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.


Canadian academics may fear reprisal for criticizing China – but they must not self-censor

Worth noting:

In the past few decades, the Communist Party of China has worked, wherever possible, to limit criticism of its country by foreign voices. Now, the Chinese government has a new weapon for suppressing critical voices that it deems harmful to its national image.

This summer, China passed its draconian national-security law for Hong Kong – aimed at bringing pro-democracy protests to heel – which features harsh punishments for an overly broad array of acts of protest and allows Beijing to pursue offenders regardless of their citizenship and the places where they committed the alleged crimes. This effectively gives the government the ability to place anyone, anywhere in the world, on a fugitive list. Numerous people in Hong Kong and in the West have already been arrested or are wanted by the government under this law.

This has had a real-world chilling effect on the discourse in Western democratic nations, and especially in their academic institutions, where free speech is a matter of paramount importance. In response to China’s proclaimed extra-territorial power, several prestigious British and American universities have implemented measures aimed at shielding students and faculty, regardless of their national origins, from prosecution by Chinese authorities. At Oxford University, students were asked to submit some papers anonymously; at Princeton University, students of Chinese politics will put codes down to identify their work instead of their names. Anonymous online chats and declining to penalize students who don’t want to participate in politically sensitive topics have also been considered.

But these actions are ultimately concessions to an authoritarian regime and prevent genuine debate about the Chinese government. This has no place in democratic institutions, which can, should and must be unreservedly critical about all issues, including China. Such policies risk handing the Chinese government a victory in its efforts to control the discourse in the West – and by making a threat that, for many, is an empty one.

In his book On Tyranny, historian Timothy Snyder cites examples such as Nazi Germany to show how most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given by individuals who “obey in advance” and adapt by “anticipatory obedience” – that is, by conceding to the tyrant without even being asked. This only teaches tyrants that their actions do not have consequences and that they can go further. Today, China is the new global tyrant, but Canadians cannot just roll over in advance. The Chinese government simply cannot pursue or jail all its critics from all over the world. Canadians without ties to China can criticize this government all they want and simply avoid travelling there.

The situation is far trickier for Chinese and Hong Kong international students, who likely have to go back home in the future. They must be protected if discussing politically sensitive topics would put their safety or their families’ safety at risk. But such protective policies can still enable these at-risk students to participate and be assessed. They could be encouraged, for instance, to email their views to their teachers, who could then communicate their views to the class. However, because freedom of expression is so pivotal, students should be allowed to attach their names if they wish. There may be no perfect policy.

But without freedom of speech, a university cannot be said to exist. Sadly, genuine debate about the Chinese government has been intimidated into self-censored silence. According to the Vancouver Sun, some China scholars have decided to “keep their mouths more or less entirely shut,” and there is concern that worried academics would offer up “timid” analysis. Many professors and researchers also referred to this fear in an open letter published in the The Globe and Mail last year, which asked China to release detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. “We who share Mr. Kovrig’s and Mr. Spavor’s enthusiasm for building genuine, productive and lasting relationships must now be more cautious about travelling and working in China and engaging our Chinese counterparts,” they said. “That will lead to less dialogue and greater distrust, and undermine efforts to manage disagreements and identify common ground.”

The new law represents a wake-up call to Canadian universities, which now confront the stark reality that if we give the Chinese government a foot, it’ll take a mile. But it is not too late for them to say no to the tyrant, to affirm their autonomy, and to safeguard our sovereignty and dignity.


Canada 150 research chairs draw scientists fleeing Trump, guns and Brexit – The Globe and Mail

Continues a series of anecdotes regarding the relative attractiveness of Canada:

The day after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, Alan Aspuru-Guzik, a prominent professor of chemistry at Harvard University, picked up the phone and called Canada.

For Dr. Aspuru-Guzik, who specializes in developing advanced materials for energy generation, the 2016 result was a signal to close up shop. Born in the United States and raised in Mexico, Dr. Aspuru-Guzik has family roots that trace back to Spain, Poland and Ukraine. It’s the kind of varied background, he said, that instills a predisposed wariness of political authoritarianism and economic instability. And the Trump presidency has put his instincts on high alert.

“Many of my colleagues have told me that they will leave the United States if things get worse,” Dr. Aspuru-Guzik said. “The difference is that I already think it’s worse.”

On Thursday, Dr. Aspuru-Guzik is set to be named one of 20 newly hired Canada 150 research chairs at a briefing in Ottawa. He plans to leave his position at Harvard this summer to take up a new role at the University of Toronto, where he will continue his research and aim to spin off startup companies from his scientific work.

