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Commentary: A 'nutrition facts label' for the Chinese government's thin skin

Commentary: A 'nutrition facts label' for the Chinese government's thin skin


As an uneasy back-to-school season kicks off in the midst of a pandemic, campuses from sea to shining sea may be dealing with another precarious scenario as speech suppression by China spills onto American shores.

A new national security law was recently enacted by Beijing, which criminalizes dissent and claims worldwide jurisdiction — but America’s schools should come together and defend their academic integrity in front of the “China challenge.”

In the wake of uncertainty over how China may choose to enforce this law, some of America’s Ivy League professors are reportedly taking steps to protect their students, especially those from China, from the overreaching national security law that targets Hong Kong but apparently applies to everyone in the world. The measures under consideration include labeling some classes as being possibly sensitive to the Chinese government.

While there is much to admire about the intention of some professors to protect free speech and student safety, their decentralized responses will end up compromising both. What America’s campuses really need is a universal label for all classes as being possibly sensitive to the Chinese government, whether or not they actually are.

Voluntary labeling is plagued with problems. For starters, it would make the job of China’s national security operatives much easier. With over 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States, China would know exactly which classes to look at. The measure could also alienate a large fraction of Chinese students studying in the United States. As COVID-19 drives many schools virtual, for those Chinese students taking classes from their own homes, via China’s censored internet, a much safer bet would be to outright avoid taking classes that are labeled as possibly sensitive.

The most damaging consequence to academic freedom in America is the space it would create for self-censorship. From a teacher’s perspective, voluntary labeling would coalesce the decision of whether to label their class sensitive and the decision of whether to discuss sensitive subjects — and drive their Chinese students away. Inevitably, some teachers may self-censor by not labeling their classes and not talking freely in class. Self-censorship on campuses already exists, and we don’t need more of that.

To better protect America’s academic freedom and student safety, every college and university should tag all its classes as being possibly sensitive, just like a nutrition facts label that says something “may contain” a particular ingredient. Professors are still free to teach what they want, including criticizing or praising the Chinese regime — since it’s their classroom. But the label should be there regardless.

This mandatory labeling system would make targeting much more difficult for China’s national security operatives. And it wouldn’t scare Chinese students away from the so-called sensitive subjects of their interest. Most importantly, it would remove an excuse by some teachers to self-censor in the name of retaining their students and the tuition they pay.

Mandatory labeling is descriptive of reality as the Chinese government’s skin for criticism wears thin. Indulge me with a hypothetical but realistic scenario: Let’s say a professor is teaching Asian literature, and the syllabus covers Chinese writers, one of whom, Mr. Mo Yan, won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. A curious student raises an innocent question: Was he the first Nobel laureate who was a Chinese citizen at the time of the award? The knowledgeable and honest professor answers “no,” because Mr. Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his activism for human rights in China, was also a Chinese citizen. The Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 and won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his activism for Tibet, might still be a Chinese citizen. And, do Taiwanese Nobel laureates count, too? Not everything in a classroom has to become sensitive to the Chinese regime, but everything could.

Granted, even mandatory labeling would result in some degree of disengagement if some Chinese students decide not to come to America. But since the United States remains the Holy Grail of academic pursuit in the world, the decrease in enrollment from China would be minimal. For the Chinese students who do come to study in the United States, it will be a haven for academic freedom, not a rocky shoal to avoid.

Weifeng Zhong is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a core developer of the open-sourced Policy Change Index project.


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