Ousted US academic to leave China, citing fears for his safety

Peking University HSBC Business School declines to renew outspoken researcher’s contract

July 23, 2018
Beijing airport

An American academic who lost his post at an elite Chinese university is now leaving the Asian country, citing concerns about his personal safety.

“China has reached a point where I do not feel safe being a professor and discussing even the economy, business and financial markets,” Christopher Balding writes in a blog post about his departure from Peking University HSBC Business School, in Shenzhen, and his subsequent decision to leave China.

Dr Balding has a prolific presence on Twitter, which is blocked in China, and frequently appears in the media commenting on issues related to the Chinese economy, including as a television commentator for Bloomberg and in opinion pieces for Bloomberg and Foreign Policy. In August of last year, Balding spearheaded a petition calling on Cambridge University Press to resist the Chinese government’s demand that it censor articles in the China Quarterly journal. (Cambridge originally assented to the government’s request to block access to hundreds of journal articles in mainland China, but reversed course after coming under heavy criticism from academics such as Dr Balding).

Dr Balding could be sharply critical of the Chinese government, tweeting in recent weeks about China’s human rights record and the threat that he sees Beijing as posing to the liberal world order – subjects he also addressed in the blog post about his departure.

In his post, Dr Balding says that the business school informed him in early November – not long after the Cambridge University Press petition – that it would not renew his contract. He does not specify the reason that his contract was not renewed but makes clear in his post that he believes it was different to the “official” reason he was given.

“Despite technical protections, I knew and accepted the risks of working for the primary university in China run by the Communist Party in China as a self-professed libertarian. Though provided with an ‘official’ reason for not renewing my contract, my conscience is clean and I can document most everything that demonstrates the contrary should I ever need to prove otherwise. I know the unspoken reason for my dismissal. You do not work under the Communist Party without knowing the risks,” Dr Balding writes.

HSBC Business School’s media office did not respond to requests for comment. However, the dean of the business school, Hai Wen, told The Wall Street Journal that an evaluation of Dr Balding found “poor” performance in teaching, research and other areas. The dean said that Dr Balding’s dismissal was a “normal academic employment decision”.

Dr Balding declined to elaborate on the circumstances of his dismissal, but said via email: “I think the academy should be increasingly concerned about the silencing of opinions of Chinese and foreign academics working in China.”

“Having enjoyed my time in China with wonderful research opportunities, I think my record of professional advancement during my tenure at the HSBC Business School of Peking University as well my impactful research across a variety of topics and channels speaks for itself. My standards in the classroom were drawn from the highest quality syllabi, requirements for student work and honesty, which I will continue to stand behind. I will always think back with fondness to this time.”

Dr Balding’s departure comes at a time of increasing concern about a crackdown on academic freedom in China and a continuing shrinking of the space for critical academic discourse. Still, Dr Balding’s blog entry is striking for the degree to which he – as an American academic employed by a Chinese university – expressed fear for his physical safety.

“One of my biggest fears living in China has always been that I would be detained,” he writes. “Though I happily pointed out the absurdity of the rapidly encroaching authoritarianism, a fact that continues to elude so many experts not living in China, I tried to make sure I knew where the line was and did not cross it. There is a profound sense of relief to be leaving safely knowing others, Chinese or foreigners, who have had significantly greater difficulties than myself. There are many cases that resulted in significantly more problems for them. I know I am blessed to make it out.”

Louisa Lim, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Melbourne and author of the book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, described Dr Balding’s case as “the latest in a series of worrying developments regarding constraints upon foreign academics working in, or on, China”.

“Over the past couple of years, we have heard reports of surveillance, harassment and intimidation, including the week-long detention of the Australian Chinese professor Feng Chongyi” in the spring of 2017, Ms Lim said. “I co-host a podcast, The Little Red Podcast, and we had an episode on the intimidation and harassment of academics where we interviewed a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, Dayton Lekner, who spent some time in China researching the 1957-59 Anti-Rightist movement, and was subject to a police interrogation on his research.

“That a junior scholar should be subjected to such outright intimidation shows the granular nature of state surveillance of foreign academics. In that episode, we also made an open callout for academics to get in touch with their stories, and we did hear from academics working in fields similar to Christopher Balding’s who expressed their fears regarding working in China, and other experiences of surveillance by state security. Many foreign academics are reluctant to speak openly about their concerns, having invested their careers in having access to China, but Christopher Balding's piece does track with what many others are saying behind closed doors.”

“In recent years, we've seen what amounts to a forcible closing of the Chinese mind,” Ms Lim added. “Not only are there fewer academic exchanges, but recently we’re even hearing of examples of Western textbooks and writings being censored in Chinese classrooms, with sections blocked out. In the current climate, the kind of unspoken constraints placed upon academic research are making partnerships between Chinese and Western academics harder to manage. One cause of concern for Western academics is whether their actions – or writings – could cause trouble for Chinese colleagues or co-authors, and the burden of this responsibility sometimes causes Western academics to self-censor or temper their public behaviour.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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