The Blacklist Academic Leaders Ignore

As Olympic games focus attention on China, some scholars want attention for the way visa denials have hurt their careers -- and may limit what other professors write.
July 14, 2008

For a while, Calla Wiemer said, she held it close.

“We all hoped that the problem would be resolved quickly,” said Wiemer, who counts four visa denials stamped into her passport. On a couple of other occasions, her application was declined before it even got to a stamp-wielding bureaucrat. In one more case, the U.S. Embassy intervened to ask the Chinese Foreign Ministry if Wiemer would be approved if she applied. The answer was no.

“Now that it’s gone on for all these years, I can’t keep it a secret anymore,” said Wiemer, who just returned to Los Angeles with plans to write a macroeconomics textbook following a series of consecutive one-year contract positions at the National University of Singapore (her contract was not renewed). Wiemer resigned from a tenured associate professor position at the University of Hawaii in 1997, becoming “uprooted academically” she said, and then “the problem with my visa has made it very difficult to land again. Because I’m a career Sinologist and I haven’t been able to get into China for five years now.”

Wiemer is one of a small number of U.S. scholars seemingly “blacklisted” from China for her scholarly output – and, specifically, her contribution to a 2004 book on Xinjiang, China’s northwestern, largely Muslim region and a seat of some separatist sentiment. She said a Chinese translation of Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland (M.E. Sharp) was already circulating, prepublication, at the time of her first visa denial in October 2003.

According to the accounts of several scholars involved, the 16 collaborators on the Xinjiang book have largely been blocked from entering China. (Though the book’s editor, S. Frederick Starr, of Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, or SAIS, maintains he’s not “convinced or unconvinced” that there’s a link between the book and visa difficulties. Other collaborators said the connection was crystal clear, and two, on the record, said that Starr was “in denial.”)

“I have been denied a visa to China since 2005, following the publication of the book on Xinjiang. I have applied each year and been turned down. The Chinese government has not given a specific reason: It said only, 'You are not welcome in China. You should know why,'" said Peter C. Perdue, a professor of history at Yale University who co-authored a chapter on Xinjiang’s political and cultural history. He added, however, that a systematic pattern of visa denials affecting the book's contributors "makes [the reason] pretty clear. We know that the Communist Party had this volume translated, labeled internal circulation, and discussed it."

Perdue had to shift his Fulbright fellowship from Beijing to Taiwan last spring after the U.S. State Department couldn’t get him in.

“It’s not a devastating impact on my research. If it continues, though, it will have a devastating impact on younger scholars,” said Perdue. “It’s more pervasive than just this book. There are other people who have had these problems, and in this year leading up to the Olympics it’s become even more restrictive."

“I think," Perdue said, when asked about self-censorship among scholars, "there may well be a significant amount of tailoring of subjects to things that the Chinese government will find acceptable.”

Many interviewed for this article said that self-censorship is a charged phrase – no academic wants to admit to it – and stressed that some academics, including younger scholars, are pursuing bold research agendas on sensitive topics. But generally speaking, they said, concerns about maintaining access -- absolutely crucial to many of the social scientists, in particular, who have specialized in China -- manifest themselves primarily in which topics scholars choose to study. And which they don’t.

“In Chinese, there’s even a phrase, san buti, three things you can’t raise,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. “The three Ts -- Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square.” Plus one “F” too, she said. “Falun Gong.”

“Aside from those topics, you’ll never know when another topic becomes sensitive,” Hom said. “When you cross the line, the line keeps shifting.”

An Unwanted Listing Service

If there is a formal blacklist with U.S. scholars’ names on it somewhere in China, it seems it’s short.

Kellee S. Tsai, a professor of political science and director of East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, recently posted an inquiry on a China studies list-serv asking about this topic. What she found, she said, is that, other than Tibet and some Taiwan-related subjects, “there aren’t many other topics that are taboo. Even people who have written on human rights have gotten in."

“For the people who are blacklisted, they are blacklisted and it’s very hard to get off that list. But it’s not as long or extensive as people might think.” Tsai added that some scholars who work on sensitive military and foreign policy issues told her that they’d never had any visa-related trouble.

“I think most people would agree that there probably is a different list. It’s a gray list or something,” Tsai said. “They are aware of who we are, those of us who are coming in on research visas and publishing on China. They probably start tracking us in graduate school, and just kind of keep tabs on us.”

