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How Can U.S. Scholars Resist China's Control?

Date: Friday, 02-September-2011
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The New York Times

September 1, 2011 08:53 PM

Top American universities are competing to establish themselves in China, with new campuses and research centers springing up quickly. Nearly 40,000 undergraduates from China study in the U.S., more than from any other foreign country.

For many American scholars, this is a boon. Money is flowing, and new research opportunities abound. But for some professors -- especially those who study sensitive topics like Tibet or Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang -- academic freedom cannot be taken for granted. China has stymied the work of numerous scholars or prevented them from entering the country altogether to conduct fieldwork. A recent Bloomberg News article detailed several such cases, and said that the colleges that employ the professors tended to keep quiet.

How do American universities balance their responsibility to defend academic freedom with their need to be engaged with the world's most dynamic economy?

Read the Discussion

A False Dilemma

Updated September 1, 2011, 08:22 PM

James Millward is a professor of history at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of "Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang."

That American universities must balance academic freedom against their desire to engage with China is a false dilemma.

Over the past decade, China has invested heavily in its institutions of higher learning and in its scholars. This investment has included funding for overseas study by Chinese graduate students, post-docs and visiting professors, as well as expanded scholarship programs to help foreign students study in China. Moreover, Chinese academic institutions have begun evaluating their professors based on their participation in international conferences and publication in foreign journals. Internationalization of academe is a high priority for the Chinese.

At the same time, China has, in a few and unusual cases, refused to grant visas to foreign scholars. For example, two prominent scholars, Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, were blacklisted for activities and publications related to the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. More recently, China denied visas to me and about a dozen other scholars who study Xinjiang and Tibet. We had contributed to a book about Xinjiang that was published in 2004.

How do we reconcile China's rush to internationalize its academe with these rare cases of "you can't play in my sandbox" mentality?

We need to recognize that the people in China responsible for banning foreign scholars are not the same as those signing exchange agreements with American universities. The latter group wants to engage with U.S. academe as much as or more than we want to engage with them.

Our Chinese academic partners will not retaliate if a U.S. university stands up for academic freedom. Not that his has been well tested: The home institutions of those of us blacklisted for work on Xinjiang, including Georgetown, Dartmouth, M.I.T., Yale and Johns Hopkins, have been far too timid, limited and uncreative in their response to our banning.

An uncompromising, collective stand by U.S. institutions of higher learning in the face of Chinese political interference in our curriculum, research, symposiums or guest lectures will push the contradiction back to China. Does China want to internationalize its higher education system, or indulge in counterproductive pressure tactics?

American higher education is the global gold standard. Maintaining that standard by defending its core principle of academic freedom will please the right people in China, more than any basketball game.

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