Audrey Jiajia Li, a freelance columnist from Guangzhou, recently co-hosted a panel discussion at the International Media Conference in Singapore. While she expected a degree of confrontation from members of the audience, she was surprised that a woman in the audience stood up and began shouting questions at her, without even waiting for acknowledgment from the moderator.
The woman, a university professor from China, asked Ms. Li, “What’s your nationality? Are you Chinese? What university did you study at?” And then the woman told her that she needed to stop being too negative about China, to be objective and to focus on positive things.
Ms. Li answered the woman politely, but was shaken by the encounter, the latest in a series of incidents wherein Chinese nationals overseas have received warnings or even censure for critical things they have said about Beijing.
Back in China, there have also been incidents of students reporting their professors for discussions they deemed disloyal to the state, resulting in these professors losing their jobs. Bloggers have also been under target from the government, with their content censored.
More and more nationals overseas feel like they are being watched, even if they are many kilometers and oceans away from the mainland. Speakers have been confronted by Chinese members in their audience who question them when what they say doesn’t fit into Beijing’s narrative. This has led many citizens abroad to self-censor, out of concern for their safety.
Perhaps the most well-known of these incidents is the graduation address of Yang Shuping, at the commencement at Maryland University in 2017. Ms. Yang expressed how much she enjoyed free speech and clean air, and said that she hoped that her home country would improve in these aspects as well.
Ms Yang’s speech was circulated on Weibo, a Chinese social media site, and she received harsh backlash and criticism from citizens who branded her as a traitor.
Many of the Chinese abroad have now adopted the policy of “never talk about Chinese politics,” fearful of getting into trouble, since they need to seek employment when they get home.
However, there may also be organizational control as well exerted on Chinese students in foreign countries. The New York Times reported that some chapters of the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations are linked to officials of Chinese consular offices.
One professor from the University of California told the newspaper, “The effect of that surveillance is less that certain people are caught and punished and more that virtually all Chinese students know they could be reported and, therefore, watch what they say in public fora.”
And sometimes it is students themselves who tell on others, desiring to defend their nation from others who they deem unpatriotic.
As a result, even in private conversations and dinners, people self-censor, tending to shy away from sensitive topics. China’s deep intolerance of dissent has made the climate both at home and abroad a fearful one for those who desire to criticize Beijing, as freedom of speech has suffered serious setbacks in the recent years.