Academics continue China research while targeted by China sanctions

Source:  University World News (6/2/21)
Academics continue China research – while targeted by China sanctions
By Yojana Sharma

After China targeted academics and a research centre in Europe for its first ever sanctions against foreign researchers in March 2021, many feared it would have a wider impact on academic research on China.

But speaking some weeks after the imposition of sanctions on 22 and 26 March, imposed in part due to their work on China’s Xinjiang region, researchers said their work has hardly been impacted by Chinese sanctions as it was already hampered previously by unofficial restrictions and harassment.

However, some feared that sanctions could be widened to more academics as part of much wider geopolitical tensions, affecting China-related research globally. It could also impact on other areas where China sees it has leverage, such as sending international students to universities.

In March China sanctioned Joanne Smith Finley, a reader in Chinese studies at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, for what the Chinese foreign ministry called “maliciously spreading lies and information” about Xinjiang; Björn Jerdén, director of the Swedish National China Centre at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm; and Adrian Zenz, a German expert on Xinjiang who is currently senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in the United States.

Also sanctioned was an entire institution – the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies or MERICS. And singled out for later attack in Chinese state-run media was Mareike Ohlberg, a former researcher at MERICS and now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund think-tank.

“Rather than refute the research with verifiable contrary data, the PRC [People’s Republic of China] imposed sanctions on the researchers, including travel bans, freeze on assets and a ban on cross-border collaborations with Chinese counterparts,” said Julia Schneider of University College Cork in Ireland, in a webinar on 31 May organised with Scholars at Risk, Ireland.

It means that Chinese research institutions that have projects with MERICS or with the individual researchers who have been sanctioned “have to end those collaborations in order to avoid negative consequences”, she added.

The sanctions are “a clear attempt to silence academic discourse and to intimidate any scholars or institutions engaged in research, which does not conform with the approved narrative or ideology of the Chinese party state. As such, the sanctions are a grave threat to academic freedom, not only in China but everywhere”, Schneider said.

China policy is not new

Björn Jerdén in Stockholm, and others, said of sanctions against academics: “It is not something totally new, it follows a pattern.”

China scholars in the West, including in the United States, already experienced different kinds of interference with their research, including unofficial sanctions such as visa denials and open criticism from the Chinese authorities about their work, they said.

Mareike Ohlberg of the German Marshall Fund described the Chinese move as an escalation of a policy that’s been ongoing for decades and is “continually getting worse”, noting that her first PhD supervisor had been permanently banned from China since the 1990s.

She feared that the latest sanctions were an indication that restrictions would be long term and broad. For example, she said, China could put pressure behind the scenes on some think-tank funders.

Newcastle University’s Joanne Smith Finley said the public sanctions, after years of backdoor visa restrictions, showed that China was becoming very bold.

However, it had been impossible to get video and photographic evidence from Xinjiang even before the sanctions. “It would have been too dangerous for researchers and particularly for respondents. You could get your respondents into real trouble,” she said, adding that she had already been unable to interview long-term respondents in Xinjiang for her research by 2018.

German expert Adrian Zenz is no stranger to being targeted by the Chinese authorities, with propaganda attacks becoming more sophisticated, including a supposed lawsuit in China against his research. But he described the targeted public sanctions against himself and others as a new step. “It sends a signal,” he said.

“This public targeting of scholarship [is] when China communicates that we don’t want to be studied; China communicates we don’t want to be known. We want to control the narrative; we want to control the message. This is very clear now,” Zenz said, adding that singling out academics and researchers was likely to become a trend.

The consequences will be severe in that people will find that writing anything negative about China will mean access will disappear, he said. But as he had previously been singled out, the sanctions meant he was part of a much larger group.

Effect on research

But Jerdén said the sanctions were just one public move. “We have seen other problems, including cyber-attacks, including different kinds of harassment, different tactics to signal to scholars that what they are doing is not something [Chinese authorities] like.”

He pointed to efforts by state media in China and also the Chinese Embassy in Stockholm to discredit him. Since the sanctions were announced, “they are spreading lies, fabricating quotes and ascribing them to me”.

