Chinese academics ‘pressured’ into conference withdrawal

Incident could signal ‘big reversal’ of Chinese government policy on international academic exchange, academics say

March 30, 2022
Great Wall of China
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Scholars based in mainland China were “pressured” into pulling out of a recent Asia studies conference, according to the event’s organisers.

If confirmed, the incident – which is still under investigation – could signal a significant departure in policy by China’s government, which has for years worked to strengthen academic collaborations with the West.

On 29 March, the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) confirmed that some participants based in China had quit an event it held days earlier.

“The AAS is aware that some scholars located in the PRC [People’s Republic of China] were pressured into withdrawing from their scheduled online presentations at the recently concluded 2022 annual conference,” the group said.

According to reports from attendees, some – though not all – China-based participants failed to deliver their scheduled talks.

“I attended virtually and did hear a presentation from a scholar who was in China, but also attended a panel where the participant from China was absent, with no reason stated,” said Michel Hockx, director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University who also participated in the conference, told Times Higher Education that, while it may not have affected all China-based scholars, the incident appeared to be related to a clampdown by China’s government.

“It’s looking now that it was not an across-the-board sudden ban, but more rigorous enforcement of existing requirements for prior approval of paper titles, panel titles, participants, et cetera,” he said.

Even so, he argued that the move was significant. “It’s a big reversal from the pattern of the past decades,” he said.

“This is the first obvious case of [the] PRC Ministry of Education really restricting and controlling PRC scholars en masse – if not totally for AAS – but continues [the] pattern of increased requirements for reporting and approval of conference participation based on content that has been developing for some years.”

Professor Millward noted that the incident followed a period in which China promoted internationalisation of its academia, with the Chinese government requiring scholars to publish in ranked English-language journals for promotion and making funds “widely available” for visiting scholar posts abroad.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London, agreed that recent events could signal a large shift in policy by Beijing.

“If the ban is to prohibit all mainland China-based scholars from participating, in person or online, this would be the first time, and thus a landmark development,” he said, although he cautioned that “information available to me does not at this stage confirm that”.

He said the incident might be a furthering of China’s policy of “selective decoupling intellectually” from the West, which dates back to 2013.

Under that policy, Professor Tsang explained, China would “continue to engage with the rest of the world to acquire top technologies and to improve its own innovations but will not allow itself to be ‘polluted’ by Western liberal ideas”, and given that, “restrictions on scholars in interacting with their Western counterparts on ‘undesirable’ subjects is a logical development”.

During the presidency of Xi Jinping, the government has “steadily tightened control over interactions between Chinese scholars not in STEM subjects with their Western counterparts”, Professor Tsang said.

The organisers of the AAS event said they were working to determine the “number of individuals involved and the scope of actions affecting conference participants”.

They also called for continued knowledge sharing, regardless of borders or nationality.

“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 statement said.

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