Foreign China Specialists and Self-Censorship

By Jerome A. Cohen

Here is an interesting essay by  Jeffrey Wasserstrom – “Why aren’t you banned yet,” a fine example of the complexities most of us puzzle through in trying to remain honest critics. Given my age, reluctance to travel and principal research agenda (my memoirs), I am, as lawyers like to say, an “a fortiori” case of the foreign China specialist who expresses unfettered opinions on the assumption that “it’s now or never”!

I am reminded, however, of the day in Wuhan, about a dozen years ago while taking part in a conference, when that very good Law School’s Party secretary unexpectedly asked me to do an additional speech to the school plus a large group of local lawyers. I said I would if I could choose the topic. The secretary – a dynamic, middle aged woman professor of criminal law whom I did not know well – readily assented, and I chose abolition of “reeducation through labor” (RETL), which I thought was a bold choice that would test my host. Out of deference to the host, whom I did not want to get into trouble, I called for systematic but gradual elimination of RETL rather than its immediate abolition. To my surprise and embarrassment, comments from both the lawyers and students in the audience made it clear that they thought I was being too conservative and that RETL had to go immediately! Of course, although RETL was finally abolished a couple of years ago – at least in name, today’s political climate in Xi Jinping’s China could not be so openly receptive to limiting the arbitrary power of the police to detain, which unfortunately persists.

Wasn’t it TS Eliot who wrote: ”Teach us to care and not to care”? I always wondered what he meant.