As reported by Newsroom, the Auckland University of Technology, where I teach constitutional law, prevented an event commemorating the Tiananmen massacre from being held on its campus. Despite AUT’s denials, there is good reason to think that this happened as a result of a suggestion, or indeed pressure, from the Chinese government’s diplomatic representatives. This is an ominous sign for the future of the freedom of inquiry and of expression at New Zealand’s universities.
It’s a terrible sign.
AUT says that the Tiananmen commemoration had not been booked through the appropriate channels, and that in any case no event could possibly be held on campus on a holiday, as this one was supposed to be. It has been insisting, both to Newsroom and in what appear to be canned responses to me and others on Twitter, that the booking contretemps is the only reason why the event had to be cancelled.
This is not easily believable. For one thing, it would be a remarkable coincidence for the booking problem to be discovered and addressed just as the Chinese diplomats were bearing down on AUT’s Vice Chancellor. For another, it seems unlikely that such a mundane issue, and one with a supposedly straightforward resolution, would have prompted the frantic email exchanges among a number of highly-placed university apparatchiks, which Newsroom has published. One rather worries that, in abetting the Chinese Communist Party’s lies about history, AUT is taking its own liberties with the truth.
It is as believable as Massey claiming they cancelled Don Brash’s speech purely over security concerns.
“The university”, the diplomats were assured, “has no wish to deliberately offend the government and the people of China”.
Why is this disturbing? Shouldn’t we, indeed, refrain from offending people and, in more pragmatic terms, biting the hand that feeds us? (Newsroom points out that close to 10 percent of AUT’s revenues come from Chinese students.) Of course, one should never set out to offend people. But one must sometimes do things that will offend, because they are the right things to do. One must sometimes risk acting on principle, rather than pragmatically, because the principle is the right one. The principles of free inquiry, free communication of ideas, and free debate are the right principles for a university to act on, and if acting on them offends some people, the university must still stand firm.
AUT should apologise to the people whose attempt to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre it sought to stifle. It should invite them back (which it really ought to have done all along, if all that happened was a scheduling and booking issue). It should give assurances to its staff and students that we will not be subject to censorship at the behest of our funders, whoever they may be. And it should, at the same time, give an assurance to all those who are thinking of imitating the Chinese government―because really, why would it be the only one to try stifling discussions it disapproves of?―that no such attempt will succeed again.
An apology would be nice but I wouldn’t hold my breath.