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October 11, 2000:

Censorship comes with the territory
C.P. Chou takes restrictions in stride

Last spring the national and international press reported that C.P. Chou, professor of East Asian studies and director of the Princeton in Beijing program, had been told to modify a textbook used in the program because a Chinese academic attacked it as presenting China in an unflattering light. If Chou did not delete certain passages, his contract with Beijing Normal University, the host for the program, would not be renewed.

Chou told The New York Times last May that "the changes they wanted were extensive and not negotiable. It was basically a threat."

When PAW reported the story, in a brief item in the July 5 issue, some alumni became angry about what they saw as a violation of academic freedom, and they wrote letters, two of which appeared in PAW's September 13 issue. The letterwriters charged that if the price of continuing a program in China was censorship, it was too high.

C.P. Chou, meanwhile, finished his spring semester work, flew to China with new course material, and had what he describes as an unusually successful summer.

"We've been treated very nicely this past summer," Chou said. "More unusually so." In fact, he added, "Li Guiling, the director of the National Office of Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, invited me to a dinner and tried to explain what is happening. She explained that the article attacking our materials was entirely done by the teacher herself, which does not represent any official standing."

It wasn't the government that asked Chou to change the textbook, but officials at Beijing Normal University, although it is unclear who asked them to make sure the changes were made.

"I guess the principle behind BNU's rules about adapting teaching materials is this: We shall not - it's nothing in writing, it's just kind of an unwritten understanding for everybody - select any critical comments toward the established authority, especially in a political way. That's okay with me. And then we're not supposed to have a different opinion about certain issues. Like Taiwan's independence. That's not negotiable. That's unification. Taiwan is part of China. And Tibet. And if we try to select any human rights issues, such as religious freedom. Things like that would not be allowed."

One thing that puzzled Chou about the censorship is that the book was in use for seven years, and all 14 of the articles in the book had been previously published in the People's Daily, the official Chinese newspaper.

"The articles I selected were I think from 1991-92, and they were from a series of articles that were introducing the USA to the Chinese people. Every single one of them was highly critical towards the USA. Like say the abuse of child labor laws at McDonald's, or taking guns to the schools, violence, and drugs."

The attack on Chou came in an article titled "The Infiltration of American Ideology Through Language, Through the Material of Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language."

Chou was unprepared for this attack, especially since the book had been around for years. "To my surprise that teacher who wrote that article attacking me, said I had a very unique motivation behind all these articles, which was to try to create a hostile attitude between the two people, " Chou said.

But this wasn't the first time that particular textbook had been censored. When Chou first offered the materials for review in 1992, he said, officials deleted the preface, the epilogue, and did not allow a cartoon and some of the original articles. "The pages were all torn out," Chou said. "The books we took in were mutilated."

Chou, despite the recent fracas, feels he enjoys more freedom as a result of the dispute.

"After this summer, I think we actually enjoy more freedom. They were very surprised that such a little issue - a textbook issue for such a little program in such a huge China - could actually cause such a big discussion overseas, especially in the U.S. I think BNU felt it was something quite embarrassing to them. They did not like the publicity."

Chou tries to put the difference of opinion in perspective.

"I'll try to explain for them. From their point of view: 'We're having this program on our campus, so we have every right to approve or disapprove what you're going to teach.' That's how they feel. That probably sounds totally not right from the USA point of view. But China feels they have every right to do that. It's a different way of looking at it. Whether there is a universal standard or not I cannot say."

The new textbook that Chou put together for this year has two sections. The first is a dialogue Chou wrote. The second reproduces selections from the newspaper. "I feel that I can use pretty much what I want," Chou says, although he did not select any articles that contained the aforementioned taboo subjects. Had he, the textbooks would not have been allowed on campus, Chou said.

Does that bother him?

"I wouldn't say that it doesn't bother me," Chou said. The students would enjoy articles with controversial topics, he added.

"My point of view is that it is pedagogical. I always try to argue this. What I want to do is to have some interesting articles for our students to read. I have no intention whatsoever of starting a social reform movement. Please, these are American students. We are not going to poison Chinese students. So we just want them to open their mouths and use Chinese to speak. You have to have something controversial so they are motivated."

Teaching teachers as well as students

The Princeton in Beijing program not only teaches college students the Chinese language - more than 1000 so far (300 have been from Princeton) - but it also teaches Chinese graduate students how to teach Chinese.

Chou reported there were 51 teachers in the program this year, with eight from America and one from Taiwan. The rest were graduate students from major universities in China.

"Most of them are majoring in teaching Chinese as a foreign language," Chou said. "They would like to learn some new techniques and also pedagogical methods from us."

Chou is pleased with the way the summer went, and said there are no new limitations.

"There are no further restrictions, and they actually became more accommodating as I said. The director of the National Office of Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language confirmed again and again what is called the reformed and open policy, which is not going to change," Chou said. "China will continue to open up and not to close down."

By Lolly O'Brien