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China's Intimidation Tactics


Asian Wall Street Journal, Sunday, 15 July, 2001

Many no doubt will hail the conviction and imminent deportation of U.S. academic Li Shaomin as the beginning of the end to an unpleasant chapter in China's relations with the outside world. Now that he will soon be free, and the four other ethnically Chinese detained foreign scholars will likely follow, the temptation will be to forget about the whole episode. But that is not only impossible; any attempt to do so would be unwise. The arrest of Mr. Li and his colleagues must be recognized as part of a larger plan to silence dissent within and outside of China.

Li Shao min

We know from many first-hand accounts that being detained by the Chinese Ministry of State Security is a mind-bending experience. The interrogators' tactics are designed to make the detainee feel guilty for bringing this horrible experience on himself. First off, the agents claim to know all about his guilt, but say it is up to him to explain. All you have to do is make a full confession and write a self-criticism, they suggest, and we can all go back to being friends. In other words, insistence on innocence is a senseless obstacle to better treatment that benefits no one. Yet once that insistence is worn down, a sense of guilt can work its way into the psyche more easily.

The experience is even more surreal when the detainee is an overseas Chinese. He's likely to be released eventually, but often just before release the agents will appeal to his sense of patriotism. In a jovial atmosphere, perhaps at a good-bye banquet, they ask him not to talk about the experience once he is free. After all we don't want to bring shame on China, do we? Everything is twisted around, just as George Orwell wrote: Love is hate, lies are truth, innocence is guilt.

All these techniques are used to induce a sense of guilt in the detainee that he refused to go along with the twisted system that so many of his peers simply accept. He may regret doing whatever little thing it was that brought him to the attention of the authorities, if only because of the trauma the detention caused to his family. There are always bonds to friends and family that the authorities can exploit to subtly keep dissenters in line. The implicit threat is that more emotional pain can be inflicted on them in future if one steps out of line.

This system is very effective in many cases in silencing dissenters. But it is even more effective in silencing others who are thinking of dissenting but haven't come to the attention of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). This was the point of publicizing a sham trial against Mr. Li, complete with a sham confession. It is a message to other Chinese scholars inside and outside of China. Not only does the MSS have the power to arrest and torture you, it can compromise you in the eyes of your colleagues and peers.

Not only must Mr. Li now struggle to reconcile the confused emotions of guilt and shame caused by his long ordeal, he must do so under the sudden glare of the media spotlight. If he had merely been tortured in order to frighten others, then colleagues, friends and such would rally to his support. But because the Chinese authorities have deliberately kept the details of his case shrouded in mystery, many may now be be hesitant to associate with him. Indeed his home institution, City University in Hong Kong, already seems to have mixed feelings about his possible return - it is considering docking his vacation allowance to make up for the time he spent in prison.

This lack of solidarity, in fact a subtle form of ostracization, raises the stakes so high that few academics who depend for their livelihood on access to China and the institutions which specialize in China studies would dare to risk the attentions of the MSS. The Chinese government has put out the story that it cracked a ring of Taiwanese spies. Might those who defend Mr. Li or associate with him also come under suspicion? Since everything is vague, why not stay as far as possible from the danger areas just to be safe? This becomes a very convenient self-perpetuating censorship machine that requires only periodic maintenance from the MSS.

The arrest of Mr. Li and the four other foreign-based Chinese scholars had a significant chilling effect on other academics. The U.S. State Department issued a public announcement warning that "travel to Taiwan or involvement with Taiwan media organizations has apparently also been regarded as the equivalent of espionage by MSS," and so people who have had such contact should re-evaluate plans to travel to China. There is anecdotal evidence that some academics have since cancelled trips to the mainland. The arrests clearly influenced the mainland writer He Qinglian, who decided to flee the country after it became clear that security agents were scrutinizing her foreign contacts.

How can academics combat this scheme which undermines their own integrity? First of all by sticking together. More than 400 China scholars signed a petition calling for the release of Mr. Li and the others, and more than 100 professors in Hong Kong issued a similar appeal to Chinese President Jiang Zemin when he was visiting the territory recently. By maintaining their solidarity, they lessen the ostracizing effect on Mr. Li and make it more difficult for Beijing to exact retribution against any one signer.

For this same reason, it's important that Mr. Li receive a fitting welcome back to freedom when he is released. He should be reassured that he in no way bears any guilt for what happened to him, and that his colleagues rightly lay the blame for this ordeal at the feet of the MSS. Furthermore, if the administrators of City University decide to support China's efforts to silence their own scholars, they should be condemned for failing to uphold the ideals of the university as a center for the free exploration of ideas.