Published: 01:13, September 6, 2022 | Updated: 10:26, September 6, 2022
Are there limits to academic freedom?
By Ho Lok-sang

Mr Tim Pringle, editor of the well-known journal The China Quarterly, recently lamented Beijing’s “restrictions on academic freedom” over articles that challenge the authority of the Communist Party of China. 

Mr Pringle’s complaints are not news. A 2018 blog reported that “A year ago, Cambridge University Press made the shock announcement that it was pulling more than 300 articles from its China Quarterly website in China at the request of the government there. It then reversed itself, declining to pull the articles, which covered topics like the 1989 Tiananmen uprising and analysis of Communist Party leaders. Soon after, however, other major academic publishers revealed they had acquiesced to censorship requests from Beijing.” 

As an academic, I believe in academic freedom as long as the academic freedom is used to further the public interest. But even academic freedom, like all kinds of freedoms, must have limits. The only limits for academic freedom, in my mind, must be basic human decency, and nothing else.  

As far as I understand, all academic papers that are well researched, and that are written to find the truth, and to further the common interests of mankind, namely peace, prosperity, happiness, and sustainable development, should not be censored. Research that is biased by prejudice, not based on facts, promotes divisiveness instead of reasoned dialogues, should not be published. This is not censorship, but just human decency. 

I am also aware that the CPC is concerned about maintaining its rule, and does censor writings that challenge the CPC-led political system. I am also aware that while Hong Kong, under the “one country, two systems”, has tolerated challenges to this system before, under the National Security Law for Hong Kong, it will no longer tolerate articles that challenge this system nor those that advocate for separatism from any part of China. According to my understanding, advocacy for separatism cannot be scholarly or academic research. Advocacy for separatism is taking a political position. How can taking a political position be scholarly research? 

China certainly should welcome criticisms of policies based on sound reasoning and evidence. These should never be censored because they serve the public interest

As far as I know, the CPC is aware of its limitations. That is why it is incessantly seeking people’s view on policies. Actually, there was recently a large-scale online consultation ahead of the 20th Party Congress. The platforms were open from April 15 to May 16, and a total of 8.54 million submissions were received by the end of the consultation.  

Long before this, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China had opened a platform for reporting wrongdoing by government officials or party members with real names. Although some incidents of wrongdoers’ reprisals had been reported, the system had been progressively improved and has now gained the trust of more and more people. After all, wrongdoers exist in every system. There is no paradise in the world of governance. All systems need to keep improving governance. In this regard, the evidence shows that the CPC-led system has clear advantages over the Western-style multiparty system.  

The problem with the Western-style multiparty system is that the contending parties tend to emphasize short-term party interests more than the collective interest of the country. In the case of the United States, in actuality there are just two parties, because none of the parties other than the Republic Party and the Democratic Party stand any chance in getting into power. Even though there are just two parties, we are seeing huge inefficiency and waste, and gross failure to address fundamental domestic issues. The 2005 Katrina disaster is a case in point. One commentary says: “today’s federal government isn’t smaller but ever-growing. Its priorities, however, both parties have woefully distorted. Increasingly, Washington neglects key projects (like shoring up the New Orleans levees) in order to shower money on often-superfluous projects that local congressmen favor — ranging from wildlife refuges to tennis courts in rich communities to arts and folk festivals to a long list of other inessential initiatives. This pork-barrel waste, not smaller government, is what victimized New Orleans.” Notwithstanding the technological prowess of the US, its infrastructure is in shambles, and not a mile of high-speed rail has been constructed. The US’ healthcare problem, housing problem and declining life expectancy testify that the country’s governance is failing. The overriding concern now, for both parties, is just to contain China’s rise, because only when the public has an external foe will it not complain about failures at home. 

 China’s CPC-led system, on the other hand, has worked really well. Not only has China protected its population from the COVID-19 pandemic and continued to enable Chinese life expectancy to keep rising, it has also remarkable achievements across many dimensions, including infrastructure, economic performance, technological advances, education, healthcare, poverty eradication, social safety net, ecological and cultural preservation.   

 The CPC-led system does not mean that autocrats keep holding onto power and serving their own interests. That is power abuse and is strictly forbidden under Chinese law. We have had peaceful transition of the leaderships that are picked according to merit. This is why China views challenging the political system on the mainland as sabotage. But China certainly should welcome criticisms of policies based on sound reasoning and evidence. These should never be censored because they serve the public interest.

The author is director of Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.