missives from academia

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For previous posts on academics being blacklisted from China, see this piece by James Millward and this one by Dru Gladney.

By Calla Wiemer

Lacking any US institutional affiliation for most of my banned years, I hold a different perspective from other contributors to the Xinjiang volume. Rather than being disappointed at the dearth of support at home, I marvel at the courage of Chinese colleagues who have continued to collaborate with me and mobilize letters of invitation.

My first denial in October of 2003 came as I was applying for a visa to start a job in Beijing managing the China office of a US consulting firm. I was packed and ready to take up long-term residence when the bottom dropped out. In the eight years since, I have rarely been without a visa effort of some sort underway. Purposes ranged from editing the China Human Development Report of 2005 to presenting a paper at the first Beijing Forum to conducting fieldwork for the Asian Development Bank on economic corridors for the Greater Mekong Sub-region. Despite one failure after another, somebody was always willing to step up and invite me again. In most of these cases there was little or no institutional buffer between me and a Chinese individual putting his or her neck on the line. Finally, in December 2010, we succeeded. I got a visa to teach a one-week graduate course at Beijing Normal University. The professor who invited me has known me for 30 years and convinced his institution that he understood me and that I would not cause any problems.

Certainly this kind of courage on the Chinese side must be honored on my part by staying within the out-of-bounds markers (a term I learned during four years of harbor in Singapore). You can call it self-censorship. In the larger scheme of things, I think there is more to be gained on both sides by engagement on these terms than by no engagement at all.

Whether the same considerations extend to the institutions whose lack of support is lamented in the Bloomberg piece, I don’t know. I also don’t know whether more formal pressure from US universities and other institutions such as the National Committee on US-China Relations or the Luce Foundation, which funded the Xinjiang Project, would have helped, or would still help at this stage. Here’s the rub: If we get in through duress and Chinese colleagues are intimidated about working with us, what is the point? Exerting influence is a delicate matter.

Calla Wiemer is a Visiting Scholar at the US-China Institute, University of Southern California.

By Dru C. Gladney

China can say no, as was once declared in the title of the popular 1990s Chinese book. A sovereign country, China has every right to admit or exclude those who seek permission to enter. That it has chosen to exclude a group of scholars who contributed to an edited volume on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, now known as the “Xinjiang 13,” should not and will not elicit much concern in the wider academic world, despite a slew of recent articles in Bloomberg, the Washington Post, the New York Times, blog fora like China Beat, and on listservs such as China-pol, etc. It is also interesting that this issue has only now emerged in the popular press, nearly eight years later. What does concern me, as one of the names on the list, is the suggestion that there is anything one can do personally, or even collectively, to be removed from such a list, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.

Jim Millward suggests there are certain lessons that can be learned from this experience to help prevent it from happening to someone else. More importantly, he argues that if university and other academic institutions had acted collectively to put pressure on China, our visa troubles “could have been quickly resolved.”  Although I agree with Jim on almost all of his astute responses to the Bloomberg and Post articles regarding our situation, I could not disagree more with this particular assertion. I’m also concerned that this idea bears a faint resemblance to certain 19th century Western efforts to “change” China, and even “save” it (from what exactly, I never have been clear). Just as the perfect storm of events that came together to create perhaps the very first “group blacklist” of a wide range of scholars working on a similar topic by any nation – there are a plethora of scholars and activists who have been denied entré to many countries – is highly complex and impossible to explain, so too the ability of the Chinese state to both impose and perhaps then, to reverse, a decision will perhaps never be fully understood. As one high-ranking Chinese scholar-official suggested to me: “It takes a certain amount of power to put one on such a list, but much greater power to take one off it.”

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson once famously labeled the sort of haphazard and unpredictable process outlined above “schismogenesis.” I suggest that when it comes to a place like China, with 1.3 billion people ruled by a Communist Party under the presumed enlightened guidance of a Chairman and nine-member politburo (all chosen through a selection process that no one has ever explained), the dynamics of schismogenesis are raised to a whole new level of intensity and complexity.

The seemingly arbitrary and idiosyncratic process by which I have been able to obtain three visas to China since the blacklist was put into place in 2004 illustrates this rather unpredictable process. I believe only one other scholar from the group has been able to travel to China more than twice since the list was drawn up, and neither of us have visited Xinjiang (whereas I had travelled to China more than ten times the previous year, and at least six times to Xinjiang in that year alone). It has been noted that it took quite a few years after the Frederick Starr edited volume, Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland (M.E. Sharpe, 2004), was published that the contributors began to become gradually aware we were all on the same list.

