TT: You can’t enter China now and that’s something other academics face, that if you write something that the Chinese government doesn’t like, you risk being blacklisted. Has that influenced what academics abroad say and write about China publicly?
PL: Yes, it does influence what they say, there is no question about that. They either scale back criticisms or coach things in certain ways that otherwise they wouldn’t. For example, here we are in Taiwan, the phrase taidu (台獨, “Taiwan independence”), is radioactive in Beijing. You aren’t even supposed to utter those words, Taiwan independence. So even American academics when discussing cross-strait relations, or the so-called Taiwan problem, will find euphemisms, so that those radioactive words don’t get thrust in front of the Chinese government.
There is a large range on this question. Some are more cautious than they need to be and others are cautious for understandable reasons, especially young scholars who need to worry about access to China in order to do fieldwork. If they go on a blacklist and can’t go to China, then their PhD dissertation might not be as good as it otherwise could be and they might not get a job.
I get asked maybe two or three times a month, in one way or another, by young scholars “What do I need to do or not to do in order to avoid getting on a blacklist?” Usually these people are censoring themselves more than they have to. I think they are too afraid. That said, they do have a legitimate reason to be afraid if they do get on a blacklist. I’m old enough and I’m tenured and so forth. It doesn’t matter to my career. It does matter to their career and it could be a disaster. They censor themselves for legitimate reasons. Older scholars have tenure and security, and they don’t have that. I think it’s a little bit shameful for older scholars to censor themselves when they do have tenure.
TT: Has being blacklisted had an affect on your work? Do you feel more freedom?
PL: Yes, I do. I feel more freedom than I otherwise would, especially at my age. I am 68 years old and for me being on a blacklist and being my age, there is no reason at all not to say things exactly as I see them, including stuff I said to you on the phone today. If I were a 28-year-old looking to find a job as an assistant professor, it would look different to me, I think. But it does make me feel free to just say whatever I want, because it can’t have a catastrophic effect on my work.
But your question has a subtler level: does it affect my work? Of course it affects my work in some way because I study modern Chinese language and literature. On the trips I took to China back when I could go, I learned a lot firsthand. I would have examples of the way people speak on the street. I have a book coming out later this year called An Anatomy of Chinese that analyzes ordinary, daily-life Chinese language from several points of view. A lot of my examples are taken from things I heard on the street and in daily life when I lived in China. I can’t do that anymore and of course that’s the cost.
Yes, it’s at a cost, but no cost that I begrudge. If you were to ask me if I regret doing the things I have done to get on the blacklist, would I prefer to censor myself and be able to go back to China, no way. I feel very comfortable with where I am and what has happened.