Although he will no longer be able to visit China or meet with Chinese colleagues, Jerdén said it would not affect his work. “I rely much less on fieldwork in China than many other colleagues in the China research community, and I rely less on collecting material in China. So, it’s not something that’s going to make my work impossible in any way.”

Ohlberg said that even without the sanctions, “if I got a visa, I would be very suspicious”. She added that it would probably not be safe to go to China – or even very safe to travel to Laos or Cambodia and some other countries “in the immediate vicinity of China” anymore.

While it was not ideal to be unable to go to China and get witnesses to developments there first-hand, and get a pulse, Ohlberg said her research had always been heavily source-based. “There are still plenty of ways to do research on China even without being able to go to the country.”

Zenz said he works from documents. “I have not had Chinese collaborators; it’s just too dangerous,” he said, although he had collaborated in the past.

Smith Finley has been doing research on Xinjiang for more than three decades. “All of my research has been very sensitive, politically sensitive. Like other scholars on Xinjiang, I have not been affiliated while I’ve been doing fieldwork in Xinjiang,” she said, noting that Xinjiang scholars have been entering the region on tourist visas for a long time.

In 2016, during a summer field trip to the region, it had already been very difficult to interview people normally. Then, “when I went back in 2018, the region was completely unrecognisable. I actually came home with post-traumatic stress. I didn’t speak very much for several weeks after I came back in 2018.”

While Smith Finley did not go into the now well-documented re-education camps in Xinjiang in 2018, she said she was able to document what was happening in the rest of Uyghur society, “which was in a state of terror at the time, so I came back and described these events in terms of state terrorism”.

She later published her findings in an article published in the Journal of Genocide Research. “My research has gained huge global publicity through the sanction. This is good for the Xinjiang crisis, because more people are reading about [it]”. Her journal article was made open access for another two months by the publisher, “and has been read by many, many more people as a result”.

Smith Finley added that she had also gained 3,000 more followers on Twitter, “which, again, is good for sharing the evidence and sharing my research findings.”

“If you’ve been studying in China and Xinjiang for 30 years, you don’t stop being able to interpret what’s happening now. Every time someone comes out of Xinjiang with evidence, you are there with your 30 years of experience and knowledge and all of your research findings sitting behind you. And you can interpret it in that context.”

Effect on institutions

Smith Finley said that while her university had been “100% supportive” after sanctions were announced, it stopped her liaison work with and visits to the university’s five partner universities in China. She had been the university’s year-abroad officer for China, managing language exchange programmes for 20 years.

She added that Newcastle University had been placed in a difficult position, given its large number of exchange students, and students from China in general.

“I have been arguing ever since the sanctions that this over-dependency needs to be urgently addressed by governments – by the UK government and also by the Australian government.

“We need reforms to the higher education funding system so that our universities are not relying in this way on Chinese international students’ fee income, because if we are, then China automatically has leverage to try to silence our voices, to try to repress academic freedom across borders.”

Jerdén sees the sanctions as being directed not just at himself but also at his institution, and as a signal to the Swedish government. The Swedish National China Centre was set up by the Swedish government last year at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, where he became director in January.

“We have a pretty big budget; we are going to hire a lot of people,” he said. Sanctions “might send a signal to some people who would like to work for our centre”.

People with a Chinese partner or with family in the country “might just be a bit worried about losing access to China or might not want to be in the limelight and being the centre of political attention”, he said.

But he noted that the centre had received a lot of applications, “so at least there seem to be many people still willing to work for us even with the sanctions in place”.

Jerdén said the Swedish National China Centre was one of the few national initiatives in Europe “to build up our domestic knowledge on China”.

With the sanctions, it is “obvious that the Chinese government doesn’t like this new trend. They don’t like the terms by which we discuss China publicly in Europe. And of course, this is a very broad and diverse and multifaceted discussion, but they don’t like the direction in which this is going.”

The necessity to strengthen research on China would not, however, go away, Jerdén said. “It only shows that there’s an even greater need to understand China better in this new situation.”

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