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Censorship education

In Spain, a university professor warns of growing Chinese pressure on academia

Professor Shiany Pérez-Cheng Kenneth Hu

Censorship education
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Last October, the Taiwan studies faculty at the University of Salamanca in northwest Spain planned a “Taiwan Cultural Days” event with a speech from Simon Ko, the Taiwan representative to Spain; a martial arts demonstration; an introduction to Taiwanese music and dance; and a sampling of popular Taiwanese snacks.

Yet three days after Ko’s speech to kick off the event on Oct. 19, the university’s president and the dean of the School of Social Sciences received an urgent email from the Chinese Embassy in Spain demanding the school cancel the rest of the event or else face repercussions. Unprepared for such pushback, school administrators sent out a vague announcement canceling the event and deleted any mention of Taiwan Cultural Days from its website and social media accounts.

The cancellation came as a blow to Shiany Pérez-Cheng, who had spent months planning the event. Pérez-Cheng is the only lecturer of Taiwan studies in Spain and believes Chinese pressure is making it more and more difficult to express viewpoints about Taiwan outside of China’s official narrative. Pérez-Cheng began questioning herself after the event’s cancellation: “What is my professional future in Spanish academia if I’m not allowed to express myself? What is the future of Spanish academia in East Asian studies?”

The Chinese government is beginning to use its financial clout to police universities outside its borders on how to discuss sensitive topics such as Taiwan (over which China claims sovereignty), Tibet, and human rights. Last year Chinese consulates or Beijing-backed student groups have protested the University of California, San Diego’s invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak at its graduation ceremony, a debate with human rights activist Anastasia Lin at the U.K.’s Durham University, and a University of Newcastle professor in Australia who listed Taiwan as a country in a slide presentation. Spain, China’s closest ally in Europe, caves easily to China’s demands, and Pérez-Cheng fears that leaves little room for academic freedom on topics like Taiwan in Spanish universities.

SPAIN HAS ALWAYS PRIORITIZED economic over political considerations in its relations with China, hoping to gain from its meteoric rise. China, on the other hand, has used its relationship with Spain to try to garner political support in the European Union (EU) and to gain access to countries in Latin America.

After the Chinese People’s Liberation Army opened fire on student protesters during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the EU embargoed the sale of weapons to China. But unlike other EU members, Spain continued its joint economic commission with China, and in 1995 King Juan Carlos I became the first European head of state to visit China after Tiananmen. Since then, the good relations have continued, with Chinese officials calling Spain “the best friend of China in Europe.”

Spain lived up to that name by pushing to lift the arms embargo on China during its rotating EU presidency in 2010. The effort did not succeed, since it required a unanimous vote and countries like Germany and the United Kingdom opposed lifting the embargo. The United States also criticized the proposal, as it would have disrupted the military balance in Asia and hurt Taiwan.

In 2013, Spanish courts issued international arrest warrants for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and four other Chinese Communist Party leaders for human rights abuses against Tibetans. Yet under Chinese pressure, the Spanish government quickly reformed universal jurisdiction to apply only when the defendant is a Spanish citizen or resides in Spain. Spanish judges had formerly used universal jurisdiction to order the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. “Spain has lost one of its soft power assets for foreign affairs and within our own society, a humans rights protection,” Pérez-Cheng said. “It seems like Chinese pressure is making Western society look more like what the CCP wants.”

Spain also supports the “One China Principle,” which states that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China that will one day be reunified with the mainland. The United States, on the other hand, follows the “One China Policy” that does not back China’s position on Taiwan yet formally recognizes Beijing rather than Taipei. Pérez-Cheng believes many Spanish lawmakers and academics accept China’s narrative because they equate Taiwan with independence movements in Spain, such as those in Catalonia or Basque Country.

Yet comparing Taiwan to Catalonia is like comparing apples to oranges: Catalonia is indisputably part of Spain and while it has some autonomy, it still exists within Spain’s political framework. Catalonians pay taxes to Madrid and claim the legal status of Spanish citizens. Taiwan, though, has a government, army, currency, and passport system separate from China. The Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese have ruled it. The complications of its status arise because the 1952 San Francisco Treaty after World War II renounced Japan’s claim over Taiwan without denoting who would have sovereignty over it. The earlier Cairo Declaration in 1943 stated it would go to the Republic of China, yet some scholars claim the declaration is not legally binding.

PÉREZ-CHENG, WHOSE MOTHER IS FROM TAIWAN, began teaching the Taiwan studies course to graduate students at the University of Salamanca in 2008. Within academia, she’s felt pushback against her area of study: Once, a well-known international law professor told her “Taiwan doesn’t matter because the future is China.” She noted that many Spanish scholars have swallowed China’s narrative on issues like the South China Sea.

