How China Managed to Play Censor at a Conference on U.S. Soil

How China Managed to Play Censor at a Conference on U.S. Soil

The Beijing-backed Confucius Institute offers much-needed money to American universities — but with strings attached.

Taiwan was scrubbed from my biography.

I’d been invited to give a keynote speech and accept an award at Savannah State University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. In a description of my background, I’d listed the self-governing island as one of the places where I’d reported. But in the printed materials for the event, the reference to Taiwan had been removed.

The department had given the award annually since 1975. But in the past few years, finances had dwindled and organizers struggled to find the resources to cover the expenses of bringing in a speaker from out of town.

Enter the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-affiliated organization that teaches Chinese language and culture and sponsors educational exchanges, with more than 500 branches around the globe. The branch at Savannah State, founded four years ago, agreed to sponsor the speech.

On campuses across the United States, funding gaps are leaving departments with little choice but to turn to those groups with the deepest pockets — and China is keen to offer money, especially through its global network of Confucius Institutes. But when academic work touches on issues the Chinese Communist Party dislikes, things can get dicey.

The invitation came in part as a result of my work as the co-founder of an association for journalists who report on China. I knew about the Confucius Institute’s underwriting. Still, I didn’t want to prejudge, so I decided to attend, to focus my speech on China’s terrible human rights record, and to donate the honorarium to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In a banquet hall full of journalism students, I spoke on issues I’d been writing about for years: the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese government repression of Uighurs and Tibetans, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on news outlets and the internet.

I could tell I was making at least one person uncomfortable — the Chinese co-director of the university’s Confucius Institute, Luo Qijuan.

When the event ended, Luo came over to scold me. Speaking in Chinese, she asked why I had criticized China. I should have given students a good impression of China, she said. Didn’t I know that Xi had done so much for the country, that his anti-corruption campaign was working?

“You don’t know the situation now,” she told me. “Things have gotten better.”

The opposite is true, of course. Xi has overseen a sweeping crackdown across Chinese society. During his tenure, the Communist Party has jailed human rights lawyers, constructed a high-tech surveillance regime in the far west, implemented strict internet censorship, tightened media controls, denied Hong Kong the elections it had once promised, and crushed dissent.

As I later learned, it was Luo who insisted that the word “Taiwan” be deleted from my bio before the programs were printed. Luo told university administrators that its inclusion challenged Chinese sovereignty. She threatened to boycott the event if it was not removed.