China studies scholars reluctant to return to China

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Originally published by University World News on July 3, 2021

Many scholars with decades of China expertise and scholars who conduct fieldwork in China from time to time say they are reluctant to return to China even after coronavirus restrictions are lifted, in part because of a deteriorating geopolitical climate, tightening ideological controls on universities in China, less tolerance for dissenting views, and other concerns for safety.

If borne out, it does not bode well for exchanges, on the ground collaborations, and fieldwork in China when COVID-19 related travel restrictions come to an end and reflects a current deteriorating geopolitical climate, particularly in China-US relations, but also China’s relations with countries in Europe after it sanctioned a number of European scholars in March.

Hong Kong’s National Security Law was also cited as a reason to avoid travel to China for academic purposes. Some fear that not being able to conduct fieldwork could be to the detriment of open and balanced research.

ChinaFile, a US-based online magazine published by the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, reported recently that 40% of its 120 contributors – all China specialists with professional ties to China – were unlikely to visit China due to restrictions on research and human rights concerns which have increased in recent years.

Their main reasons for not going included previous visa rejections, fear that they or the Chinese people they work with would be detained, and restrictions on movement, research or reporting, the report said. Chinese nationals were concerned about their safety in China and that they could be barred from re-entering the United States.

The survey also included journalists, former diplomats and members of civil society groups, many of them senior experts in their field.

“While [the responses] do not constitute a scientific survey, they nevertheless suggest a significant shift in attitudes among a group of prominent figures in the China field,” the report last week said. “Just a year or two ago, most of the people in this pool of respondents would almost certainly have planned to travel to China as part of their professional routines.”

Risk of detention

“Assuming you can get in, the question is whether you can then get out,” said Donald Clarke, professor at the George Washington University Law School in Washington DC and a specialist in Chinese law, referring to the two Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, detained in China since 2018 and indicted in June 2020 under China’s state secrets law.

Their detention, often described as ‘hostage diplomacy’, was widely regarded in the West as arbitrary and as an act of retaliation against the arrest in Canada of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Clarke told ChinaFile: “I think for most China scholars who have said anything critical about the [Chinese] government, the burden – even after appropriate discounting – is still going to be clearly higher than any benefit they might get from a trip.”

People in the field generally love being in China, he said, “but once the risk of detention goes above the trivial, they will be thinking twice about it.”

William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said that with the detention of Kovrig and Spavor, it had become evident that China was “willing to detain foreigners as collateral in its disputes with Western countries”.

Nee described the detention of the two Canadians as a turning point for many China scholars based in the West.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that travel to China can facilitate a more nuanced and subtle understanding of developments in China,” Nee said. “But from the detention of Spavor and Kovrig onwards, I noticed that many people I talked to from NGOs, think tanks and academia expressed reluctance about traveling to the mainland, even if they had frequently done so before.”

Others have said that even if they do not research topics deemed ‘sensitive’ by China, such as Xinjiang or Taiwan, “these days any academic studying China can find themselves at risk of detention for reasons that go far beyond their own research. The most obvious reason for me, personally, is the tension in US-China relations that might make researchers targets for political purposes,” said China historian Maura Cunningham.

She also pointed to Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which put some scholars at risk even when they are not in Hong Kong or China.

“I know my personal risk is low – but it’s not zero. And the potential consequences are more dire than in years past, when it seemed the worst an academic might suffer would be getting denied a visa or, in a few extreme cases, being refused entry and turned back upon arrival in China. Both would be annoying, but not devastating. Now, though, the potential for indefinite detention has completely changed my thinking,” she said.

Not the end of China studies

However, Denis Simon, senior adviser to the president for China affairs at Duke University and former executive vice-chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in China until last year, said the threat to China studies as a discipline was being overstated.

“I don’t see the China [studies] field all of a sudden en masse turning away from China and deciding the game’s over,” he said. “I think there are some people who have a track record that the Chinese government is not particularly enamoured with, and that the Chinese government has taken note of who these people are and they’ve made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to go,” he told University World News.

Simon said 75% of faculty at Duke Kunshan University were permanent employees in China, but 25% come from Duke’s main campus in the US on a short-term basis under an agreement with the Chinese authorities to maintain ‘Duke quality’.

“We tell [scholars] Duke University does not issue visas to China and for that matter the [US] State Department does not issue visas to China; that is done by the Chinese government, so you need to be in good standing with the Chinese government,” Simon said.

“A few people decided not to take up the offer. They weren’t so comfortable that this was going to work for them and so they didn’t come. And those that felt that they can do this have stayed, but up until now the attrition rate is very, very low.”

“I’m not talking about academic quality – that’s all very good. I’m talking about someone who feels that they’re uncomfortable with the political situation and therefore can’t justify it in their mind, staying sane on the job.”

“And, as those people have said, even if they did go, they would be very concerned about who they could talk to, and what they could do. These are probably largely political scientists, with a couple of sociologists in there,” Simon said, noting that the Chinese side “is always extremely cautious and concerned about what’s going on” at the Kunshan campus but did not openly intervene.

But he said: “I think people are drooling at the idea of being able to go back to China – I don’t think that the numbers of people who are being shut out are as large as is being projected.”

“It doesn’t mean we’re happy about those that they shut out. But again, it’s a sovereign country; they can say that they have that right, but they don’t look at it the same way we look at it.”

Re-assessing the situation

Nonetheless, it is clear that China scholars are re-assessing the situation.

Margaret Lewis, professor of law at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, who has openly criticised the Chinese government’s position on sensitive topics including human rights, criminal justice, Xinjiang and Taiwan, said she was “extremely doubtful” she would go to China, “even if given an unexpected green light to do so”.

She said she would continue to seek out opportunities to contact counterparts in China remotely, “but only to the extent that they feel comfortable, because they are far more vulnerable than I [am].”

However, she added that she would support foreign colleagues in the China studies field who decide to visit China.

Rosie Levine, programme officer at the National Committee on US-China Relations, where she works, among other things, on the Public Intellectuals Program, said that despite the risks and challenges, “at least for now, I would continue to travel to China when it is possible to do so, as there is still no substitute for being on the ground”.

“It’s hard to know how to balance fears about personal safety, solidarity for scholars who have been sanctioned, and risks for partners or counterparts in China with the knowledge that the field will suffer greatly if those who work on China are not able to go there to conduct research,” she said.

During an online conversation organised by a US-based China studies group on conducting fieldwork in China, academics and research students said the country was clearly not as open as before and there were major concerns about getting themselves, family members and interview subjects in trouble.

“The costs of fieldwork are no longer just about time and publishing [papers]” but the risks that are being taken by the researchers to themselves and to their subjects, said Diana Fu, associate professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto, Canada, adding that her most recent field trips to China had been very stressful.

Others said it was not always clear where the red lines were.

“We are facing an increasingly hostile climate for researchers, specially foreign researchers from the US,” said Yuhua Wang, associate professor of government at Harvard University, adding that with people in China increasingly reluctant to talk, “it means we are getting really bad quality data.”

Others noted that, in the current climate, what some Chinese people are telling researchers “can be very different from what is really going on”.

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