In my case, I was actually carrying around a stamp in my passport that indicated I was denied a visa in Hong Kong in 2006 for over a year, before I realized the meaning of such a stamp. It is a simple red stamp that gives a date and a place (in Chinese), presumably signifying where the denial took place. It was situated nowhere near any of the previous Chinese visas that adorned almost every other page of my passport. Once I discovered the stamp (pointed out to me by one of my fellow contributors who had been unsuccessfully trying to overturn the denial for two years), I immediately “lost” that passport and applied for a new one (a photo of the stamp can be viewed in a powerpoint presentation linked to the Bloomberg article on the blacklisting of US scholars).

On my next visa application, I found a new stamp had been surreptitiously placed in the back of the new passport. When I asked the consular clerk why I was denied, I was told: “You should know.” None of the Xinjiang 13 have ever been given an explanation, any kind of explanation, regarding why our group was singled out, whereas many of the authors of other works much more critical of China than ours, on a range of topics from Xinjiang, to Tibet, to Taiwan, to human rights, to the treatment of women, and the repression of artists, writers, and activists, continue to travel to China with relative impunity.

Once I realized I could no longer obtain a multiple entry visa to China within an hour of arriving in Hong Kong, as I had done in 2003, I began to speak to my Chinese friends and colleagues about this. Most were equally shocked and dismayed. Almost all of them believed they could help me and that this “inconvenience” would be easily and quickly resolved. To their credit, all of them tried, and many of them have continued to exert great efforts to bring me back.  I was particularly dismayed in 2006 that I could not immediately travel to China to attend the funeral of my adopted “dry” Muslim Chinese father and mentor, to whom I dedicated my first book in 1991.

It was only after I inadvertently mentioned this problem to a Chinese acquaintance, a journalist from Shanghai based in the U.S. who had often interviewed me on the “Xinjiang problem,” that he offered to help. It turned out that he happened to be an elementary school classmate of Wenzhong Zhou, who was then the Chinese Ambassador to the US. For my first visit, I was told to meet with a consular official in Washington, D.C. After waiting for two hours, I was courteously received and merely asked my opinion regarding the Uyghur, and specifically the businesswoman, Rebiya Kadeer, who was at that time being held in a prison outside of Urumqi. I told him my views as presented in a public lecture at Georgetown University the night before, and that I believed it was in China’s interest to release Ms. Kadeer as soon as possible.

I was never asked to write or sign anything. I was asked to not speak to media, nor travel to Xinjiang, and to be “objective” in my assessment of Xinjiang. My interlocutor did not seem well-briefed on the problems in Xinjiang nor familiar with the content of the Starr volume. After I received my visa, I immediately flew that evening to Beijing in order to present a lecture at the prestigious Beijing Forum hosted by Peking University. When I arrived at the Beijing Capitol Airport, I was unexpectedly taken by the visa officer to a small windowless room and forced to sit there for over four hours without recourse to telephone or communication with the outside world, while they presumably checked to see whether my visa was valid.

On a subsequent trip, I was detained for over an hour at the Shanghai airport. On my third trip in 2009, I was detained slightly on my way out of the Beijing airport.  I was never at any time given any explanation why my papers were suspect. Prior to every visit I filled out the requisite visa application and attached official letters of invitation from the various universities and institutes who inviting me to speak or meet with them.

While in China, to my knowledge my activities and movements were not monitored in any obvious way. I did meet with my sponsor’s associates and spouse on each visit and asked politely to be careful and “objective.” I was widely received and warmly welcomed “home” by my many Chinese friends and colleagues, some of whom I had known for nearly 30 years, and who seemed equally mystified and angered by my visa problems. I’ll never forget the conflicted emotions I felt when, upon my rather tardy arrival at the Beijing Forum plenary session, which at that moment happened to be in session in the Great Hall of the People, a large group of my Chinese colleagues stood up during the middle of the lecture and cheered when I entered the room.

The schismogenetic mixture of personal relationships, political connections, shifting contexts and questionable contents that led to that moment, my subsequent trips, and later continued visa denials, as well as the placing of my name on such a list, I doubt can ever be fully understood or accounted for. Nor do I believe that this decision can be easily reversed or influenced by any individual or institution.  Now that my friend in D.C. has retired and returned to China, and Ambassador Zhou has stepped down, I have no idea if I will be able to travel to China again, and I have been told that some Chinese academies are wary of inviting me.

