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Scholar's dismissal raises issue of academic freedom

Some American China specialists are concerned that Stanford University may have encouraged China to believe it can manipulate the writings of US scholars who have done research there.

At issue are important professional and ethical questions about the value of field research in China and in other authoritarian nations as well. There is some concern that the desire of researchers not to offend the host government may compromise academic freedom by channelling the topics and conclusions of American researchers in a direction favorable to the Chinese government.

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Such questions have come to the fore directly and indirectly after Stanford University's Anthropology Department in late February expelled Steven Mosher from its doctoral program. Mr. Mosher was a controversial graduate student whom Peking authorities had urged Stanford to ''deal with severely.''

The department followed the recommendation of a three-member investigating committee when it unanimously chose expulsion over other options: endorsing Mr. Mosher; doing nothing; or censuring him but letting him get his degree. This decision was released with no detailed explanation, on grounds such explanation might threaten the safety of third parties. But earlier statements said Mr. Mosher had been accused of unprofessional conduct.

In a Monitor interview after his expulsion, Mr. Mosher alleged that Stanford University was more interested in the charges from Peking than in the accuracy of his research conclusions that authorities in southern China have carried out large-scale programs of forced abortions, often late in pregnancy, to meet Peking's goals for reducing the birthrate at the local level.

The Mosher case and the question of scholarly contacts with China are so sensitive that most scholars interviewed asked that their names not be used.

Some American scholars had long taken issue with what they saw as the overly aggressive, freewheeling style of Mr. Mosher, one of the first US anthropologists to do fieldwork in China since the communist revolution.

Mr. Mosher's marriage to a Hong Kong Chinese gave him family connections to the south China village he studied in 1979 and 1980. His approach, including presentation of a complimentary motor van to village officials who assisted him, is, however, generally regarded as having yielded much information.

Informally, Chinese education officials made serious allegations against Mr. Mosher when he was in China. In a Feb. 21, 1982, letter to an investigation committee set up by Stanford University, the Chinese Academy of Social Science formally accused Mr. Mosher of violating several Chinese laws.

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But most serious to the Chinese, several US scholars speculate, was that Mr. Mosher published his findings on abortion and ''insulting'' photographs in a Taiwan newspaper. This made Mr. Mosher appear to the Chinese as a propagandist for Taiwan.

Mr. Mosher, in the Monitor interview, refused any apology for publication of his material in Taiwan, declaring that his information was accurate and scholarly, and that the 20 million people of Taiwan have as much interest in knowing what was happening in mainland China as anyone else.

Several well-placed scholars say Mr. Mosher has almost no public support in the community of US China specialists. They criticize his conduct in China as unnecessarily abrasive and unwise. He is widely seen as ''spoiling it'' for later scholars seeking to work in China.

But others feel the principle of academic freedom is more important than his personal conduct. ''The precedent is very disturbing,'' says a prominent US China specialist, who also concedes that Mr. Mosher undermined the credibility of his findings by first publishing them in a Taiwan newspaper. ''It can only encourage the Chinese to feel they can influence what American scholars write about China.''

As for the charges themselves, this scholar concludes, ''Mosher's findings on forced abortion and birth control are quite consistent with everything we know on the subject.''

A prominent academic outside the China field who has taken up the case is Irving L. Horowitz, editor of Society magazine and a professor of political science and sociology at Rutgers University.

''We are not talking about whether Mr. Mosher is wise or judicious, tactically shrewd, or even nice,'' Professor Horowitz says. ''This man is being dismissed from an academic program on grounds other than his academic writing, and precisely because he reported what he says he saw. That makes this a civil-liberties issue.''

Most China specialists, especially anthropologists, would counter that in field research in a foreign culture, professional competence must also involve questions of style and sensitivity.

But should a willingness to avoid offense interfere with the scholarly commitment to tell the truth? According to several China specialists, many applicants for US grants choose bland, noncontroversial, highly academic research because they know Chinese authorities will likely turn down any other kind. Such researchers sometimes decide in advance not to ask sensitive questions that might produce controversial answers.

When they return to the United States, they sometimes tell colleagues of sensitive material they have uncovered, meanwhile censoring their own writings to avoid ''embarrassing'' China in a way that might bar them from future research there. For young faculty the dilemma is sharper, because in some universities academic advancement is seen to require continuing ''access'' to China.

The Mosher case is often mentioned as one reason Peking in 1981 imposed a still-existing ''moratorium'' on fieldwork by US anthropologists. But many China scholars conclude that the moratorium also reflects growing Chinese caution toward the West. According to a US scholar with good Chinese contacts, the Chinese Academy of Social Science found it extremely burdensome and politically risky to supervise and assist some 15 American anthropologists living in Chinese villages. He adds, ''This is a delicate matter, because Chinese authorities have long thought of anthropology as a 'bourgeois' discipline offering little of value to China.''

Since 1981, Chinese authorities have preferred that Western scholars be attached to Chinese institutes or universities, work ''collegially'' with Chinese colleagues, avoid controversial subjects, and do interview research only during brief field trips to villages. Living independently for weeks in the village under study, as Mr. Mosher did, is not now permitted.

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