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Academic freedom in China

Academe; Washington Vol. 88, Iss. 3,  (May/Jun 2002): 26-28.

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Economic and social reform in China have prompted more sophisticated ideological and political control of intellectuals.

China has never enjoyed real academic freedom, not even during more recent decades in which the government has carried out economic reform. The methods used to restrict free expression-most of which are unknown by Western scholars-have, however, changed over the past twenty years as a result of more openness in China to outside influences and a growing willingness among the Chinese people to question their government.

The worst time for Chinese scholars was during the era of Mao Zedong, from 1949 to 1976, when the Chinese government conducted a campaign of brainwashing intellectuals. If one dared to criticize any policy or political leader, he or she could be prosecuted and sent to a labor camp or sentented to life in prison or death. All intellectuals felt compelled to praise Mao and his regime; those who actually contributed to communist propaganda were rewarded by a higher position and salary.

In 1957 the Chinese regime labeled its cultural and academic policy "Cultivating Thousands of Flowers and Encouraging Hundreds of Voices." But the so-called thousands of flowers and hundreds of voices did not have anything to do with freedom of speech or academic research; instead, the slogan was intended to encourage praise of the totalitarian system in China through various means, from poem, novel, and movie to drama.

Have market-oriented reforms and increased receptiveness to the outside world brought about academic freedom for Chinese intellectuals? Superficially, one may say yes. In contrast with Mao's era, Chinese intellectuals can read the literature of western social sciences, and, as long as they don't directly criticize the regime, they can use the research approaches of the social sciences. In addition, they can enjoy reading classical Chinese literature and Russian and...