Western universities and academic institutions can and should play a role in supporting their scholars and promoting the open exchange of different opinions and points of view. That is what defines the essence of academic freedom. I do think that it is only when a wide range of individuals and institutions in China come to the realization that it is through open and regular dialogue with different points of view and a wide range of individuals that we might fully begin to resolve our differences and address our societal problems. Chinese themselves must change China, and realize it is in their best interests to do so. To paraphrase my friend, it takes a certain level of strength for China to say “no,” but even more, in my opinion, to say “yes.”

Dru C. Gladney is Professor of Anthropology at Pomona College and the author of Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects (University of Chicago Press, 2004) and Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic (Harvard University Press, 1991, 2nd ed., 1996).

By Silvia Lindtner

As scholars we speak frequently in public and are confronted with various interpretations of our work by others who at times do not share our own viewpoints. Though this often brings with it excitement at the opportunity to form bridges between academic and other discourses, reaching audiences beyond our own disciplines and engaging a wider public still remains a challenge for many of us. We look at these conversations as opportunities for further debate, for mutual learning, and for being introduced to different perspectives on our work. At times, how one’s work finds resonance elsewhere surprises, illuminating the scholar’s responsibility to engage with institutional and political actors that might appropriate our work to accomplish their own goals. Being a young scholar, my first encounter with such an experience came in late April of this year, when China Daily correspondent Kelly Chung Dawson reported about a conference panel on Internet technology in China that I participated in.

The panel was entitled “Changing Social Configurations and New Media Technologies in China” and took place at the Annual Association for Asian Studies conference in Honolulu, Hawaii. My co-panelists Randy Kluver, Steven Balla, Cara Wallis, Marcella Szablewicz, and I spoke from various perspectives on the role new media and Internet technologies play in relation to cultural, social, and political re-configurations in China. Our underlying goal was to position the role of Internet technology against more common deterministic views that either render technology as an opportunity space to solve larger societal problems or as a means to increase the reach of government control.

Ironically, what Kelly Chung Dawson took away from our panel was in many ways exactly that: an inherently deterministic take on technological change in China in line with the national discourse that portrays political intervention into cyberspace as a largely productive one. We had attempted to provide a nuanced account of policy change in regards to the changing IT landscape in China and we expressed the importance of moving beyond binary and overly simplistic accounts that focus on IT regulation alone, as is so often the case in Western mass media outlets. Taking Dawson’s article seriously, we did not succeed in communicating the importance of understanding technological shifts in China as working in dialogue with (rather than determining or being determined by) social, political, and economic change.

And so perhaps, for the responsible scholar, this encounter with a particular kind of media uptake should provide the opportunity to reflect on her role as a knowledge producer beyond the academic publication: How does one engage diverse audiences and members of different disciplines? How does one find a language that communicates clearly, yet still allows for a complex argument? How can we engage others through dialogue instead of quick assessments, especially in times when decreases in funding resources and pressures within one’s own institution often don’t allow for more in-depth engagement?

From an academic perspective, this encounter has made me think of what Nigel Thrift entitled “soft capitalism,” the up-take of theoretical work and knowledge productions in circles beyond the academy – the provocation that knowledge production within academia does not deserve (anymore) a privileged position in our society today. The latter seems appealing to me, as I am intrigued by the blurring of disciplinary boundaries and passionate about approaching my ethnographic encounters in part as forms of collaboration and encounters in distributed knowledge systems (Marcus 2009). What alternate modes of collaboration could we envision for the academic scholar – for example with policy makers, state officials, and media? To what degree can and should a scholar be hold accountable for the ways in which her research finds resonance elsewhere?

What the medium of the blog allows me to do here is respond to the media report by crafting my own story. And so I want to share with you what I thought were some of the exciting issues raised at the panel that didn’t end up in the China Daily article:

The different talks brought to the fore political interests that stimulate technological and policy change, issues of class and practices of distinction-making that flourish despite the increase in people who have access to Internet technology, as well as transnational collaborations between the local IT scene and centers of technological innovation elsewhere. Wallis, for example, explored forms of governmentality that emerge in training programs for young migrant women, who are encouraged to “govern themselves” as technology-savvy, self-reliant citizens in order to become “good citizens.” Szablewicz and I spoke to the creative Internet practices among young Chinese, but also to the ways in which technology comes to function as indicator of social status, class distinction, and as an expression of the quality citizen. We illustrated how Internet and new media practice in China is not just a bounded local phenomenon, but evolves in relation to  translocal IT narratives around new forms of innovation and creativity. Balla reported on citizen engagement in the policy process and illustrated how much of the engagement remains restricted to elite users and members of the wealthier upper-middle or educated classes. Kluver spoke to the ways in which political culture in China is expanded through technology and e-governance investment, but also explained linkages to the larger political project for China’s position in a global market.

