Suzanne Nossel headshot

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” This week, we spoke with Suzanne about the silencing of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai; how animus toward critical race theory is driving a chilling effect on free speech at the University of Florida; and Disney’s decision to take down an episode of The Simpsons, which mocked Chinese government censorship, from its Hong Kong streaming service. Check out the full episode below.

On the Case of Tennis Star Peng Shuai

“What’s happened to her is reminiscent of so many of the Chinese cases that we work on. People who speak out in ways that are seen as critical of the government, or dissenting from the CCP—China’s Communist Party—line, then face these severe repercussions. In the case of our cases, they’re often arrested, tried, jailed—sometimes for life. . . . At some level, I think people are shocked by this. I feel like I’m not shocked, because I know this happens all the time. The only reason it’s being talked about as an international incident is because she is a high-profile, champion tennis player. So I am, in a perverse way, sort of heartened that people are facing up to the reality of how China handles this sort of thing.

“This challenge, dilemma, faced by the athletic associations is a very interesting one, and you see a stark contrast between the approach taken by the Women’s Tennis Association, which has really been quite forceful and principled, and kind of standing up to the Chinese in a way that’s rare to see these days—really confronting them and being unwilling to back down and accept kind of flimsy assurances about Peng Shuai’s safety. Contrast that with the International Olympic Committee, which has a long history of sort of craven bending in the face of Chinese pressure. . . . They sort of have every interest in making sure that the 2022 Winter Games go off smoothly, and are therefore taking part in this kind of strange theater.

“[They’re] turning a blind eye to what’s obvious, which is that she’s not free to speak out, she’s not free to talk about these allegations, the Chinese polity and public is not able to debate them, and she’s clearly under very severe restrictions and threats—the scope of which we don’t know. And so, it’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out, but it’s sort of heartening to have a principled actor like WTA in the mix.”

On Ongoing Disputes Over Critical Race Theory

“This is exactly what we predicted in our Educational Gag Orders report that we released just a few weeks ago—that there would come to be this kind of danger zone that would begin to mushroom around any mention of controversial questions of race.

“It’s just this very palpable way in which the pressure is being felt at every level, and cascading downward, from top administrators to individual professors who are being put under stress for what it is that they teach, and the views that they espouse. The idea that ‘critical’ can’t be used in a university setting—I mean, what is any sort of analysis, whether its history, political science, sociology, but bringing a kind of critical lens—an examining, probling lens—to historical events, to theory. So it is an alarming example of this chilling ripple effect that we see coursing through society as a result of these legislative bans, and I worry we’ll see more of it.”

On Disney’s Censorship of The Simpsons in Hong Kong

“Hollywood studios have internalized Chinese government redlines, and they know where you can go and where you can’t go, and they avoid that which will set off a tripwire, because they know that if they misstep, they risk losing their access to the lucrative Chinese market. . . . Disney is seeing the writing on the wall, and thinks, ‘Oh, well, if we put these episodes of The Simpsons out in Hong Kong, we could lose access. They may shut off The Simpsons entirely, and then that will impair our revenue stream.’ And so, that’s this sort of disturbing phenomenon whereby Western institutions are kind of quietly acquiescent in Chinese censorship for their own economic reasons. We called it out, and others called it out, and I think it’s extremely important to spotlight this kind of thing, so it doesn’t just become a new normal.”