Banned in China, with Andrew J. Nathan

Aug 15, 2018

What's the "anaconda in the chandelier" in China that looms over foreign scholars, journalists, and Chinese citizens expressing their opinions? Find out in this podcast with political scientist and China scholar Andrew Nathan of Columbia University.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm speaking with Professor Andrew Nathan. He is a professor of political science at Columbia University.

Andy, great to have you back at Carnegie Council.

ANDREW NATHAN: Thank you, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: This talk today, our conversation, is part of an ongoing series that we call the Information Warfare series.

Tell me a little bit of background between you and the country China. My understanding is there was a visa denial issue in 2001. What's the story there?

ANDREW NATHAN: Yes. Actually, that was the third time that I had visa trouble. My friend Perry Link coined a phrase called "the anaconda in the chandelier" to describe how censorship works within China, which is people are never quite sure where the red line is, and they can publish things and say things and try to be safe, and then suddenly they'll get in trouble, they'll get a visit from the police or they'll get in real trouble.

For example, Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, was very active in social media and publishing and so forth for quite many years before he was suddenly arrested, although his arrest had to do with the Nobel Peace Prize and Charter 08, and sentenced to 11 years in prison. So this is Perry's idea of this lingering threat, that the regime may punish you.

When you look at Chinese influence activities outside of China, a lot of that lingering threat has to do with denying visas or not giving visas.

DEVIN STEWART: I see. So people who dissent or criticize.

ANDREW NATHAN: People who do something that the government doesn't like.

DEVIN STEWART: But you never know.

ANDREW NATHAN: You're never quite sure what you can do.

DEVIN STEWART: Can I just ask about that metaphor? I'm thinking of an anaconda in a chandelier. Is the metaphor trying to evoke that this thing could just fall on your head at any moment?

ANDREW NATHAN: Yes, sort of like a Sword of Damocles kind of a thing. It's the idea that it's lingering there unseen and it could drop on you. I don't actually know what anacondas do, but whatever they do, they could do it to you.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds scary.

ANDREW NATHAN: In my case, the third time that I got into that kind of trouble was in 2001 when The Tiananmen Papers was published, which I was the co-editor of with Perry Link. But I knew—this was no mystery to me—that having done that I wouldn't be able to get a visa. That was in 2001, and now it is 2018, and in all of those years I have never been given a visa.

I actually haven't been denied a visa, where they stamp on your application it's denied, and I interpret their not stamping that on my application as an act of courtesy by the consulate people.

DEVIN STEWART: You've tried how many times?

ANDREW NATHAN: I haven't tried too many times because I made up my mind not to be hysterical about this. But over those 17 years or so I have been invited maybe three times by Chinese friends or scholars, people who said that they had gotten permission from whatever local authority, the municipality or some ministry or something, to invite me. They said, "Go ahead and apply." Then I would go to the consulate and fill out the application and give my passport and then I would wait. After the conference was over, or whatever was over, then I would take my passport back. So they just wouldn't act on it. And that has been all this time.

DEVIN STEWART: Were you allowed to actually go to China?

ANDREW NATHAN: No. In other words, the visa has never issued.

DEVIN STEWART: Oh, I see. The conference passed by and you're still waiting.

ANDREW NATHAN: It passes by, and I don't have my visa, and I didn't participate, and I understand that I'm not going to get a visa, and I get my passport back.


ANDREW NATHAN: That was the third episode.

The first time that I couldn't get a visa—this is really a long story—I was at that time married to Roxane Witke, who wrote a book called Comrade Chiang Ch'ing. That was a book about Mao's wife. That book was published in 1977, right after Mao had passed away. At that time, Roxane couldn't get a visa because the Chinese government was very unhappy with her having published this book. They tried to persuade her not to do so. And we were married, so we both didn't get a visa.

Then years went by and we were able to get a tourist visa in the mid-1980s, and from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s I used to visit China. But in 1995 a book was published called The Private Life of Chairman Mao and I wrote the preface to that book. From 1995 to 2001 they wouldn't give a visa. There was an occasion then when one of the organizations that does exchanges invited me to be on a delegation and the Chinese host organization said they couldn't give a visa to me. So the American side canceled the event, which is an appropriate act of principle.


ANDREW NATHAN: But in later years, when somebody said to me, "Would you like to join my delegation?" I always told those people, "I'd be happy to join, but if I'm not given a visa you have to agree to cancel the operation," and then the American side in such cases has usually chosen to not invite me in the first place because they don't want that interruption in their program.