Pérez-Cheng began to feel pressure at her job about four years ago when an East Asian studies coordinator called her into his office to say her class was closed due to low interest. Yet Pérez-Cheng pointed to a school policy that stated each class needed a minimum of three students. That semester, five students had registered for her class, so he allowed the class to continue. This past school year, the pressure came out in the open with the cancellation of the Taiwan Cultural Days.

Each year, East Asian studies faculty puts on events celebrating Japanese, Korean, and Chinese culture. Problems started last year during the Japanese event: A flyer for the event tacked up in the department’s main hall included an image of the Japanese flag. A day later, someone taped a Chinese flag above the Japanese one: Many in China still see Japan as their enemy.

Then during a Q&A session with the Japanese ambassador, one of Pérez-Cheng’s colleagues, a Chinese national, began aggressively arguing that the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands belonged to China. “It’s ours, it’s ours, it’s ours,” he said, leaving the event organizers embarrassed about the outcry, according to Pérez-Cheng.

So when Pérez-Cheng heard the department was canceling the Taiwan Cultural Days, she felt disappointed, but wasn’t surprised. In the Chinese Embassy’s letter to the school, the embassy noted it was “completely dissatisfied and concerned” about the event. It accused the school of incorrectly addressing Simon Ko as Taiwan’s ambassador on promotional material. Ko is technically the Taiwan representative in Spain, as Taiwan does not have formal relations with Spain. The embassy also took umbrage with material left by the Representative Office of Taiwan in Madrid that referred to Taiwan as the “Republic of China.” “These arguments do not fall in line with the Spanish government who has long followed the ‘One China Principle,’” the letter read.

The letter then noted that if the event proceeded as planned, the University of Salamanca would be “used by Taiwanese authorities as a platform for their political propaganda,” which would affect the university’s relationship with the Chinese government. In case the school forgot what was at stake, the embassy noted that China’s Ministry of Education recommended the school, which receives many Chinese visiting scholars and tuition-paying students.

The school decided to cancel the event, sending out a short email that said Taiwan Cultural Days was canceled “due to circumstances not related to the School of Social Sciences.” By pulling the university’s support of the event, Pérez-Cheng could only hold the scheduled events in her classroom with graduate students in the East Asia studies program. The martial arts performers were upset: They had prepared for a large performance along the main avenue on campus.

“They violated our mission statement,” Pérez-Cheng said. “University of Salamanca conducts itself under the principles of freedom and democracy, and respects the freedom of teaching.”

She hopes the school can learn from others that have stood up to Chinese pressure, like Durham University: In 2017, the Chinese Embassy in London warned Durham’s student debate society against inviting human rights activist and model Anastasia Lin to speak at the school, claiming it could damage U.K.-China relations. Lin, who won the Miss World Canada pageant in 2015, was barred from attending Miss World in Sanya, China, because she is a Falun Gong practitioner and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association at Durham University complained inviting Lin was “a violation of the belief and feelings of Chinese students” since she was banned in China and would speak negatively about the country. Yet the debate went on as scheduled. A school spokesperson said the university allows freedom of speech and did not object to Lin taking part in the debate, “although this does not, of course, mean that the university takes any particular view on the debate topic.”

WITH THE CURRENT ATTITUDE TOWARD TAIWAN within Spanish academia, Pérez-Cheng is uncertain of her future. This year she is doing research at the National Taiwan University and working on her Ph.D. thesis. Afterward, she hopes to stay in academia and teach, but doesn’t know if she’ll have a job when she returns. The school is negotiating with the Confucius Institute headquarters, which is managed by the Chinese Communist Party, about starting a Confucius Institute on campus. If it opens, Pérez-Cheng believes the Chinese government would have greater leverage to shut down the Taiwan studies class.

Still, if she’s allowed to continue her class, Pérez-Cheng hopes to invite Ko back to the school to discuss opportunities to study abroad in Taiwan. The upside of having gone through the Taiwan Cultural Days ordeal and the title slip-up is that “we threw out a high-stakes bet when organizing Taiwan Culture Days—we addressed the representative as the ambassador—[so] now we have more space for negotiating; if we had started addressing him as representative and China protested, we couldn’t notch it down,” she said. “The bright side is that we can adapt and make it more ‘politically correct’ [for China].”

Corrections: The Representative Office of Taiwan did not co-plan the Taiwan Cultural Days event. The school official who called professor Shiany Pérez-Cheng into his office was an East Asian studies coordinator. Pérez-Cheng was not present at the Q&A session with the Japanese ambassador. The story has also been updated to correct the description of the nature of China’s relationship with Spain and to correct the description of the circumstance in which a law professor told Pérez-Cheng that “Taiwan doesn’t matter” and the circumstances in which Taiwan Culture Days used the word "ambassador."

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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