China fights back with sanctions on academics, institute

No surprise. Pleased that we were able to pressure steering committee members of International Metropolis to abandon holding their 2020 conference in Beijing:

The imposition of tit-for-tat sanctions on researchers by China after the European Union imposed bans on Chinese officials, has ratcheted up pressure on academics, particularly those whose research involves topics deemed sensitive to China.

Experts said the sanctions further narrow the space for China research and increase fears in the academic community that China could target more overseas academics in future because of their China-linked work. 

On Friday China announced sanctions against four organisations and nine individuals in the UK, mainly parliamentarians but also including Joanne Smith Finley, a reader in Chinese studies at Newcastle University, for what the Chinese foreign ministry called “maliciously spreading lies and information” about Xinjiang.

Smith Finley said on Friday: “It seems I am to be sanctioned by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] government for speaking the truth about the Uyghur tragedy in Xinjiang, and for having a conscience. Well so be it. I have no regrets for speaking out and I will not be silenced.”

Newcastle University said in a statement: “Academic freedom underpins every area of research at Newcastle University and is essential to the principles of UK higher education. Dr Jo Smith Finley has been a leading voice in this important area of research on the Uyghurs and we fully support her in this work.”

Andreas Fulda, associate professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and an expert in Europe-China relations, said via Twitter that “this uncalled-for escalation by the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] means that there cannot be ‘business as usual’ for British academia. We need to start a vigorous debate about how to deal with the CCP’s political censorship. Self-censorship is not an option.”

This latest announcement came three days after China named two researchers – 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, who has been targeted by China recently; and Björn Jerdén, director of the Swedish National China Centre at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm – as well as an entire institution, the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), as being barred, along with their families, from visiting China, Hong Kong and Macao, it was announced on Tuesday.

MERICS is one of Europe’s biggest China research institutions with over 30 scholars and specialists on China affairs turning out major reports.  

“They and companies and institutions associated with them are also restricted from doing business with China,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. 

The ban comes as the EU on 21 March imposed its first sanctions on China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, imposing travel bans and asset freezes against four Chinese officials and one organisation over the mass persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In coordinated action, the United Kingdom and Canada this week also announced sanctions on Xinjiang officials.

China’s official Global Times newspaper claimed Jerdén “fabricated rumours about Confucius Institutes describing them as China’s ‘brainwashing’ tools and ‘espionage’ institutions”. 

Jerdén has firmly rejected “the sweeping and groundless charges” that he had been spreading ‘lies and disinformation’.

“China’s sanctions against scholars and thinktanks are unprecedented but not surprising,” Jerdén said via Twitter. The Chinese Communist Party “has made clear that it doesn’t tolerate independent research on China”.

Jerdén also alluded to the tightening space for China research, saying: “It has become difficult to do research about China without interference from the Chinese government. As China becomes more important around the world, this highlights the need for a strong and independent China research community in Europe.”

“It is completely unacceptable that China imposes sanctions on academics who conduct free and open research,” said Marie Söderberg, chairperson of the board of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, where Jerdén works, in a statement issued on Tuesday. Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Ann Linde also denounced the ban on researchers. 

Targeting of a research institute

Global Times claimed MERICS “has actually been colluding with anti-China forces over the years since it was established in 2013”. 

MERICS said in a statement on Monday that “MERICS very much regrets this decision and rejects the allegations”. 

“As an independent research institute, we are dedicated to fostering a better and more differentiated understanding of China. We will continue to pursue this mission by presenting fact-based analysis, also with the aim of creating opportunities for exchanges and dialogue – even in difficult times,” it said.

But academics note that the sanctions went beyond tit-for-tat action. In a separate editorial on 23 March, Global Times said MERICS was sanctioned not simply because of its research but because “it is the largest Chinese research centre in entire Europe. Cutting off ties with China means its research channel will hardly be sustainable and its influence will be critically hit.”

Sheena Greitens, associate professor and expert on East Asia at the Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin in the United States, said that in the past the party state used “uncertainty” to get people to self-police. Beijing “is now making parameters much more clear” with its statement that it wants to cut off MERIC’s research pipeline, she said. 

“Repression tactics against China scholars used to be ‘rare but real’. They are increasingly not rare,” said Greitens. 

The blanket targeting of an entire research institute is “something entirely new”, said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, a think tank in Berlin, Germany. He said the move was designed to intimidate other China scholars in the West into reining in criticism of the Communist Party.

Rory Truex, assistant professor at Princeton University in the US and an expert on authoritarianism and repression in China, said: “This does constitute a real shift in rhetoric and has implications for China studies. The [Communist] Party is now making it explicit that if you study the wrong thing, you will face consequences.”

Directors of a range of major European research institutes and China studies centres at universities said in a statement this week: “We are deeply concerned that targeting independent researchers and civil society institutions undermines practical and constructive engagement by people who are striving to contribute positively to policy debates. This will be damaging not only for our ability to provide well-informed analysis but also for relations more broadly between China and Europe in the future.

“We believe that mutual dialogue is crucial, especially at difficult times, and deeply regret the inclusion of academic researchers and civil society institutions in the current tensions. We will stand by our colleagues who have been targeted this way.”

China’s sanctions, announced on 22 March, also included European parliamentarians pushing for action on the rights of the Uyghur Turkic minority in Xinjiang, as well as those pushing for changes in China’s policy on Taiwan which it claims as a Chinese province, and rights agencies and organisations which the Chinese government considers to have been “interfering in China’s internal affairs for a long time.”

China also sanctioned the Political and Security Committee of the European Council, the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament and the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Denmark.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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