ANDREW NATHAN: My story—and Perry Link, who can't get a visa, and a number of other cases that we could discuss—kind of sends a message to other scholars that their access to China could be cut off. It hasn't really been a serious problem for me, but it can be a very serious problem for a younger scholar or for a scholar whose research work is configured in such a way that they really have to be there to do it.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. Why not a problem for you?

ANDREW NATHAN: Well, in my case I have been teaching 30 or so years Chinese foreign policy and I've written about that, and that's something that you see outside of China; it's outward-directed.


ANDREW NATHAN: Also my work in human rights has given me access to a kind of another Chinese reality, which is the human rights community and the dissident community, and given me a sort of field work outside of China, if you will.

DEVIN STEWART: There are different sources of information.

ANDREW NATHAN: It's a real experiential thing that I have, which includes the experience of being banned.


ANDREW NATHAN: Then, thirdly, I participate in a survey research-based project, called the Asian Barometer Survey. There's a thing where by the nature of it I wouldn't be the interviewer in China. So it's raw data that other people are gathering in China and in 13 other Asian countries. I don't go to any of those countries to do the field work because that would be crazy.


ANDREW NATHAN: So my research has been such that, although it would be good to go to China and I would learn a lot, it hasn't deprived me of the core of my research.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking at the denial of issuing visas to, say, your younger colleagues or even businesspeople or investigative journalists—

ANDREW NATHAN: And journalists, yes, or even the people who are going to be assigned to the office of The New York Times or Bloomberg or others.

DEVIN STEWART: Looking at that, what is the impact? It's maybe hard to assess, but have you noticed something over time?

ANDREW NATHAN: Well, I think it varies by institution and by the reporter. So The New York Times, which famously has suffered a lot of trouble getting visas for their correspondents whom they wanted to assign to China—they do have several bureaus there and they are quite well-staffed, but there have been times when certain people—like Chris Buckley's visa was held up for I don't remember quite how long, but for a very, very long time. The Times has kind of doubled down and said, "We're not—"

And by the way, another factor for The Times has been the blocking of their Chinese-language website. So they have a business model that says that in general they're going to go digital more and more, and that includes a business model of having a very profitable Chinese-language website, and they've built that website, and they've staffed it, and they run it, but access to that website is blocked in China and has been for many, many years.

And so The Times is just doubling down and producing very bold, in some cases, investigative reporting by people, for example, like Michael Forsythe and David Barboza, over the years exposing the wealth empire of people like the former premier Wen Jiabao or the sister of Xi Jinping, and sending really great reporters there. So they doubled down.

DEVIN STEWART: Is that working?


DEVIN STEWART: It's hard to tell, right?

ANDREW NATHAN: I mean it's working to keep their Chinese website and their English website blocked, but it is working to, I think, sort of consolidate the prestige of The Times as fearless.

DEVIN STEWART: What I had in mind is maybe it guards prestige, but also might make it more spectacular or appealing for people in China to figure out a way to access it if they can. It's sensational. You know what I mean?

ANDREW NATHAN: Maybe so. People in China can, if they want to take the trouble, as you know, use virtual private networks (VPNs), but it's a lot of trouble.

A very interesting new book has just come out by a scholar named Margaret Roberts at University of California San Diego, called Censored. She explodes the myth that the Chinese absolutely control everything that's on the Internet in China. She says what they really do instead is to make the stuff that they want to bury harder to get and they sort of bury it, and that there are people who can get that information, but it's too much trouble, and everybody in China is very busy, so few people do it.

So I think in terms of The Times becoming so attractive that a mass market of Chinese will access their website, no, that doesn't happen. It's really the creating of what Roberts calls "friction" in access to that website that really works to suppress traffic to that website.

DEVIN STEWART: So The New York Times' attitude is more like "Well, if you're going to block us, then we'll just kind of go all out."

ANDREW NATHAN: "We're going to double down, yes, we're going to do our thing."


ANDREW NATHAN: But then you can think about a very different example, and this is a story from maybe five years ago—I don't exactly remember—where Bloomberg News had a reporter who's now with The Times, Michael Forsythe, who completed a brilliant story that ultimately came out in The Times on the wealth of the Chinese elite, completed it for Bloomberg, and it was ready to be published. The Bloomberg organization—this was when Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York, so I don't think he was directly involved—but the then-chief editor of it spiked the story, they never published it, and Forsythe left the organization. [Editor's note: Forsythe was suspended by Bloomberg before joining The New York Times for allegedly leaking details of this incident to The New York Times.] The official line by the Bloomberg organization, as I remember it, was something about "the story needs to be further fact-checked" or something.