“Great science is all about great people. So being able to attract someone of Alan’s calibre is a coup for this country,” said Alan Bernstein, director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto. It was Dr. Bernstein who was on the other end of the line when Dr. Aspuru-Guzik made his postelection call, setting the wheels in motion for his eventual move.

A total of 25 Canada 150 research chairs will be established at Canadian universities under the one-off program, supported with $117.6-million in federal funding. Four chairholders were already named late last year, including computer scientist Margo Seltzer who, like Dr. Aspuru-Guzik, is leaving a faculty post at Harvard to come to Canada.

“I think it speaks to what Canada is doing here in science,” federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan said. “We’re in a global competition for talent.”

Several of the appointees who spoke to The Globe and Mail before Thursday’s announcement were enthusiastic about what they perceive to be a collaborative, pro-research culture in Canada. But many also expressed a sense of relief when speaking about what they were coming from.

The haul of prominent scientists attracted to the new chairs suggests that a predicted brain gain for Canada owing to reactionary politics in the United States and elsewhere is having an impact and that scientists are indeed voting with their feet.

For example, when asked what she would be giving up by leaving North Carolina’s Duke University to come to the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Anita Layton, a biomathematician whose work relates to kidney function, summed it up in two words: gun violence.

Dr. Layton, who did her graduate work in Canada and whose parents live in Toronto, explained that her children, ages 14 and 10, have recently been in lockdown exercises at school to practise for an armed assault.

“This is their world … It’s normal life for them and I find it really sad,” she said.

Family considerations played a role in her move, but she added that Waterloo’s strong mathematics department offers just as many professional advantages as Duke, with the added benefit of $350,000 in funding tied to her research chair which ensures years of continuing support.

Funding stability was a key factor for Judith Mank, an expert in the genomics of diversity, who will be moving her laboratory from University College London to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Like that of a number of British-based researchers, Dr. Mank was thrown into turmoil by the outcome of the 2016 Brexit vote.

“I got really worried because all of our funding is from the European Union and we’re not sure if we’ll be able to access that,” she said.

At UBC, Dr. Mank will be supported by a $1-million funding tranche that goes with her top-tier Canada 150 chair.

The same amount has been allocated to the University of Saskatchewan for James Famiglietti, a hydrologist currently with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California who will become the director of the university’s highly regarded Global Institute for Water Security.

Dr. Famiglietti is well known for his public appearances in the United States, particularly during California’s recent, prolonged drought and testimony before Congress. A specialist in remote sensing, he has expertise in gauging water resources from space, and the impact of climate change on those resources.

He said the real advantage he anticipates in coming to Canada is in being able to access parts of the world that are undergoing water stress but where U.S. federal employees are typically prohibited from visiting.

“The goal is to begin reaching out to the hottest of the hot spots for water scarcity around the world,” Dr. Famiglietti said.

Among the newly selected chairs are several Canadian researchers, including Katherine O’Brien, a global health vaccinologist who is heading to Dalhousie University after her 30 years at premier research facilities in the United States and around the world.

“It was the right time for me to come back,” she said, avoiding any discussion of U.S. politics.

But for Dr. Aspuru-Guzik, the motivation for his move is clear: “I believe that life is short and that I should live in a place that is consistent with my values.”

via Canada 150 research chairs draw scientists fleeing Trump, guns and Brexit – The Globe and Mail

Canadian Studies profs hold conference on how to stay critical without Harper around

While Twitter commentary has been biting, my take is that it is refreshing to have a group acknowledge its implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases.

A similar reflection others (e.g., public servants, the media) might also be warranted, although my sense is the media is becoming more critical as the government’s time in office becomes longer, with the related decisions (or non-decisions):

Canadian Studies professors slammed Stephen Harper’s Conservative government so much that they’re literally holding a conference in Ottawa to discuss how to keep their critical edge now that he’s gone.

“The loss of the Harper government for Canadian academics is not unlike the loss of George W. Bush for American comedians,” the description of the conference’s theme says.

“The question in this moment of optimism (which may well have passed by the time this conference comes around) is…What do we do now?”

Called “After the Deluge: Reframing/Sustaining Critique in Post-Harper Canada,” the conference will take place at Carleton University on Oct. 28 and 29.

The conference’s theme notes Canadian Studies professors have “long prided themselves on a robust critique of the Canadian State,” and outlines how the Conservative government under Harper antagonized scholars.

 It singles out the elimination of the long form census and budget cuts to Library and Archives Canada as examples of “attacks” on research infrastructure.

“The Harper government also hit the world of Canadian Studies at its doorstep by cancelling the Understanding Canada program in 2012,” it says.

The theme also questions whether Canadian Studies in general has become too “premised on oppositional critique of the state,” and whether that’s really the best approach for their research.

