Updated September 1, 2011, 08:22 PM
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.