But it obviously had a lot to do with the business model of Bloomberg, which is different from that of The Times. That is that the Bloomberg organization as a whole makes a lot of its money—I think most of it—from their terminals. They have some vast number of these terminals in China, so they were more exposed to financial pressure from the Chinese side than was The Times.

Your original question was how the Chinese punishing journalists impacts on the coverage that we see. I can give another example without using anybody's name, but just a reporter with whom I spoke recently who was very determined to do investigative reporting and goes around with a camera and shoots surreptitiously. They have now small cameras. She's afraid because she can be noticed, although she's ethnically Chinese, taking pictures and she can be expelled, as has happened, for example, quite some years ago to Melinda Liu, who was reporting for Newsweek. If you're a China reporter and you've worked your way up in the organization and been assigned to China and you go there and you work hard and get expelled, it's not the end of your career as a journalist, but it's a huge disappointment. So she has to be really careful.

You have to also be careful about getting people in trouble whom you would be interviewing—the dissidents, the civil rights lawyers, the religious people in China, that kind of thing. You don't want to get them in trouble.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. Of course you always have to be careful.

ANDREW NATHAN: I do think that the broad effort of China to influence journalism isn't an absolute control over what's reported about China. In the case of The New York Times, it's probably counterproductive and encourages The Times to be even more aggressive. But in general it makes it tougher for the media to get the whole story.

DEVIN STEWART: Other instruments that China uses that you're following to influence global public opinion that you think are relevant?

ANDREW NATHAN: I think one of the areas that we should look at is academia, of course. I mentioned about the visas. I guess when you look at academia, there's a lot of talk about the Confucius Institutes. We could talk a little bit about that.


ANDREW NATHAN: The Confucius Institutes are units that are set up inside of foreign colleges and universities—and sometimes high schools, and then they're called Confucius Classrooms—where the Ministry of Education of China grants some part of the money and the host institution usually puts up some part of the money or the premises and some of the expenses and so forth.

Two of the troubling things about Confucius Institutes are that the contract that the Ministry of Education signs with the Western host institution has two troubling provisions, maybe three. One is that the contract is secret. This contradicts the kind of faculty governance model. I'm not saying that every grant that every university gets is put on the front page of the local newspaper, but all these grants ought to be open to the faculty. But that is not the case.

Secondly, there's a provision in these contracts that says that the Confucius Institute can't do anything that violates Chinese law. The thing about Chinese law is that it contains many vague provisions about how it's illegal to oppose the government and to do things that are damaging to the nation. That provision basically bans talking about Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, human rights, religion, the Dalai Lama.

And then the third thing, which is maybe less troubling, is that the Chinese side usually sends over from China a Chinese co-director for the Confucius Institute. Normally, an American college or university should have complete control over personnel whom it hires. In this case, the Chinese side is sending somebody. Now, I don't think anybody has a kind of systematic overview of all the several hundred—I forget the number—Confucius Institutes that have been established in the United States. In my limited experience, the people that the Chinese government sends over are okay usually, and they're mainly language teachers, and they're okay. But it doesn't look right.

They obviously are sent here temporarily and they're going to go back, so obviously they are not really free—not that they necessarily want to say anything against the government, but if they did they couldn't. So the whole thing is a bit of a Trojan Horse inside of the academy that isn't—depending on each institution, it's not really fully compatible with faculty governance, which is one of the core principles, I think, of academic freedom.

Columbia has one, and Columbia is a wealthy institution with a 100-year-old program of East Asian studies and one of the best Chinese language programs in the United States. So the fact that there's another small unit—I don't even know quite what they do—doesn't really impact Columbia.

But when you look at a small school that doesn't have any Chinese instruction and all of their Chinese instruction is coming from the Confucius Institute, and that Institute doesn't do anything on Taiwan or Tibet and doesn't teach the kind of Chinese characters that are utilized in Taiwan or Hong Kong and doesn't teach that vocabulary and all that thing, it brings a certain kind of bias into—and I'm not naming any particular university because I don't have that direct experience, but I've heard about this from friends at smaller institutions that don't have enough money to really mount their own Chinese language program. So I think if students are learning Mainland China's so-called "simplified" Chinese characters and that vocabulary—they do need to learn that, so that's a good thing, but they should be also learning some other stuff that wouldn't be taught by an institute that's funded by the Mainland China Ministry of Education. So that's a problem.

And then there is on many campuses something called the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). Columbia has one of those, too. It's fine that Chinese students and scholars on an American campus have a club or an association, and some of the stuff that the CSSA does is totally valid—helping people find housing and having a Chinese New Year event and all that. But some of them—and again we don't know all of it—are directly connected to the Chinese consulate or mission nearby.

