James A. Millward: Being Blacklisted by China, And What Can Be Learned from It

Roundup: Historians' Take

James A. Millward is Professor of Intersocietal History at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Bloomberg, and more recently The Washington Post, have run stories about the visa problems of scholars who contributed to Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland, a volume edited by Frederick Starr and published by M.E. Sharpe in 2004. The Bloomberg piece was exhaustively reported; the reporters who wrote it, Dan Golden and Oliver Staley, conducted interviews with Chinese as well as western participants in the episode, and all in all did a good job with a complicated story.

Inevitably, however, the Bloomberg piece creates some misconceptions, and these are as likely to be reinforced as cleared up in news reports that build on it, as the Washington Post story of last weekend shows. Now seems the time both to correct the problematic aspects of the Bloomberg piece and also to discuss lessons we may take away from the entire episode. There are a couple of key issues involved. Of special importance to scholars of China: are you in danger of being banned for what you write? My answer below will be, “not really.” And for universities, grant agencies and other institutions involved in academic exchanges with China, the episode raises the question of what you should do in the face of official Chinese interference in curriculum, research, guest lectures or other academic matters. I will suggest that a strong and collective response, organized by institutions and not left to the affected scholars themselves, is imperative. The reason for such a response is not simply to help individual scholars get visas, but to make the point that academic exchange must be unhampered and reciprocal and to set the right tone for future academic interchange with China.

1. Why were contributors to this book refused visas?

Believe it or not, it was not the content per se of the Starr volume that caused the trouble. Those who have read it, in China and outside, are surprised that it caused such a furor. This volume on Xinjiang doesn’t touch directly on the most sensitive issues of human rights or terrorism, for example. Is it different in approach and argument from writing on Xinjiang published in China? Of course. Could it have been translated into Chinese and openly distributed in China? No. But in this it is no different from anything written outside China on such “sensitive” 敏感 issues as contemporary Chinese politics, Taiwan, Tibet, the environment, Falun Gong, the Cultural Revolution or CCP history. We can’t know for sure (few if any people are ever told explicitly why a visa is denied), but it seems that the contributors to this volume were refused visas more because of context than content, because of the fact of the book’s existence and the manner in which authorities learned of it, rather than what was in the book itself. The following are among the special circumstances that led to the trouble:

•Politicization of the project:

Editor Frederick Starr, not a China specialist, contacted the Chinese embassy at the very start (without prior knowledge or consent of the contributors), seeking official Chinese collaboration. I believe this put the work on radar screens it otherwise would not have got on. A better approach would have been to work through Chinese academic contacts, either individual scholars or the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Also possibly contributing to the problem was the fact that meetings associated with the book were held in Washington, D.C. Besides this, there was the unfortunate Chinese rendering of the initial working title, “Xinjiang Project,” as Xinjiang gongcheng 新疆工程. Unlike “project,” a term innocuous enough in English, “gongcheng” has political connotations. The more neutral xiangmu 项目, or even simply yanjiu 研究, would have been preferable and more accurate. The fact that the book was mischaracterized in Chinese as a US government-funded project arises from these and related circumstances. The book received Luce Foundation funding, and meetings were held at Johns Hopkins SAIS. The only government involvement was that which Starr sought from the Chinese government.

Read entire article at The China Beat (Blog)

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