🔒 Premium from the FT – Sunday’s TED Talk in China cancelled by authorities as Beijing tightens censorship

By Edward White in Seoul, Stephen Foley in New York amd Gloria Li in Hong Kong for the Financial Times

TED, the US non-profit famous for snappy speeches from visionary leaders, espouses the belief that there is no greater force for changing the world than an idea.

But the group’s days of spreading ideas to China’s 1.4bn people are now in question after it drew the ire of another powerful force: the Chinese Communist party’s security hawks.

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A TEDx event — where independent organisers license the organisation’s brand — planned for this Sunday in Guangzhou has been called off after police in the southern Chinese city said co-ordinators had breached restrictions on foreign non-governmental organisations.

The cancellation made TED — which stands for technology, entertainment and design — the latest high-profile victim of intensifying constraints on speech in China, where the ruling Chinese Communist party has clamped down on informal gatherings that operate outside of its official oversight.

Authorities’ worries have intensified following a series of protests that broke out in cities across the country late last year in response to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s coronavirus regime.

“China is increasingly becoming this national security-obsessed party-state,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project research group and an expert on Chinese censorship, describing tightening of control “from the top, down to the local levels”.

The police intervention sent shockwaves through a grassroots community of Chinese TEDx organisers in China, where speakers have held almost 2,000 events in their hometowns and cities over the past decade. While some are hoping the Guangzhou event proves to be an anomaly, concern is mounting about how similar conferences and speeches will be treated.

Foreign NGO activity in China has been sharply curtailed in recent years following the introduction of a law in 2016 that gave security officials sweeping legal powers over civil society groups, including the authorisation to ban “unwelcome” organisations.

The law came as part of Xi’s drive to exercise more direct personal control over Chinese governance and society, and as authorities applied greater pressure on foreign businesses in the country amid geopolitical tensions with the west.

Several local TED organisers, who asked not to be named, said the Guangzhou officials’ main concern was not with foreign NGOs themselves, but with the potential risk to local government agencies and officials if “sensitive” topics were covered at the event.

Talks planned for the Guangzhou event ranged from urban sustainability and recycling to music and bullying.

TED did not answer questions about China, but told the Financial Times it “provides a free licence to volunteers looking to host a TEDx, but is not involved in the curation or production of these locally organised events”.

In a statement, the local volunteer organisers of the Guangzhou event said they were working to respond to the police complaint, but maintained that they did not fall under the jurisdiction of the foreign NGO law.

“They view the TEDxGuangzhou event as a foreign non-governmental organisation carrying out activities . . . we have never encountered such problems before, but they have made this judgment regardless,” they said.

TED appeared to be in a legal grey zone because it had no official presence in China, experts said. According to one organiser of TEDx events in the country, staff at the group’s headquarters in New York have been working to find legal recourse, amid concerns that the Guangzhou cancellation might be replicated elsewhere in China.

The person added that while they were not aware of organisers having previously had issues with authorities, they had been careful to avoid attracting attention, refraining from discussing the Chinese government or criticising its policies. Speeches were carefully vetted by local organisers before they were delivered, the person said.

“We know where the red line is,” they added. “We had a proposal for a speech that was supportive of Ukraine. That was shut down before the application process. We thought, ‘This is not China’s stance, this not going to happen.’ ”

Another person familiar with TED’s global operations said the talks, which often cover tech, health and education, were not meant to be political or religious, pointing out that events had been held in countries including Iran and Saudi Arabia. Popular TED talks in China in recent years have covered topics such as women’s experiences battling the glass ceiling in the workplace and the art of pig breeding.

The person added that since TED did not have operations on the ground in China, it should not be affected by any enforcement of the NGO law.

Bandurski noted that the TEDx event’s cancellation followed a series of incidents of Chinese authorities taking drastic action to clamp down on perceived challenges, including issuing millions of dollars in fines after a Beijing comedian joked about a military slogan on stage in May. But he stopped short of calling it a “crackdown”.

The party “want to make sure it’s all tied up, they want to make sure that it’s all properly controlled”, Bandurski said. “When you are paranoid, you can overreact.”

Angeli Datt, China research and advocacy lead at PEN America, the free speech group, said the pressure on TED sent a “chilling message” about the need to self-censor and the danger of perceived foreign influences in China.

“You don’t know what might get you punished,” she said.

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