Did China Scholars Willfully Ignore Muslim Crackdown?

24 May 2019
Author: Robert Precht

An article by Josh Chin in the Wall Street Journal this week casts an unflattering light on the Chinese studies community in the West. "The German Data Diver Who Exposed China’s Muslim Crackdown" tells the story of an obscure academic who almost single-handedly discovered a massive human rights violation in China's Xinjiang province. The obvious question is how and why others did not catch the crackdown?

"Research by a born-again Christian anthropologist working alone from a cramped desk in this German suburb thrust China and the West into one of their biggest clashes over human rights in decades.

Doggedly hunting down data in obscure corners of the Chinese internet, Adrian Zenz revealed a security buildup in China’s remote Xinjiang region and illuminated the mass detention and policing of Turkic Muslims that followed. His research showed how China spent billions of dollars building internment camps and high-tech surveillance networks in Xinjiang, and recruited police officers to run them."

As the article makes clear, there was nothing remarkable about Zenz's academic career or training that allowed him to make these discoveries. He speaks and writes Mandarin, but he's not a Xinjiang specialist. He knows how to analyze data, but so do hundreds of other political scientists, historians, and sociologists studying China.

"Mr. Zenz, though he has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, is also an outsider. He isn’t a specialist in Xinjiang and only visited once, more than a decade ago. He funds most of his research himself, using income from a side job coding for a German videostreaming startup."

Why did the world have to rely on an outsider to reveal the truth about Xinjiang? 

It's difficult to escape the conclusion that some in the academic community engage in willful blindness. Scholars avoid researching and documenting conditions in Xinjiang because they fear offending Beijing. This conclusion is supported by other evidence that academics are shunning their truth-telling mission.  According to an authoritative report, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses vague threats to induce US professors and students to avoid topics that might offend Chinese government sensitivities—research or discussions on Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, human rights, and Chinese politics, for example. It denies visas to scholars who criticize the regime, uses Chinese students in the US to inform on one another, and punishes universities for hosting controversial speakers.

A recent survey of more than 500 China studies scholars in the US revealed that about 68 percent of the respondents identified self-censorship as a problem in the field. Scholars avoid studying certain topics or adopt the official narrative of the Chinese regime when talking about sensitive issues. 

Not all academics are afraid. Recently, 278 scholars and others signed the Xinjiang Initiative, an open letter calling on the the Chinese government to stop sending Uyghurs to camps. More symptomatic, the Chinese studies community vigorously fought back a proposal to strengthen conflict of interest disclosure rules to conform with those of other professions. After the Zenz story appeared, a group of 1500 China experts was asked why they had not found the data that an outsider had found. Very few people are Xinjiang specialists, they explained, and the Chinese government denies scholars access to the region. Yet Zenz is not a specialist and he did not have access. What he had was a determination to find the truth. 

Legislators, businesspeople and the public rely on unbiased research to help them make informed decisions. If scholars can no longer be relied upon to uncover and tell the truth, who can?