Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 7 April 2021


China researchers face abuse, sanctions as Beijing looks to silence critics

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Vicky Xiuzhong Xu was part of a team documenting abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. She is now the victim of a wave of online harassment. (Monica Pronk)

In recent weeks, China has imposed sanctions on scholars and think tanks while state propaganda organs fanned nationalist anger at companies such as H&M and Nike for not using cotton from Xinjiang. Researchers like Xu, who said people close to her in China have been detained and interrogated because of her work, face increasingly personal attacks.

“As someone who analyzes propaganda activities for a job I can see it’s clearly a coordinated attack,” she said. “At this point, the Chinese government has made it abundantly clear that if you want to keep talking about Xinjiang, the Chinese state would not treat you nicely.”

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People walk by an H&M clothing store in Beijing on March 30. Chinese state media called for boycotts of Western brands that avoided Xinjiang cotton. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In March, Beijing announced travel bans and asset freezes on more than 20 scholars and officials, and their families, as well as think tanks in the European Union and Britain, in response to sanctions from the United States, the E.U., Britain and Canada on Chinese officials linked to abuses in Xinjiang. China also barred its citizens and organizations from dealing with the blacklisted entities and individuals.

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Scholars focusing on China, who have already seen more restrictions on academic exchanges between China and Western countries, say the latest measures will damage fragile ties and mutual understanding over the long term. More than 1,150 scholars have signed a statement urging Beijing to revoke the sanctions, which they say amount to “academic repression.”

“There is no legal or moral basis for the persecution of scholars, merely because they expose and criticize a powerful government’s human rights abuses,” it said.

Silencing voices

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Farmers pick cotton in a field in Hami in China's northwestern Xinjiang region in 2018. (AFP/Getty Images)

Foreign scholars say the personal attacks against researchers and sanctions on institutions go beyond the scope of recent Western measures against China, which only target government officials, and represent a shift in Beijing’s focus to U.S. allies in Europe.

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Among the institutions now banned by China is the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin, whose researchers publish analysis about Chinese politics, foreign and economic policy and the China-Europe relationship.

“MERICS is probably the one think tank in Europe doing the most pathbreaking work on sensitive issues like Xinjiang and Made in China 2025,” said Bonnie Glaser, incoming director of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, referring to the Chinese state-directed manufacturing plan criticized by foreign governments as unfair.

“The Chinese thought by shutting down these small numbers of voices and their access to China, that they would limit the bad news and negative analysis coming out of Europe. They don’t have that option in the United States,” she said, noting Europe has far fewer institutions researching China.

European scholars said Beijing’s measures were more likely to encourage China skeptics in government and academia who see China as a rival and cautioned against an investment deal now in jeopardy because of the sanctions.

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Björn Jerdén, director of the Swedish National China Center, who has been targeted by the new sanctions, said Beijing’s retaliation was “much stronger than expected.” “The Chinese are trying to break what they see as an anti-China alliance but I think the only effect will be that Europe is more eager to coordinate with the U.S.,” Jerdén said.

'Not getting solid information'

Sympathetic Western and Chinese scholars say academic institutions are a crucial venue for both sides to talk, glean insights — and avoid catastrophe — amid mounting tensions. But China’s hard-liners, driven by growing paranoia of foreign infiltration and desire to punish critical voices abroad, are cutting off a useful source of information.

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Attacking researchers and blocking channels of information “would be incredibly damaging” for China, said Scott Kennedy, a specialist in China’s economic policies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In mid-2018, China dispatched scholars and diplomats to think tanks in Washington to get a better read on President Donald Trump, whom they struggled to understand. Kennedy said he warned visiting Chinese officials and scholars skeptical of Trump’s tariff threats to take him more seriously. Trump eventually announced tariffs, kick-starting a trade war that rocked Chinese manufacturers.

Since China detained the Canadian researcher Michael Kovrig in 2018, more foreign researchers have worried about traveling to China to conduct fieldwork — and whether they too might be detained, Kennedy said.

Some Chinese researchers also worry about academic decoupling between China and the West. Last month, Jia Qingguo, a member of a foreign policy advisory body, wrote in a proposal that the Chinese government should lift “unnecessary” restrictions on Chinese academics that limit meetings with foreigners to twice a year and prohibit one-on-one meetings.

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“If any Chinese entering the U.S. is a suspected secret agent and anybody from the West suspected as a possible spy, that’s not good,” Jia said in an interview. “We need to allow people to exchange views and opinions, and we need to know the other country, how people of the other country are thinking, so that we can be better informed and develop more realistic policies.”

For researchers who have spent their careers focused on China, losing access has been devastating.

Jo Smith Finley, who researches Uyghur identity at Newcastle University in Britain, said the sanctions mean she cannot stay in touch with contacts in China, where she has been traveling for more than three decades.

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“My friends in Beijing are some of my oldest and dearest soul mates,” she said, describing adrenaline-filled days after the suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989.

“The thought of no longer being able to sit in Beijing cafes and restaurants with them and set the world to rights is just unthinkable, surreal,” she said. 

The online onslaught against Xu, named in countless headlines as the unexpected “black hand” behind the West’s anti-China campaign, has continued with tacit if not outright support from Chinese state media. “Even as a Chinese person, she insists on going against China; the doxing of Xu Xiuzhong and trashing of her reputation are in no way undeserved,” said an editorial in the state-run China Daily.

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Xu, who has tried to stay away from the Internet recently, said she will not stop her work on detention camps in China and forced labor targeting Uyghurs. “For me, it’s always been about writing what’s really happening — discovering and revealing the truth. And there is such a thing as truth.”

And she will not be changing her name, she said. “It’s too late for that.”

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