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An irrational fear of crossing an invisible line

A recurring topic on the blog is that in China many things are sensitive, but nobody is actually certain what is on that list (as we saw yesterday). For instance, due to a strange turn of events, “Ferrari” was blocked on Weibo, while rumors of a coup in Beijing remained intact. This lack of clarity on what can and can’t be discussed not only impedes the free flow of information and discourages efficiency, but also has very real costs for individuals and organizations.

I know a Chinese Christian charity who would benefit greatly from greater exposure overseas. A number of scandals in other Chinese charities this year and continued concerns about the global economy have reduced contributions to them. So when I heard about a journalist doing research on Christians in China, I urged him to get in touch with this organization knowing that a mention in the media could translate to additional funding. Those donations would have been used to send impoverished children to school, build bio-gas pools, and promote health initiatives in the countryside.  Unfortunately, his emails went unanswered. The charity told me that it was best for them to be “cautious” when dealing with the foreign media, even though People’s Daily had just run an article encouraging religious charities to contribute more to society.

This highlights the fact that at this moment, even the Party can’t convince charities that their work isn’t sensitive.

Similar things have happened at the hospital where I work. American graduate students meet with doctors hoping to research trends in China’s health, and quickly find themselves unwelcome. One friend spent months working on making contacts, but each doctor’s enthusiasm faded as soon as they discussed the possibility with their bosses (his topic had been researched in Chinese dozens of times as well as by foreign NGO’s). One eager doctor hoped that there could be someway to work together unofficially, but anonymous sources draw a great deal of scrutiny in scientific papers.

For the individual doctors, the opportunity provided clear benefits – a chance to publish in English, and have help with translating their own papers. Furthermore, publishing is tied to promotions and pay raises, if their work appears in a foreign journal, it can come with substantial rewards (I’ve heard that it can be equivalent to several months’ salary). For the heads of the departments, the small chance that the topic could someday be seen as sensitive was an unacceptable risk. The result was that the hospital missed out on the chance to take a closer look at how a common disease is being treated, and ultimately, those infected lost out over what was an irrational fear of crossing an invisible line.

I received word from another friend who is a sociologist interested in China’s migrant population. While her work is largely apolitical, it does show a side of China that the Party would rather keep out of the spotlight, and for that reason she fears for the safety of her contacts. Due to increased scrutiny she had to considerably scale back her project, which cuts off yet another line of communication that could help gov’t officials better understand how to provide support for the nearly 1/3 of China’s population that shifts between the cities and the countryside.

While these are just a few small examples, when you multiply that by the thousands of opportunities that are being missed in other places, you realize that China is squandering millions of chances to help alleviate poverty, treat diseases, and create a more just China (which would ultimately bolster the Party). For the Party to reverse this trend, it will take concerted efforts to show that this time, they really do want a hundred flowers to bloom.


3 Comments

  1. Lorin Yochim says:

    I’d be interested to know more about your sociologist friend’s research, Tom. No good sociological work is apolitical, so I’m not sure what you mean by that, especially considering your comment that the Party would rather keep it out of the spotlight. Having said this, there is a lot of good academic work on migrant workers that is either less than complimentary about the current environment or openly critical of gov’t policy. Some of that is written by foreign researchers, some by local academics. As far as harm goes, sociological work always entails the possibility of harm to participants. I’m curious what she did to invite close scrutiny and a heightened sense that harm might be the result.

  2. Lao Why? says:

    A quote from Global Times editor Hu Xijin that illustrates your point, in my opinion…

    I don’t like the website Utopia (Editor’s note: an ultra-leftist website), but I hope they can continue to make their voice heard. I don’t like what Liu (Xiaobo) stands for, but I wish he did not have to sit in prison, and that he would have his place in Chinese society like other “dissidents” do. Nevertheless, the tolerance level in Chinese politics is never as high as we wish it to be. Do what you must but be mindful of the measure. Once you break past a certain threshold, the constructiveness of the diversity you’re trying to create will turn into destructiveness, and the backlash will happen. This is the real China.

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