DEVIN STEWART: Via what, funding?

ANDREW NATHAN: Via funding, via a reporting relationship by the CSSA to that unit. This is not transparent, again, and it's troubling, but because it's not transparent I really don't know what's going on in that relationship. There have been a few stories published—not about Columbia, but Duke University and University of California San Diego, and so on—where the CSSA mobilized Chinese students on a campus in California to protest that the campus had invited the Dalai Lama to speak. At Duke the Chinese students were organized to attack or criticize a Chinese girl who gave a speech that was viewed as critical of the motherland, and stuff like that.

There are not a lot of cases like this that I know of, but it does suggest that Chinese students on some American campuses are feeling surveilled and feeling pressure and that interferes with the spirit of academic freedom again on campuses.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned the perspective of being a professor at Columbia University. I'm curious, does the issue of Chinese grants or funding or support for projects or departments ever come up and cause any controversy or debate on the campus at Columbia?

ANDREW NATHAN: To my knowledge, the university is anxiously seeking money from alumni and entrepreneurs and so forth in China and has had some—I don't know all the inside deal—success in doing so. I'm not aware of a controversy having arisen. I think part of the reason for that is that the university is so big that there are many different units that are doing a lot of different things.

So, for example, in my case I belong to three units: one is the political science department, one is the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, and one is the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. So when I want to appoint a visiting scholar who is a human rights dissident, I normally appoint that person in the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, which is happy to have them, and I don't try to appoint that person in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, partly because I feel that my political position is not necessarily the same as that of everybody in the Weatherhead faculty, and also partly because the Weatherhead years ago for its own reasons adopted a more restrictive policy that they only appoint visiting scholars who have a certain seniority. So it works out like that.

So I can do what I want to do, find a way in the university to do what I want to do, and somebody else can do what they want to do.


ANDREW NATHAN: I'm not aware of anything boiling up to the level of a controversy. Each unit and entrepreneur in the institution is kind of—and, of course, at the upper level, if there is a grant of an endowment or a major project, it will go through a due diligence process at the level of the provost.

DEVIN STEWART: Is the provost university-wide?

ANDREW NATHAN: At the top of the university. So they're going to look at the name that's attached to this. For example, if a professorship is offered—

DEVIN STEWART: Like an endowed professor?

ANDREW NATHAN: For an endowed professorship that carries somebody's name, they're going to look at the name, they're going to look at the source of the money, and do some kind of due diligence.

I've never been in the due diligence process. I'm not sure how rigorous it is. If it's too rigorous, you won't be able to take any money from Andrew Carnegie—here we are in the Carnegie Council. You can't take money from the Rockefellers. Anybody who's rich is a bad person and you can't take their money. So the due diligence can't go too far.


ANDREW NATHAN: But they do have it. So if there are strings—

But on the other hand, for example, the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington recently accepted—I'm not sure if it's an endowment or a grant—for a junior faculty position, assistant or associate professor in the study of something called the Pacific Community, which sounds kind of anodyne. But actually the "Pacific Community" is a phrase coined by Henry Kissinger in his book On China that is supposed to say—not a direct quotation but my interpretation—that Kissinger advocated China is rising and the United States is weakening and we have to rebalance our relationship in Asia. He basically advocates a kind of U.S.-China condominium in Asia.

DEVIN STEWART: Power sharing?

ANDREW NATHAN: Power sharing, yes—let the United States kind of back off a little bit. Now, he doesn't get down into the weeds about what that means.

DEVIN STEWART: It's a reasonable proposition.

ANDREW NATHAN: It's a respectable proposition. But the alternative proposition is we've got to stay strong on Taiwan, stay strong on the South China Sea, build up our alliances with Australia and with Japan, and all that stuff.

This is a grant not given for East Asian security relations but specifically for the study of the Pacific Community, for one side of this debate, at least on the title of it.

DEVIN STEWART: Isn't there a Kissinger Institute at SAIS now, too?

ANDREW NATHAN: I'm not aware of that. There is a thing called the Kissinger Institute that's located in the Woodrow Wilson Center.

DEVIN STEWART: So the implication is that—

ANDREW NATHAN: The point is that I'm not aware of a controversy at Columbia, but I believe that this particular donation at SAIS has created some controversy in the broader China studies community.

DEVIN STEWART: Who's the donor at SAIS?

