Nobel laureates ‘outraged’ by Chinese censorship

State media defend China’s call to remove two speakers from summit

July 29, 2021
Source: iStock

More than 100 Nobel laureates have signed a statement accusing China of interfering with the Nobel Summit, a virtual event that was co-hosted by the US National Academy of Sciences in April.

In the month leading up to the event, the Chinese Embassy in the US demanded by both email and telephone that two speakers be removed: the Dalai Lama, a Nobel peace laureate, and Yuan Lee, a Taiwan-born chemist and emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, according to the statement.

When the Nobel Foundation went ahead with the two speakers anyway, video transmission of some sessions was interrupted by “cyber-attacks”, according to the statement.

“We are outraged by the Chinese government’s attempt to censor and bully the scientific community by attempting to prevent two of our fellow laureates (or indeed anyone) from speaking at a meeting outside of China,” they write.

Referring to the environmental theme of the event, “Our Planet, Our Future”, the laureates say that “the future of our planet will require collaboration between all nations and all scientists across the globe”.

“International forums such as the Nobel Summit are essential means of finding solutions, maintaining international trust, and securing a more just and prosperous future,” they conclude.

The signees include Daniel Tsui, a Chinese-born physicist and emeritus professor at Princeton University, and Steven Chu, a former US energy secretary and physics professor at Stanford University.

The signees say that “many of us have valued scientific colleagues and long-standing friends in China, with whom we interact productively”. However, if similar actions continue, it may “affect our willingness to participate in events in China, particularly those fully or partially sponsored or supported by the Chinese government”.

Richard Roberts, a biochemist who helped organise the statement, told Science magazine that he would not attend scientific meetings in China until the censorship ends.

The laureates’ statement comes when more overseas scholars, including from neighbouring countries like Japan, are expressing doubt about travelling physically into China, owing to an increase in seemingly arbitrary detention and censorship.

It also comes as China has been actively trying to poach laureates from around the world to run its well-funded “Nobel labs” and innovation centres.

The Global Times, a Chinese state newspaper, blamed the controversy on the US, which it accused of “severely poisoning international science, as it marshalled 100 Nobel laureates to criticise China for trying to prevent two secessionists from speaking”.

However, the signees came from all over the world, including the global South. They include Venki Ramakrishnan, an Indian-born biologist; Hideki Shirakawa, a Japanese chemist; and prominent African writers such as Wole Soyinka and J. M. Coetzee.

The Global Times’ statement cited the Dalai Lama’s roots in Tibet and Professor Lee’s roots in Taiwan as part of China’s decision.

Taiwan’s exclusion from some UN-related academic events has been a long-running issue. It came back into the spotlight in late 2020, when a PhD candidate at Stanford University was barred from a science conference in Italy because of his Taiwanese passport.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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