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China tightens restrictions and bars scholars from international conferences

Candidates prepare for an exam review at the library of Hebei University of Technology in Handan, North China's Hebei Province, Dec. 6, 2021.
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Candidates prepare for an exam review at the library of Hebei University of Technology in Handan, North China's Hebei Province, Dec. 6, 2021.

BEIJING – The international conference was supposed to gather some of the most promising and most established Asia studies scholars from across the world in lush Honolulu.

Instead, at least five Chinese scholars based in the People's Republic of China (PRC) were prevented from attending virtual events via Zoom, according to four people with direct knowledge of the matter.

They said Chinese security officers and education officials directly intervened, citing education regulations published during a global coronavirus pandemic which require all Chinese scholars to receive university permission to attend any international event in-person or online.

"After years of encouraging and funding PRC scholars to participate internationally, the intensifying controls of recent years are now full-scale, and academic work, at least on China, is to be quarantined from the world," said James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University who attended the conference. "The doors have slammed shut fast."

The conference, which ended last weekend, was an annual gathering organized by the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), one of the largest membership-based organizations in the field. For emerging scholars as well as more senior academics, the conference is an opportunity to network and to hear the latest research on Asian countries across a variety of disciplines.

Because of the ongoing COVID pandemic, AAS decided this year to hold a mix of in-person events and online-only panels.

In one case, a group of police officers visited the home of a scholar in China after they had presented their research paper to an online Zoom panel earlier in the week, questioning the scholar for hours, in part because they considered the title of the paper "incorrect."

"It was deeply frightening," said one academic who attended the panel but requested anonymity to protect the identity of the scholar involved.

NPR reviewed the paper but is not publishing its title or subject to protect the identity of the writer. The paper did not touch on subjects which Chinese authorities normally consider sensitive, such as human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang or Hong Kong.

Chinese scholars on a separate virtual panel were also told by Chinese university administrators to cancel their presentations. Eventually, they emailed the other attendees to withdraw from the panel due to "medical reasons" but hoped to partake in AAS events again "in less sensitive times," according to two people with direct knowledge of the incident.

"Topics that have seemingly been considered nonpolitical are now being yanked or deemed not permissible to be exchanging with international colleagues," said another academic who attended the panel who also did not want to be named so as not to identify the Chinese scholars impacted.

Strict COVID prevention policies had already stymied the volume of intellectual exchanges between the PRC and the rest of the world. Those who study China have found themselves isolated by border closures that have made travel to and from China nearly impossible, rendering archives and field sites in China inaccessible for the last two years and counting.

Since 2016, China's education ministry has required its academics to seek university approval for all overseas trips and collaborations. In September 2020, universities began applying these rules for online events held by international organizations, as well, though such rules had not been extensively enforced until now.

Academics say these controls will further deplete the already-sparse exchanges between China and the rest of the world while hobbling the careers of young Chinese scholars.

"We have already been anxious, because for those of us in modern China studies, it's been two years with no end in sight about when we might be able to return to the archives," said a third academic who went to the AAS conference. "You keep thinking maybe things will get better, so after the [Winter] Olympics, after [October's Chinese Communist] Party Congress, there will be a loosening of restrictions, but unfortunately it continues to worsen."

The AAS said it was aware some PRC-based scholars were prevented from attending and now is trying to ascertain exactly how many scholars were impacted. "The AAS firmly supports the right of scholars worldwide to take part in the free exchange of ideas and research through conferences and other forms of academic cooperation," the association said in a statement posted on its website Wednesday.

AAS has previously come under heightened scrutiny within China. In March 2021, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sanctioned a member of one of AAS' governing councils because of her research examining Chinese state policy in the region of Xinjiang, where authorities had detained hundreds of thousands of mostly ethnic Uyghurs. The academic, Joanne Smith Finley, had organized two panels on Xinjiang for the annual AAS conference just days earlier.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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