The detention without trial of three academics of Chinese ancestry is threatening China's links with the rest of the world, President Jiang Zemin was warned this week. Two of the academics were arrested on brief visits.
Almost 400 international China studies scholars have signed a protest letter to the president. It states: "Scholarly relations have been in the forefront of the process of improving relations between China and the rest of the world. Tens of thousands of scholars have participated in both directions and have contributed significantly to China's modernisation and the enhancement of understanding between China and other nations.
"It is with dismay that we view the deterioration of the climate for academic exchange and research, as demonstrated by the detention of scholars who have returned to China merely to conduct research and engage in other normal scholarly activities."
To show respect for human rights and academic freedom, China should release the academics or give them an early opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law with international standards of due process, the letter adds.
Some UK academics who signed the letter fear that the arrests might harm Britain's academic relationships with China. Robin Munro, senior research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, said: "It is certainly true that across the board, in all major countries having academic exchanges with China, this has had a strong chilling effect.
"Most of the top names in the field have signed this letter... [This] shows how concerned they are and how under threat they fear the carefully built-up exchanges and programmes with China may be.
"What unites all the signatories is a common hope that our detained colleagues will be allowed home to the safety of their families and back to their offices to pursue their legitimate scholarly work."
China has become a prime target for British university recruitment. In the next two years, China is forecast to pass Malaysia as the top source of overseas students in the United Kingdom. In 1999-2000, there were 6,094 Chinese students in British higher education, more than double the 1995-96 figure of 2,746.
The British Council predicts a total of 9,000 to 10,000 for this academic year. Senior marketing officer Kevin Van Cauter said: "Quite a large number of students from China are coming here. It is the fastest growing market for the UK."
Driving the protest were the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Sociological Association and the academic freedom committee of Human Rights Watch. Most of the letter's 376 signatories are from the United States (234), followed by Australia (40) and the UK (25). Of the rest, 22 are from Hong Kong, three from Taiwan.
It was too early to judge the effects of the arrests, said Rosemary Foot, professor of international relations at St Antony's College, Oxford. But she added: "It cannot help but raise concerns about students who are working on perfectly scholarly topicsI It may affect their choice of topics, which cannot be good for the full exchange of ideas."
Others felt the implications for scholarship were less dire. Michael Dillon of Durham University's Centre for Contemporary Chinese Studies said: "At the level of relations between individual scholars and institutions, there probably will not be (any adverse effects) at the moment. There is a feeling on both sides that these are links that have taken a great deal of time to build up, and individuals and institutions would not want them to suffer."
ACADEMICS IN CHINESE HANDS
• Li Shaomin , a US citizen, teaches business at the City University of Hong Kong. He was arrested on February 25 on his way to visit Shenzhen. His research focuses on China's economic reforms and the use of advertising.
• Gao Zhan , a permanent US resident and a research scholar at the American University in Washington DC, has been accused of spying for unspecified foreign intelligence agencies. She is said to have confessed, but her husband said she had not.
• Xu Zerong , a sociologist who holds a doctorate from Oxford University and is an associate research professor at Guangdong Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, was arrested in October. No charges have been detailed. It is not known where he is being held, and he has not had access to a lawyer.