasons, the company names will be withheld here.)
My seminars and presentations on China always include sections that endeavor to help the listener see the world through China’s eyes (without necessarily agreeing with the viewpoint), while at the same time giving a mostly unvarnished look at the realities of the Chinese political and business landscape. One point I always stress is that the concept of law is weak in China. In that vacuum lies the power of the Chinese Communist Party and the power and necessity of strong interpersonal relationships.
After one seminar in which my audience and I discussed the meaning and risks of living, operating, and working in a society in which the concept of law is weak and cannot be relied upon, I received an email from a Chinese-born participant; she has been in the United States for 20 years and is a U.S. citizen. The email said:
Among Chinese associates who grew up in China and came to the US after college, some felt quite uncomfortable with some of the negative sides about China which you mentioned, especially that the concept of law is weak in China, and judge, jury and hangman are all rolled into one. (I think that a lot of people in mainland China and from China still sometimes view criticisms of the Chinese government as a reflection of criticism on all Chinese.) A few of them reached out to me and asked me to deliver this feedback to you if you are coming back.
First, they don’t want our American company’s associates to feel scared about this acquisition deal by a Chinese company which may be seen to thrill in the concept of China’s lack of law.
Secondly, they would like to hear more positive aspects about China today. Especially the changes in China in the last five years, such as high speed rail, subway, wireless communication, cell phone pay, and pollution control. I have been back to China almost every year in the last five years, and I see obvious progress year over year.”
So much for Patrick Henry, the First Amendment, and “Je suis Charlie Hebdo.”
This mindset calls up issues related to Hanban’s establishment of Confucius Institutes throughout the United States, and the world. The University of Chicago, in taking its principled decision to withdraw from extending its partnership with Hanban in 2014, cited defense of its “core values” as a factor in declining to continue to host a Confucius Institute. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in June of 2014 asserted that “North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.” In those two final points of the AAUP statement, “choice of curriculum” and “restriction of debate,” are echoes of our experience in an American company, on American soil.
Generations of censorship, despite what many from relatively uncensored nations might hope and believe, have not necessarily created a hunger for freedom of information and expression in China; although counterintuitive, this seems to be truer today than it was 30 years ago. The Communist Party has been successful in creating a mindset –even and sometimes especially among well-educated, often prosperous, and well-traveled young Chinese– that stands in stark contrast to Western liberal ideas of freedom of speech, expression, and assembly. Put simply, many Chinese agree with censorship for the collective good, and in no area do they agree with it more than in the area of censoring and curtailing anything that criticizes China.
During the mid-1990s, technology overwhelmed the Party censors. The explosion of landlines, the burgeoning mobile telephone network, and the arrival of something astonishing called the internet, all at the same time, created a frenzy of activity among Chinese state players eager to capitalize on the new world of digital communications. Mobile telephony began to leapfrog landlines, and by the 2000s, China had the largest mobile network in the world. Chinese could talk, text, and access the internet. Ordinary Chinese citizens began creating conversations that often became critical and political. Jokes about the leadership circulated among hundreds of millions of people. Discussions on political thought, religion, and all manner of previously taboo subjects took over chat rooms.
But as China moved into a mature phase of its telecommunications development, it had more time and sophistication to focus on its operations to monitor, identify, and censor the very citizens it had empowered by developing the technologies in the first place.
Thus, today, the technologies that gave an interim generation of Chinese a chance to express themselves more freely than any other in modern China are successfully used to control those expressive urges, and to track them. That, along with a greater inclination by this newer generation to accept the Chinese government, a huge increase of desire among students to join the Communist Party, and a backlash of sentiment against Western political values, which are deemed to be failing, motivate many of China’s brightest and best to agree: restrict the debate, quash critique, and dampen dissent.
The problem arises when that mindset becomes an exported product to a free and open society.
China’s versions of past humiliations and injustices, such as the unequal treaties — which ceded sovereign control of parts of China to foreign countries in the 19th century –and the Chinese exclusion laws of the United States — the first to single out a specific ethnicity of people to limit and ban their entry into America — still sting, and they should. It’s a history that should be taught. However, the Chinese exclusion laws in particular are taught in China in such a way that many young Chinese believe that they will be subject to discrimination in the United States for the very fact of being Chinese. Chinese students, getting ready to leave for the United States to study, often talk about their fear of “qishi” (discrimination) once in the United States.
What the Communist Party has cleverly done is associate modern, legitimate international critique of the Party with historical — and morally wrong — criticism and discrimination of Chinese citizens in the past. What better way for the Party to deflect criticism, to censor and shut it down abroad, than to associate critique of the Party with personal discrimination of Chinese citizens, of which no one, and no company, wants to be accused, or guilty? It’s a brilliant strategy, but one which discerning companies and employees can spot, and call out. Cell phone payments are indeed a great accomplishment, but freedom from censorship is even better.
As a footnote, what of the subsequent seminar we gave to our client? We put the email into our PowerPoint presentation, and let everyone decide for themselves.
Bonnie Girard is the founder of China Channel Ltd.