What these various findings on technological shifts tell us is that technological change in China is not the story of technology as an enabler of a linear path towards modernity, but rather of a complex entanglement of particular material affordances, China’s changing role in global markets and politics, new institutional collaborations and transnational engagements of the local IT industry, and development in other areas such as urban redesign and NGO work. We explored how these changes unfold on the ground, for a diverse set of people such as youth, young entrepreneurs, migrant women, policy makers, and designers.

Passionate to push forward cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary engagements and learning, I position my encounter with this particular media uptake with a hopeful outlook. Media and new media (like the one this response will be published in) converge in interesting ways (Jenkins 2006), providing opportunity for experimentation with expression and playful encounters with others who might be difficult to reach otherwise. So, perhaps one day, a China Daily correspondent will not only attend our panel at some future AAS meeting, but also engage us in a discussion so that we, as scholars, can learn from her own experiences and the multiple disciplinary and discursive landscapes she had to learn to navigate, just as we did, in order to do her job well.

Jenkins, H. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press.
Marcus, G. E. 2009. Multi-sited Ethnography: Notes and Queries. In Mark-Anthony Falzon (ed.), Multi-sited Ethnography: Theory, Praxis and Locality in Contemporary Research. Ashgate.
Thrift, N. 2005. The Rise of Softcapitalism. In Knowing Capitalism. Londong: Sage Publications.

Silvia Lindtner is a PhD candidate in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine.

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

As I noted in an article I wrote for the Dissent website earlier this week, one of the major China-related stories of 2011 has been the government’s ever-increasing crackdown on public expression. What started subtly back in January—a slowdown in internet service here and there, more websites (including this one) being blocked—became a full-blown international issue on April 3, when artist and activist Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing airport. Ai’s disappearance has sparked a flood of analysis and commentaries: Colin Jones discusses “The Purge of Ai Weiwei” at Dissent, Evan Osnos at the New Yorker has written a series of blog posts on the subject (here, here, here, here, and here), and the shows Bob Dylan played in Beijing and Shanghai last week became entangled in the issue as a number of pundits asked “Did Bob Dylan sell out?” for not calling on the Chinese government to release Ai (more links than I can list, but check our Twitter feed for a selection and also listen to friend of the blog Jon Wiener discuss the issue with Dylan-ologist Sean Wilentz during his latest “On the Radio” show).

Before Ai Weiwei’s arrest and Dylan’s performances, though, I had the chance to consider China’s tightening of the internet within a broader context, as I attended a lively conversation on the topic at the Association for Asian Studies’ annual meeting in Honolulu two weeks ago. I was at the conference to assist with three “Late-Breaking News” panels funded by the Luce Foundation, including one entitled “New Media and Old Dilemmas: Online Protest and Cyber Repression in Asia.” This panel brought together a range of journalists and academics: Orville Schell of the Asia Society served as moderator and Rob Gifford of NPR and Ananth Krishnan of The Hindu traveled from China to participate, joined by freelance journalist Angilee Shah and USC professor Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution. For China Beat readers unable to attend the meeting (start planning for Toronto 2012!), here’s a quick summary of the presentations each panelist gave during the session.

Panelists, L-R: Rob Gifford, Ananth Krishnan, Orville Schell, Angilee Shah, Andrew Lih

Schell noted in his remarks opening the panel that U.S.-China relations often seem to have shrunk to the internet issue, which now subsumes all other matters of concern to the two nations: free speech, religion, defense, business deals, and more—perhaps most strikingly clear in Hillary Clinton’s “China and the internet” speech last January. Yet China is certainly not the only country to monitor and control its citizens’ web use, as the ensuing discussion emphasized.

Taking the session’s title under consideration, Rob Gifford began by meditating on how new media has challenged the Chinese government’s “old dilemma”—namely, how to control its population. He pointed out that the source and direction of discourse in Chinese society have both undergone a fundamental change as a result of rising internet use in China. The government no longer stands as a single voice at the top, with a controlled message directed toward the country’s population; instead, everyone is talking to everyone else in a cacophony of sound that might obscure the fact that, as Gifford wryly stated, the majority of people are saying “nothing.” He views most users as primarily concerned with the internet’s potential to entertain and divert them, and only a small number of Chinese netizens as interested in using it as a tool to foment popular discontent. When the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa, Gifford argued, most Chinese people “were too busy shopping to stroll for revolution.” Yet he did not discount the tremendous impact that access to the web and the information available on it has had on people at all levels of Chinese society, and concluded by noting that in its ever-increasing control of the internet, the Chinese Communist Party is revealing a nervousness that hints at just how limited and uncertain its vision for the future really is.

