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U.S. Ban on Chinese Scholars Hurts Itself

Apr 24, 2019
  • Jia Qingguo

    Director and Professor, Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding, Peking University

The New York Times reported on April 14 that "as many as 30 Chinese professors in the social sciences, head of academic institutes and experts who help explain government policies have had their visas to the United States canceled in the past year, or put on administrative review."

This move by the US government is regrettable. It reflects both anxiety and lack of confidence on its part: anxiety because it is worried that Chinese scholars would collect "intelligence" while they are in the US and lack of confidence because it has little trust in willingness and ability of its officials and think tank experts to keep secrets when hosting Chinese scholars.

The US government's move grossly exaggerates the ability of Chinese scholars to obtain US secrets and underestimates the willingness and ability of US officials and experts to keep them. The fact is that on the one hand, Chinese scholars do not really have access to any confidential information when they are in the US and what they can see and hear are views of US officials and scholars expressed in public. On the other hand, the US officials and experts are equally protective of US national interests and are fully aware of what they are talking about and what they can say to foreigners.

Generally speaking, exchanges between Chinese scholars and US officials and experts have three functions. First, they help the Chinese side get a better understanding of the views of the US government and American people on some issues between the two countries. Second, they help the US officials and experts get a more nuanced understanding of the views of the Chinese government and the Chinese people on these issues. Third, it helps both sides explore pragmatic ways to manage the problems in China-US relations.

In fact, this is what some US think tank experts and scholars have been doing in China for years. Over the years, such exchanges have become an important channel for both Chinese and US scholars to evaluate the state of the relationship and to help their respective government to deal with and manage the problems it faces in a constructive way.

It is true that some of these Chinese scholars share what they have learned in the US with the Chinese government after returning home. As far as I know, some of their American counterparts have been doing the same thing too. One should encourage this type of exchange between scholars of the two countries, rather than discourage it, since it contributes to both countries' efforts to gauge each other's intentions, avoid misunderstanding, and deal with their relationship in a rational and realistic way. In the light of this, it is unwise to restrict the exchange of experts and scholars between the two countries.

For this reason, successive US administrations supported and encouraged exchanges between experts and scholars of both countries. It did so because it believed that such exchanges enable both countries to obtain a more objective and comprehensive understanding of the problems and challenges they face and deal with the increasingly important and complicated relationship on that basis. It appears that current US administration has changed this practice. It will undoubtedly hurt relations between the two countries. Ultimately, it will not only harm Beijing's interests, but also those of Washington.

Every nation has confidential information that it wishes to keep for security reasons. Therefore, it is perfectly understandable that it wants to do whatever possible to prevent others from getting them. However, if such precautions become excessive and severely affect normal exchange with other countries, it can make its country less secure. This is especially so in an increasingly interdependent world.

Both China and the US are large and influential countries. The China-US relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. Properly handling the relationship is not only important for the interests of both countries, but also to global peace and prosperity. Only through effective communication can the two countries manage the relationship properly. In the light of this, both sides should support and encourage the existing exchange of scholars and experts.

It is the duty of the US security establishment to emphasize the risks the country faces and demand greater safeguards. There is nothing wrong with that. However, in conducting foreign relations, US authorities should be aware that the relationship with China involves many important interests beyond the narrowly defined security interests. Only through effective communication can the US advance its national interests in its complicated relations with China. Moreover, defending US security interests requires the US to promote its other interests as well. Only through effective communication can the two countries avoid excessive suspicion, confrontation, and hostility. Therefore, US leaders need to balance its competing interests and put the security interests in a proper place.

In sum, the current policy that restricts Chinese scholars from visiting the US brings harm to Washington as well as to Beijing. The US needs to rethink its policy.

This article first appeared on Global Times

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