About three years ago, Perry Link, now a professor emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, learned from a friend that he was on a (black-)list of 18. “But I don’t know if 18 means worldwide, I don’t know if it means just scholars, if it means journalists,” said Link, who will be teaching at the University of California at Riverside this fall and who has been blacklisted since the mid-90s. The reasons why are unclear (although he too has heard the line, "You know the reason”). Some trace it to his involvement with the Princeton China Initiative, a group that formed in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He later co-edited The Tiananmen Papers (PublicAffairs, 2002) with Andrew J. Nathan of Columbia University. Nathan also can’t get to China.

“The radiation effect is the main issue here, not the list itself which after all isn’t very long,” said Link. “The larger damage to free inquiry and scholarship by far is the indirect effect of self-censorship that especially younger scholars feel."

Link recalled, for instance, a graduate student who was “advised -- good-heartedly, but still this is what happens -- advised not to write about the topic of democracy in China because it'll get you in trouble and it'll compromise your career. It’s not a smart thing to do.”

“There are all kinds of holding of one’s tongue or rephrasing things. A China scholar talking in public about Tibet or about Taiwan -- that’s an even better example -- is not going to use the phrase, ‘Taiwan independence,’ at least not in a neutral or a positive way. It’s just a radioactive phrase. The very term is avoided, and euphemisms like 'conflict in cross-strait relations' are brought up, something like this that won't hit the nail on the head,” Link said. “The same people over a beer at the bar will be voluble about this, but not in public. In my view, the whole American public suffers when this happens. You hear the formal canned language that’s politically acceptable to Beijing and it doesn’t hit the nail on the head the way the best names in the field could.”

“I have been approached by both grad students and junior scholars saying, 'If I do X, Y and Z, do you think I’ll be denied a visa or so forth', and ‘Is this risky or not?’” said Nathan, a political scientist who, even before editing the Tiananmen Papers, got on the government’s bad side, he believes, by writing about Chairman Mao’s sex life.

“I can happily say that I can usually assure them that the things they’re doing won’t get them banned. I don’t think the government bans people that easily. But yeah, there’s concern. Because many people, especially the younger ones, their careers and their research agendas, really depend upon being able to go to China,” Nathan said.

“The fact that there are only a very small number of people who have been physically denied a visa, there are two possibilities for that: Number one, there isn’t censorship. Number two, that censorship was so effective. So effective that only a few examples that are out there, everybody looks at them, and says, ‘Gee, I don’t want to end up in that situation.’ I’m afraid it’s the latter,’” said Maochun Yu, a professor of history at the United States Naval Academy. He added that foreign scholars are not only worried about getting visas, but also maintaining access in other ways, such as by finding a university that is able to host them. "If you don't behave, you have no chance of getting cooperation from Chinese colleagues and research institutions. This is a very effective control mechanism."

The Chinese embassy’s press office asked Inside Higher Ed to send its inquiry for this article via fax. It offered no response.

The Xinjiang Example

In the case of the scholars involved with the Xinjiang book, many interviewed for this article said the offense likely boiled down to topic selection. “I think it was a fairly balanced view of the situation,” said Sean R. Roberts, the incoming director of the international development studies program at George Washington University and a contributor to the book. “It was certainly not anti-Chinese, but there was a sense from the Chinese government’s response that they did not appreciate foreign scholars commenting on this issue.”

Roberts, who rather than being a China specialist, focuses primarily on Central Asia, said that he has not applied for a visa since the book’s publication. But he did receive documentation showing that his name appeared on a no-fly list for a Chinese airline. “I’m assuming if my name appeared on that level, I might have difficulties getting a visa,” Roberts said.

Despite the difficulties, some of the scholars involved have been able to get in, with, Perdue said, “considerable pressure.” Yet Perdue said he’s not optimistic about his long-term future of researching in China. “They can make an exception and let someone in once, but that’s no guarantee you’re off the list."