Ananth Krishnan placed Chinese internet restrictions within a comparative context, drawing parallels between protests in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region in 2009 and the Indian-administered state of Kashmir in 2010. Both protests, Krishnan argued, showed that the internet had become a tool used by dissatisfied youth, but it was a tool that could only prove effective to a certain extent. While the Chinese government’s decision to “turn off” the internet in Xinjiang for several months caused consternation both within and, especially, beyond the country, India’s shutdown of websites related to the Kashmir protests resulted in little public discussion. Krishnan concluded with the observation that in both India and China, there is a lack of legal framework for dealing with online activism and the “crimes” related to it, so the governments of the two countries prosecute cyber activists under other statutes (Schell added that in China, Mao-era counterrevolutionary laws have been repackaged into state subversion laws and used to prosecute figures such as Liu Xiaobo, the currently imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner).

As Angilee Shah emphasized, however, in some countries the government does not need to intervene directly into the cyber world—citizens themselves restrict their own online outspokenness. She pointed to Singapore, where the culture of self-censorship has spread so pervasively that the government finds blacking out websites unnecessary. Despite this, however, some younger web users are increasingly using new media to subtly circumvent the government’s restrictions on what they can say; if and when that becomes a more widespread phenomenon, government leaders will find themselves in need of a new approach to online activism.

Andrew Lih returned to China in his presentation, discussing the tensions within the government’s attitude toward the internet and the technology world more generally: while China would like to move up the high-tech value chain and increase its presence in research and development, it also wants to control how people use that technology and what happens when they do. Continuing on this theme of balance, Lih pointed out the compromises the Chinese government has made in its treatment of internet use—permitting, for example, the existence of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that enable web users to access blocked websites. As long as the number of people using VPNs remains on a small scale, the government has seen little need to clamp down on their circumvention of its internet restrictions. In the aggregate, the Chinese government still accomplishes its goal of restricting widespread public discourse, proving, as Lih stated, that “you don’t need perfect censorship to have effective censorship.”

With their presentations concluded, the panelists embarked on a discussion with each other and with the audience that brought in considerations of other locales while focusing on internet issues in China. Rob Gifford argued that while in recent months the Western media has frequently debated the prospects for a Jasmine Revolution in China, the country’s “hopelessness rate” is quite low—reinforcing a comment he had made earlier in the session, that in China today a lot of people have the dream of a better life, or at least the ability to imagine that dream—and there is far less frustration among young urban Chinese than there was among the young urban Egyptians who filled Tahrir Square. One audience member proposed that in China, we might see a model for economic growth without internet freedom, contrary to the expectations of all who celebrated the world wide web as a worldwide force for democracy. Krishnan reminded attendees that China has defeated almost every prediction made (about the pace of its economic development, the stability of its political system, etc.) for the past decade or more, and the country shows no signs of slowing down. Though there are certainly people speaking out against the increasing restrictions that the Chinese government has been implementing out since January, it remains to be seen how the situation will play out. As befits a “Late-Breaking News” panel, the speakers had no definitive conclusions or solutions to offer, but simply ended with a logical piece of advice for the audience: stay tuned.


Two of the scholarly publications on our radar have new China-related content online:

• The August 2010 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies features a four-article forum on “Transnational Extravaganzas” that is available to non-subscribers online (the rest of the issue’s content is by subscription only). The first piece in the forum, “Expo 2010: A Historical Perspective” is by cultural historian Susan Fernsebner (who has written on the Expo for China Beat in the past); another forum contributor with a China Beat connection is journalist Pallavi Aiyar, author of “From 2008 to 2010: Big-Ticket Spectacles in China and India.” The other two forum articles (not about China, but well worth reading!) are “Delhi and CWG2010: The Games Behind the Games,” by Kalyani Menon-Sen and “An Ordinary Country,” by Dilip Menon.

• Over at China Heritage Quarterly, the latest issue takes a look at Matteo Ricci, Jesuit missionary to the Ming, on the 400th anniversary of his death. Check out how the occasion was marked around the world; read Nicolas Standaert’s analysis of how Ricci’s life and work were shaped by his years in China; and watch an online lecture about Ricci delivered by Professor Antoni Üçerler. In the “Articles” section of CHQ, you’ll find “A Bible for Beijing,” written by Pierre Fuller and originally published here at China Beat.

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