A poster promoting the cancelled AUT
A poster promoting the cancelled AUT

SocietyAugust 3, 2019

We must speak out on AUT, China and threats to academic freedom

A poster promoting the cancelled AUT
A poster promoting the cancelled AUT

The AUT vice-chancellor denies that a Tiananmen Square commemoration was cancelled at the request of the Chinese embassy, but the emails released are enough to send a severe chill through New Zealand’s universities, writes Jacob Edmond

Auckland has a long and proud history of remembering the victims of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on student protests across China. Unfortunately, as the recent actions of Auckland University of Technology have underscored, the city’s universities have a more mixed record.

It is perhaps not that widely known, but one of the relatively few and earliest permanent memorials to the victims of June 4 stands in central Auckland. The memorial was unveiled on 17 September 1989 on the grounds of St Andrew’s First Presbyterian Church on Alten Rd. The initial plan had been to place the stone within the grounds of the University of Auckland. But when the University of Auckland authorities refused permission, St Andrew’s offered a home, and the stone stands there to this day.

History repeats. On the 30th anniversary of the massacre, one of Auckland’s other major universities followed up with another act of cowardice. As a recent release of emails reveals, following a request from China’s vice consul-general, Xiao Yewen 肖业文, the AUT vice-chancellor, Derek McCormack, cancelled a seminar on his campus that was to commemorate the massacre and to precede a candlelight assembly at St Andrew’s First Presbyterian Church.

Radio New Zealand reported that “Derek McCormack said AUT did not know the event was about the Tiananmen Square protests and it cancelled the booking only because the staff member who made it had not followed the right process.” However, emails released under an Official Information Act request from Newsroom make that quoted statement very hard to believe. The Head of the Office of the Vice Chancellor wrote an email on 31 May asking for a sign to be posted “stating … THE PROPOSED SEMINAR … FOR THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF TIANANMEN SQUARE HAS BEEN CANCELLED.” An email setting up the meeting between the vice consul-general and the vice-chancellor (from Marlene Lu, Manager of AUT’s Office of International Relations and Development) also mentions that the meeting with the vice-consul was about “the 4th June 1989 Incident in Tian’an Square”. These emails show that the vice-chancellor and his office knew exactly what the event was about. It is all the more shocking that in response to Xiao’s request that AUT “help them out and cancel something they objected to,” McCormack responded: “Happily, on this instance, your concerns and ours coincided.”

The memorial stone on the grounds of St Andrew’s First Presbyterian Church, Auckland. Photo: Joanna Forsberg

Earlier this year, I and another colleague at the University of Otago spoke out about the underhand extension of Chinese government censorship to academic institutions around the world. In that case, we highlighted the censoring of several scholarly journals that were co-published by the Dutch academic publishing house Brill and by a Chinese state press.

After we spoke out about the issue, Brill cancelled its co-publication deal with four journals and affirmed its commitment academic freedom. Brill recognised the serious damage done to its reputation when it allowed its name to be associated with Chinese government censorship.

In my view, AUT’s reputation has suffered even greater damage. In the Brill case, the Dutch press’s leadership was apparently unaware of censorship operating within the journals, whereas the leadership of AUT has now publicly admitted to cancelling an event after a request from a Chinese government representative in New Zealand.

Like Brill, AUT and Universities New Zealand need to take strong steps if they are to protect the academic reputation of their institutions and of this country. It is untenable for the academic leader of a major New Zealand university and the current chair of Universities New Zealand to note “happily” that the Chinese government has succeeded in its wish to see an event cancelled and then to have claimed, despite evidence to the contrary, that he did not know what the event was about.

The memorial stone that sits on the grounds of St Andrew’s First Presbyterian Church in Auckland has an epitaph composed by the prominent Chinese poet (and New Zealand citizen) Yang Lian 杨炼, who was living in Auckland at the time of the massacre: “you do not speak, but the stone has a cry” (你们已无言,而石头有了呼声). Or in John Minford’s translation, which appears on the plaque, “This stone stands as witness for those who can no longer speak.”

Yang Lian’s epitaph plays on the similarities between the Chinese words shítóu 石头 (stone) and shétóu 舌头 (tongue). In this way, Yang emphasises language’s ability both to silence and to recover the speech of the dead.

Yang’s words offer us all a lesson: we must continuously fight for freedom of speech, lest it be taken from us and our tongues turned to stone. And equally, those who can must take the opportunity to speak out for those who cannot, for those silenced by censorship or by the barrel of a gun.

Keep going!