“Are generative, collaborative, appreciative, and assets-based approaches to Canadian Studies a failure of critical vigilance, or a long-overdue paradigm shift?” the conference’s theme ponders.

Peter Thompson, an associate professor at Carleton who’s helping organize the conference, said the event will be less blunt than the theme implies.

“The idea is not just bashing the Harper era,” he said. “It’s about to what extent is there a change, and looking at that with clear eyes. We’re not assuming that there’s a change in government so things are automatically better.”

Thompson — who was very careful to keep the discussion apolitical — did acknowledge that with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau overturning some of the Conservative government’s most controversial policies, there is the potential for contemporary research to become too soft.

“I don’t want to assume what people are going to say at the conference,” he said. “But yeah … it’s about making sure that critique, and that the sharpness of the critique, is still there even though things have changed.”

Papers presented at the conference will touch on areas such as national security, national symbols, and cultural policy, Thompson said.

The conference is organized as part of the Canadian Studies Network, and will also host the network’s annual general meeting.

Source: Canadian Studies profs hold conference on how to stay critical without Harper around | National Post

Military trying to cut recruitment targets for women despite expert’s report

Military, RCMP, CSIS.001RCMP envy (the RCMP successfully managed to negotiate lower targets). Declaring victory by changing the goalposts.

Seriously, there are particular challenges for both the Canadian Forces and the RCMP, but this approach only gives the impression that changing the targets is more important than improving recruitment and retention.

The above chart summarizes the Canadian Forces, the RCMP and CSIS. Only CSIS has a strong employment equity record, but the nature of their work, analogous to much policy work and IT makes it that much easier.

Interestingly, all three organizations do not post their reports. These have to be requested from the Library of Parliament (which is efficient in providing them):

The Canadian Armed Forces is now in consultations with Employment and Social Development Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Commission over how those targets are calculated in hopes they can be brought down to what the military argues are more realistic levels.

Lt.-Cmdr. Meghan Marsaw said in an email that the most recent consultations with ESDC and the human rights commission were held over the winter, though she couldn’t say when any new targets would be set “as further consultation is required both internally and externally.”

Documents obtained by the Citizen last year showed the Canadian Armed Forces wanting to cut the target for women from 25.1 per cent to 17.6 per cent. It also wanted to change the targets for visible minorities from 11.7 per cent to 8.2 per cent, and for aboriginals from 3.3 per cent to 2.6 per cent.

Military officials would not confirm whether those are still the proposed targets.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission is currently conducting an audit of the Canadian Armed Forces to determine if the military is taking adequate action to increase diversity within the ranks. The commission regularly audits all federal departments and agencies.

Some have previously cautioned against cutting the targets for fear the Canadian Armed Forces will then scale back efforts to increase the number of women as well as visible minorities and aboriginals in uniform. They say the military should strive to represent the country’s demographic make-up.

However, others say that maintaining unrealistic targets could force the military to dilute recruiting standards. They also say it could draw away resources better put to other uses.

Military trying to cut recruitment targets for women despite expert’s report | Ottawa Citizen.

Douglas Todd: If academia is becoming less relevant, blame bad writing

These apply to all writing, not just academic:

What are the signs of bad writing?

• Jargon: Sometimes it’s necessary to use technical words, but words like “apperception” become unhelpful jargon when they’re used mostly to keep out outsiders. Other bits of jargon, like “outsourcing,” hide offensive realities.

• Verbs as nouns: Billig dislikes academic “nouniness,” the tendency to turn virtually every idea into an abstract noun. Billig names scores of over-used nouns, like mediatization, re-ethnicification, deindividuation and, especially, reification. He argues against making verbs into nouns with suffixes such as “ization,” “ication” or “ism.”

Billig is correct when he says such nouns turn vague concepts into concrete things, when they’re not.

An over-reliance on abstract nouns helps academics avoid dealing with real people and actual processes, Billig says.

For what it’s worth, one of my pet-peeve abstract nouns is the increasingly common “essentialism.”

• Passive language: Academics, like everyone else, need to avoid passive sentences when possible, because they include less information than sentences with active verbs, which require (often human) actors as subjects.

• Not much to say: In academic circles, the pressure “to publish or perish” is not an empty threat. Billig maintains somewhat ruthlessly that a cause of bad writing is that many academics don’t have much worthwhile to say. Academics, he says, often use jargon, nouns and passive sentences because they’re hiding that they’re just repeating platitudes.

• Self-censorship: This is another danger in academia. It’s not just politicians and business leaders who cover their butts with euphemisms; academics also default to bureaucratic language. Bureaucratese is designed to say less, not more.

Douglas Todd: If academia is becoming less relevant, blame bad writing.

And always a good idea to re-read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language essay from time to time.