China steps up targeting of European academics

Beijing has banned dozens of China researchers and their families, while the country’s embassy to France called an expert a “petty thug” on Twitter

March 25, 2021
Berlin protest against the Chinese government’s policies towards Uighurs
Source: Getty

Scholars at one of Europe’s biggest China research centres have been banned from visiting the country in an unprecedented move by Beijing that academics worry will have a chilling effect on research.

The Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), a Berlin-based institute with more than 30 analysts, was sanctioned along with two other academics, several outspoken MEPs and national lawmakers, and a handful of foreign-policy-focused bodies.

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

One sanctioned researcher has already been disinvited from speaking at a European conference, he warned, declining to name the organiser to give them a chance to change their mind.

“That’s an extremely worrying sign, because that’s exactly what China wants,” he said.

Merics, which is affiliated to two German universities and funded by a private German foundation, said in a statement that it was “dedicated to foster a better and more differentiated understanding of China” and would “continue to pursue this mission by presenting fact-based analysis”.

Another targeted expert was Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington DC-based organisation that campaigns against “the tyranny of communism”. Dr Zenz has written numerous journal articles and opinion pieces criticising Beijing’s Uighur internment camps in the far-west province of Xinjiang.

Also sanctioned was Björn Jerdén, director the Swedish National China Centre in Stockholm, whose work focuses on the attitudes of the Swedish government and public to China.

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

The bans extends to sanctioned scholars’ families. In addition, “they and companies and institutions associated with them are also restricted from doing business with China”, according to a statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The move by Beijing is retaliation for European Union sanctions against four Chinese officials the bloc says are implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Announcing the bans on 22 March, Beijing said the experts and parliamentarians “severely harm China’s sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond immediately to a request for further comment from Times Higher Education.

Separately in France, a diplomatic row erupted after China’s embassy called a French researcher a “petty thug” on Twitter. It later doubled down, calling him an “ideological troll” in a follow-up statement.

Antoine Bondaz, a China specialist at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, had been criticising perceived pressure by Beijing on French lawmakers not to visit Taiwan.

“By insulting me, trying to discredit and intimidate me, the Chinese embassy in France is obviously trying to control the public debate in France and indirectly the production of academic knowledge,” he told THE.

The French government has publicly backed Dr Bondaz, dressing down the Chinese embassy for “insults and attempts at intimidation” and condemning “insults against independent researchers”.

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