Wiemer, the economist who contributed to the volume and whose latest visa denial came in May, said she’s been particularly disappointed by the lack of support from the book editor and his institution, SAIS at Johns Hopkins. Starr, the editor and chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, said he hadn’t surveyed the scholars comprehensively about their difficulties, and suggested other factors could be at work. Also a Central Asia rather than a China specialist, Starr has not applied for a visa to enter China since the book came out, but said he’d had invitations from official sources and had, since the book's publication, hosted senior-level officials. (It's worth noting, however, that others on the blacklist have been denied visas despite official, even in, at least one case, ministry-level, invitations.)

“When they heard we were doing a big study on Xinjiang, they panicked,” Starr said of the Chinese authorities. “That’s clear. They were very anxious. And they sent various senior people here to meet with me and other authors. And I explained that our objective was to produce a dispassionate and analytic piece and that very current events would be only one small part of the book as a whole,” he said.

“When they heard all that, they calmed down and I would say we had very cordial relations throughout the entire editorial process. Then when the book actually appeared, I sent copies to all the Chinese with whom I’d had contact on this subject and received very cordial responses.”

Starr, who in other contexts has been criticized for being an apologist for dictators (a Harper’s Magazine writer once dubbed him “The Professor of Repression"), also pointed to the fact that the Chinese allowed him to distribute a government-backed volume on Xinjiang as evidence that the government might not be too unhappy with Starr and the other authors. “The fact of the matter is even though they were very concerned about this book before it appeared, nonetheless they were delighted when we were giving public presentations on this book, here in Washington, we offered for the Chinese to distribute at those meetings the book that they had done on the same subject,” Starr said. “After the book was in print, if they had been horrified of it, they certainly wouldn’t want us to be disseminating their book along with our own. They would view us as contaminated and that wasn’t the case.”

Starr said, without surveying those involved, he could not “agree or disagree” with scholars who say there’s a connection between the book and visa difficulties. "What I would do if I were you would be to check it out very systematically," he told an Inside Higher Ed reporter. "Maybe there is a pattern." Starr did not show a desire to personally look into the situation. “I would stand by the serious and sustained effort of all the scholars to be thorough and dispassionate. Beyond that, as a scholar, that’s where my engagement ends. This group will not be reconvening.”

As for SAIS’ administration, a spokeswoman wrote of "a productive relationship with China," citing, in particular, Johns Hopkins long-standing Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. “We did check with our colleagues here at SAIS, and no one is aware of the issues you are referring to below [in an e-mailed inquiry] related to the contributors of the book.”

Support, or Lack Thereof

Universities in other Western nations are also facing criticism for failing to stand up to China on academic values. Last week, London Metropolitan University apologized to the Chinese government for awarding an honorary degree to the Dalai Lama, as the Guardian reported. The news caused such a stir in part because it seemed symbolic, symbolic of just how far foreign universities, anxious to get or maintain footholds in China, will go to stay in the good graces of party authorities -- and foreign universities' failures, at times, to stand up for core academic values in interactions with Chinese authorities.

“Everyone has this frenzy for hooking up with China. This kind of fanaticism is based upon half imagination, and half reality,” said Yu, of the Naval Academy. “It’s understandable why there’s a rush to collaborate with China, but then we should collaborate with China with normal international standards. Otherwise, this kind of situation is going to become worse and worse.”

Edward Friedman, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison's political science department, said he'd like university administrations to present a united front on the issue of blacklisted scholars. "If all you have is London Metropolitan University, then they pick them off one at a time," he said. And, "Where," he asked "are all the academic associations speaking up for them?"

In an e-mail, Robert Buswell, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and president of the Association for Asian Studies, said that the organization is constitutionally prohibited from making political statements. “I believe this constitutional prohibition was put in place during the Vietnam War-era to ensure that the membership would not become divided over fractious political issues,” he wrote. Yet, he continued: “Even though the AAS itself takes no official position on this issue, as an individual scholar, I personally am deeply concerned about any infringements on the academic freedom of scholarly research conducted in China. The heavy-handed attempt to control research access to China creates a climate of mistrust that is extremely damaging to the field of Chinese Studies.”

Meanwhile, also back in Los Angeles, Wiemer said if she’s allowed in again, she’ll stick to her main focus on China’s macroeconomics: Xinjiang, she said, was never her primary area of inquiry.

“I’ll be honest with you," she said. “This will scare me from doing work on Xinjiang ever again. The cost has just been too high. For me, as someone who has never been a Xinjiang specialist, I won’t touch it.”

“They’ve got nothing to worry about from me.”


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