Council offered to censor politically sensitive Chinese new year events

Dublin City Council agreed to change elements following Chinese embassy lobbying

Lion dance performance on Parnell Street, Dublin, as part of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival in 2018. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Lion dance performance on Parnell Street, Dublin, as part of the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival in 2018. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Dublin City Council offered to censor topics politically sensitive to Beijing from its Chinese New Year festival last year, following pressure from the Chinese embassy.

The embassy raised objections with the council over a talk on the Chinese famine of 1959 by a Trinity College Dublin academic.

Following lobbying from the embassy, council staff had the name of the lecture changed to remove a reference to Chairman Mao.

The lecture by Dr Isabella Jackson, assistant professor in Chinese history at TCD, was initially titled The Great Leap Forward: Ambition and Tragedy in Mao’s China. Following requests it was changed to The Best Laid Plans … The Year of the Dog in Modern Chinese History.

Emails between the local authority and Chinese embassy, seen by The Irish Times, show the council committed to remove political content viewed as controversial by the embassy.

An email from the council arts office to embassy officials committed to ask Dr Jackson to “adjust her lecture so that it does not refer to the Great Leap Forward”.

The Great Leap Forward was a plan to rapidly industrialise the Chinese economy, launched in 1958 by Chinese leader Mao Zedong. The policy was a failure, and resulted in a famine that killed millions.

In an email embassy staff questioned why Dr Jackson would “want to talk about a controversial topic that could offend millions of people during the celebrations of their traditional festival”.

‘In harmony’

The email said the lecture would be better received if the theme was in “harmony with the festive atmosphere”.

The festival is funded by the council, the Chinese embassy, and corporate sponsors, and took place from February 16th to March 4th last year.

Despite committing to do so, council staff did not ask Dr Jackson to change the content of her lecture, she said.

Dr Jackson met two officials from the Chinese embassy at their request . “Basically they said they wanted to change the topic of the lecture,” Dr Jackson told The Irish Times.

“It felt like the embassy thought they could behave in Ireland they way they could behave in China, and put pressure on an academic,” she said.

Dr Jackson said she refused to change the topic of the talk, or remove content on the Chinese famine from the lecture, which went ahead in Trinity.

In a statement, the council said embassy officials felt issues around the Great Leap Forward policy were “sensitive for them as a government agency representing China”.

The local authority said it was mindful “artists and participants in all of its programmes can express themselves freely, but also cognisant of the desire of all stakeholders that the Chinese embassy would remain a strong supporter of the festival”.

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy said diplomats “did not mean to put any pressure” on Dr Jackson and had only suggested that the festival “was not a suitable time for her lecture on the planned topic”.