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Anonymity in Question: Reflections on Self-Censorship

Friday, Feb 6, 2015
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In a recent article, Perry Link explained how several of his colleagues censor themselves for fear of being blacklisted in China, as he himself was. This shows how the intimidation policy applied by the Chinese authorities can impact the work of some scholars.  The question of the self-censorship of scholars working on China or in related fields (Tibetan, Uighur, Mongol for instance) is becoming a worrisome phenomenon that requires that we define what our attitude should be when faced with such a pressure.

In France, for example, several Tibetologists have started a blog on the website of the online newspaper Rue89 in order to bring news and articles from and on Tibet to a wider audience. While one will indeed rejoice at such initiative, the declaration of the authors of the blog that, “in view of the political situation in Tibet, to which we hope to continue to have access, we have preferred to remain anonymous” cannot but raise serious concern.

In Tibet—I refer here to the Tibet Autonomous Region and the eastern and northeastern Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo which are included in the neighboring Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan, Tibetans risk years in jail for things they write or information they pass abroad. Thus sometimes they do these things under pseudonyms; but sometimes too under their real names. This is the case with Go Sherab Gyatso, a monk from Kirti monastery in North-Eastern Tibet. On a Tibetan blog in June, 2013, he published a letter expressing his opposition to the new laws that regulate writings and publications inside his monastery, a letter he ended with these words: “Unlike anonymous letters that create rumours, I have written this piece with integrity and openness. I have and will always take responsibility for my writing.” One has to admire the courage of Tibetans such as him while understanding the choice of others to remain anonymous.

But for us, Western scholars who enjoy freedom of expression, what is the point of concealing one’s identity? We work indeed in Tibet, a country Beijing has controlled militarily since the 1950s. Does the translation of Tibetan articles—already published on line—which do not conform to the Chinese government’s line on Tibet, make it acceptable for us to fear the Chinese state as if we were its own citizens? To accept that the Chinese authorities can dictate our own conduct, that they can control even our expression, down to our signatures at the bottom of a translation, does this not confirm the efficacy—and thus encourage the pursuit—of their repressive policies? Tibetans, like other non-Han populations and Chinese dissidents, suffer from the arbitrariness and the violence of the regime. But we, who benefit from the rule of law where we live and work, are not required to submit to them; we do not risk being thrown in jail, or even more losing our lives. Aren’t we disengaging from our responsibilities towards the victims of this regime and from our independence as researchers when we choose to look away and to comply with whatever condition might please Beijing so that in return we might get visas, authorizations, invitations, and the possibilities for collaborative work or funding that might  facilitate our careers?

There are cases in which anonymity is justified, for example when the nature of information brought to the attention of the public might put informants at risk. But these should remain the exception.

Self-censorship is as dangerous as formal censorship. If the latter is an instrument of repression, the former represents obedience to such an instrument. As emphasized by Perry Link, the Chinese Communist Party has always favored control that is of a psychological nature, essentially based on self-censorship. Since the launch of the policy of opening up, self-censorship affects not only Chinese citizens but journalists, foreign businessmen and researchers too, as evidenced by the choice made by the creators of this blog. By submitting themselves to the diktat of the Chinese authorities, researchers will only strengthen Beijing’s sense of undisputed control, encourage its policy of repression and blackmail and lose the independence to which they lay claim.

“People of France, what have you done to your values?” quite rightly asked the Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu, author of  L’empire des ténèbres (The Empire of Darkness, 2011 ed. Bourin Fr) in Le Monde on 18 May 2013. It is a question that all of us should ask ourselves because what is at stakes is not just our attitude towards China but also the state of democracy in the world, now and in the future.

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