ANDREW NATHAN: I don't know. Oh yes, I do know, I think. That's an interesting point because the donor, I believe, of that grant, but certainly of quite a bit of other project money, is a foundation run by Tung Chee-hwa. Tung Chee-hwa is the former chief executive of Hong Kong. He's a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. I think it's pretty safe to say that he is a figure of what is known in China as the United Front. In other words, it's an important part of the Chinese Communist Party that exerts influence in various domains inside and outside of China to link up friends for the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

His foundation is called the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF). It has a lot of money because Tung Chee-hwa has a lot of money, although I don't know that all of CUSEF's money is his money. It is very active in the United States and funds various things. I think it is the donor of this SAIS chair.

Now, SAIS's answer is "No, there's no strings attached and we maintain control" and all that. But you asked about controversy, so there is that.


ANDREW NATHAN: It's a bit of a dilemma because if somebody got rich in China, even if they are a private entrepreneur, they must have had the toleration, if not the cooperation, of the Chinese authorities to get rich there. Those are the people who are going to have money to give.

Another interesting example of that is one called the HNA Group. The New York Times has done some very good reporting on HNA. It started out as Hainan Airlines and then it acquired a lot of other enterprises. It became a sprawling enterprise. The ownership is mysterious and how they grew so fast is mysterious. The Times published some investigative reporting that pretty much showed that—and it would have to be—there is a lot of government backing to this. I don't mean money necessarily—maybe money—but just privileging them to grow very fast.

The HNA created a foundation. Nobody quite understands why they put a lot of their assets into a foundation that's registered in New York.

But there's a certain—you asked about controversy. I feel safe in saying there's controversy. I don't know who's right and who's wrong.

DEVIN STEWART: This topic has become very hot in the press. It has an element of intrigue to it—

ANDREW NATHAN: Yes, indeed.

DEVIN STEWART: —and psychological operations and influence and shadow figures and so forth, so I think it makes a good tale for a lot of the public.

But is it getting too much attention? You named a variety of ways that China is trying to maybe shape public opinion. You talked about a few controversies. What should we make of it? Should Americans be more diligent and more trying to explore this stuff, or maybe just calm down a little bit?

ANDREW NATHAN: We should be more diligent. I think it is important, however, to draw the distinction between China versus Russia as those exerting influence and us versus a country like Australia as a target of influence.


ANDREW NATHAN: The Russians, in my interpretation—this is also controversial—my own interpretation is while the Russians are engaged in trying to destabilize democracies—that's what they see as in their security interest, is to kind of wreck the political system of American and European, as they see, antagonists, that the Chinese influence operations so far are much more defensive. That is to say they're trying to block certain what they consider as antagonistic information, negative image and all that kind of thing, and create a more positive image for China, and they don't care too much about what kind of political system the United States has. I don't think they are giving money to American candidates. I don't think that they're engaging in the kind of operations that the 12 Russians were indicted for doing, hacking and stealing information. So there's that difference.

But what the Chinese are doing that the Russians don't do so much is the stealing of technology, of intellectual property, and that's very, very important in the economic sphere because it is going to help them to pass us on the technological frontier and take control of future technologies like artificial intelligence and the fifth generation global Web and things of that kind.

So we need to pay more attention to that and be diligent about our academic freedom. I think that the universities—it's not really at risk now, but if the universities don't exchange information and make sure that their faculty governance and so forth and that their students' academic freedom is protected, it could have a bad impact.

And then again, Australia is a much smaller country, close to China, their economy is more dependent on China, and so forth, so the Chinese influence operations there and in New Zealand are much more highly developed than they are in the United States. They include buying politicians, and even in New Zealand placing into the New Zealand Parliament a guy who apparently is a Chinese intelligence operative. [Editor's note: The member of parliament in question, Yang Jian, denies this claim.]

We seem to have in the U.S. Congress some people who act as if they were Russian agents, but not anybody who's a Chinese agent or who acts like a Chinese agent.

Yeah, so I think diligence, short of hysteria.


ANDREW NATHAN: And if I can add on there, one of the important influence operations of the Chinese here and in Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere is directed at the Chinese-language media and Chinese ethnic populations, where they make the pitch that we are all Chinese and no matter what citizenship you may have taken the motherland is still your motherland.

Here it is very, very important and difficult to avoid a racist reaction on our part without ignoring the fact that China is pursuing influence within that community. So how do you do that?

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have an answer?

ANDREW NATHAN: I don't have an easy answer. But I think one must acknowledge that that community is a target and at the same time not every ethnic Chinese person is doing something wrong. So you have to just sort it out very carefully.

DEVIN STEWART: Andrew Nathan, great to see you.

Andrew Nathan is professor of political science at Columbia University.

I learned a whole lot today, Andy. Thanks so much.

ANDREW NATHAN: Thank you, Devin.

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