Not Feeling Safe in China

American academic leaves China after losing his post, saying that “China has reached a point where I do not feel safe being a professor and discussing even the economy, business and financial markets.”

July 23, 2018
Christopher Balding

An American professor who lost his post at an elite Chinese university is now leaving China, citing concerns about his personal safety.

“China has reached a point where I do not feel safe being a professor and discussing even the economy, business and financial markets,” Christopher Balding wrote in a blog post about his departure from Peking University HSBC Business School, in Shenzhen, and his subsequent decision to leave China.

Balding has a prolific presence on Twitter, which is blocked in China, and frequently appears in the media commenting on issues related to the Chinese economy, including as a television commentator for Bloomberg and in opinion pieces for Bloomberg and Foreign Policy. In August of last year, Balding spearheaded a petition calling on Cambridge University Press to resist the Chinese government’s demand that it censor articles in the China Quarterly journal. (Cambridge originally assented to the government’s request to block access to hundreds of journal articles in mainland China, but reversed course after coming under heavy criticism from academics like Balding.)

Balding could be sharply critical of the Chinese government, tweeting in recent weeks about China's human rights record and the threat he sees Beijing as posing to the liberal world order -- subjects he also addressed in the blog post about his departure.

In his blog post, Balding said the HSBC Business School informed him in early November -- not long after the Cambridge University Press petition -- that it would not renew his contract. He did not specify the reason his contract was not renewed but made clear in his blog post that he believes it was different than the “official” reason he was given.

“Despite technical protections, I knew and accepted the risks of working for the primary university in China run by the Communist Party in China as a self-professed libertarian. Though provided an 'official' reason for not renewing my contract, my conscience is clean and I can document most everything that demonstrates the contrary should I ever need to prove otherwise. I know the unspoken reason for my dismissal. You do not work under the Communist Party without knowing the risks," Balding wrote.

HSBC Business School's media office did not respond to requests for comment. However, the dean of the business school, Hai Wen, told The Wall Street Journal that an evaluation of Balding found “poor” performance in teaching, research and other areas. The dean said that Balding's dismissal was a “normal academic employment decision.”

Balding declined to elaborate about the circumstances of his dismissal, but said via email, "I think the academy should be increasingly concerned about the silencing of opinions of Chinese and foreign academics working in China."

"Having enjoyed my time in China with wonderful research opportunities, I think my record of professional advancement during my tenure at the HSBC Business School of Peking University as well my impactful research across a variety of topics and channels speaks for itself. My standards in the classroom were drawn from the highest quality syllabi, requirements for student work and honesty, which I will continue to stand behind. I will always think back with fondness to this time."

The Climate for Foreign Scholars in China

Balding’s departure comes at a time of increasing concern about a crackdown on academic freedom in China and a continuing shrinking of the space for critical academic discourse. Still, Balding’s blog entry is striking for the degree to which he -- as an American academic employed by a Chinese university -- expressed fear for his physical safety.

”One of my biggest fears living in China has always been that I would be detained,” he wrote. ”Though I happily pointed out the absurdity of the rapidly encroaching authoritarianism, a fact which continues to elude so many experts not living in China, I tried to make sure I knew where the line was and did not cross it. There is a profound sense of relief to be leaving safely knowing others, Chinese or foreigners, who have had significantly greater difficulties than myself. There are many cases which resulted in significantly more problems for them. I know I am blessed to make it out.”

Louisa Lim, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Melbourne and author of the book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, described Balding’s case as "the latest in a series of worrying developments regarding constraints upon foreign academics working in, or on, China."

"Over the last couple of years, we have heard reports of surveillance, harassment and intimidation, including the weeklong detention of the Australian Chinese professor Feng Chongyi" in spring of 2017, Lim said via email. "I co-host a podcast, The Little Red Podcast, and we had an episode on the intimidation and harassment of academics where we interviewed a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Melbourne, Dayton Lekner, who spent some time in China researching the 1957-1959 Anti-Rightist movement, and was subject to a police interrogation on his research."

“That a junior scholar should be subjected to such outright intimidation shows the granular nature of state surveillance of foreign academics. In that episode, we also made an open callout for academics to get in touch with their stories, and we did hear from academics working in fields similar to Christopher Balding's who expressed their fears regarding working in China, and other experiences of surveillance by state security. Many foreign academics are reluctant to speak openly about their concerns, having invested their careers in having access to China, but Christopher Balding's piece does track with what many others are saying behind closed doors.”

“In recent years, we've seen what amounts to a forcible closing of the Chinese mind,” Lim added. “Not only are there fewer academic exchanges, but recently we're even hearing of examples of Western textbooks and writings being censored in Chinese classrooms with sections blocked out. In the current climate, the kind of unspoken constraints placed upon academic research are making partnerships between Chinese and Western academics harder to manage. One cause of concern for Western academics is whether their actions -- or writings -- could cause trouble for Chinese colleagues or co-authors, and the burden of this responsibility sometimes causes Western academics to self-censor or temper their public behavior.”

Jonathan Sullivan, the director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, in England, said that the situation has become “significantly tighter” across the board in China. But while he said the situation for Chinese academics specifically has deteriorated -- “criticism is much less tolerated and expressions of loyalty are becoming the norm” -- he added that “foreign academics are an insignificant part of this bigger picture.”

"Not to diminish the experiences of any foreign colleagues working in China, I’m sure there are individual situations that I would find intolerable, but conditions are much worse for Chinese citizens in academia and all other sectors," Sullivan said in an email. "If 'we' don’t like it 'we' can up and leave, as many academics, journalists, businesspeople etc. have done … The chances of a foreign academic being arrested or otherwise punished is very low -- it is much more likely that if you upset the authorities you’ll be denied a work visa or your employer encouraged to make your life more difficult with extra teaching etc."

“I have to say that China remains a place where foreign academics are welcome to visit and to enjoy discussion with their Chinese counterparts,” Sullivan continued. “I have noticed a hardening of some opinions (sometimes performative for others in the room), a reluctance among others to discuss certain topics and less enthusiasm for collaboration. On the other hand, I have Chinese co-authors right now who are based in the PRC and have no problem working with them at all -- and they have never signaled to me that they need to be careful or avoid criticism of the government etc.” Sullivan noted that the projects are on topics related to popular culture and politics, "so they involve some criticism but it's not highly sensitive." He also noted that his perspective comes from someone who visits China regularly but does not live or work there.

An American academic who left an associate professorship at China's Tsinghua University a year ago for personal reasons said that Balding’s experience did not resonate with his own.

“I never for a second felt fear of saying whatever I wanted and I said exactly what I thought. Much of it was critical of trends in Chinese economic policy,” said Matt Ferchen, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, where he studies China's relations with countries with developing economies. “To be fair, I think people could plausibly say, 'but that was a year ago and things are changing quickly in China.' I wouldn’t want to cast doubt on what [Balding] has said about the reasons for being dismissed. I’m not sure how specific he was about that, but there’s every possibility that he was fired for his views, for his public denunciation of the censorship of Cambridge University Press. That’s totally plausible.”

“I think there are very disturbing trends in place and I don’t expect it to get better any time soon, but I also think that there are really important opportunities to be involved as a critical, rigorous scholar in and about China, that get passed over in this discussion,” Ferchen said. “Since it [Balding’s experience] doesn’t resonate with my own experience, since I didn’t feel that fear, I just think, 'wait, people are going to have one impression of what’s going on based on this case,' and that isn’t necessarily something that we should take as indicative of what everyone has or will experience.”

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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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