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Society & Culture

Visa Denial for Chinese Scholars Betrays US Narrowmindedness

Apr 29, 2019
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

Over the past year or so, some Chinese scholars in social sciences have either been told their 10-year US visas were annulled, or have been interrrogated by the FBI at American airports, required to answer whether any of their colleagues had close ties to Chinese intelligence agencies. Should they refuse to cooperate, they would be considered “unfriendly to the US” and see their US visa crossed out with a black pen.

According to The New York Times, about 30 Chinese scholars have been affected. But incomplete statistics by Chinese authorities shows the number has in fact been more than 280.

It’s nothing new for Chinese scholars to be denied US visas. What’s different is that such denials, which used to target researchers and students in high-tech fields, are now targeted mainly at social science and liberal arts scholars, some of whom have obtained conspicuous achievements in international relations and China-US relations, and contributed greatly to China-US mutual understanding. Some were frequent guests of multiple American colleges and research institutions, visiting the US several times a year.

In the eyes of the Chinese public, these FBI actions were targeted not just at individuals, but at bilateral academic and people-to-people exchanges. Such exchanges had prospered over the past 40 years of China-US diplomatic relations. The Chinese side once proposed sending 10,000 students to the US to study, and supporting 10,000 Americans studying in China through the “Chinese Bridge” program, while also offering 10,000 people special scholarships through bilateral exchanges. The US side came up with an ambitious project with the goal of “100,000 people studying in China.” Such initiatives have all seen progress.

China-US academic and people-to-people exchanges have all made notable progress over the decades. Through increasingly frequent visits and student exchanges, as well as the formulation of friendly ties through sister cities and other partnerships, mutual understanding and rapport have thrived, creating a fine public-opinion groundwork for the two parties to resolve contradictions and get rid of disruptions. The FBI’s recent moves, however, have negatively influenced Chinese scholars’ opinions about the US, destroying America’s image in China and greatly damaging US “soft power”.

Such abnormal actions by US authorities have not only prompted dissatisfaction among Chinese scholars and the general public, but have faced questioning and criticism in the US. According to The New York Times, some long-time China experts believe that preventing Chinese scholars from visiting the US without due cause will affect their country’s reputation for academic openness and cooperation. Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, said: “These people are among the most sophisticated in how the US works and are some of the strongest advocates of good relations with the US. We’re alienating some of America's best friends in China."

People will naturally ask: as the US is the strongest country in the world, whose overall strength far surpasses China's,why would they believe that allowing Chinese social science scholars to participate in academic exchanges in the US and compare notes with American peers will threaten US national security? Is the US still the self-confident, open-minded superpower it once was?

A Chinese saying goes “suspicion brews illusions,” meaning suspicion may give rise to various fantasies and misjudgments. This proverb may describe the mindset of the US in viewing Chinese social scientists as a security threat.

According to some scholars, increasing US suspicion of visiting Chinese scholars derives from America’s preception of China as a "strategic rival", and recent moves provide proof that some US authorities are seeking to "decouple" from China. These efforts are against reason and logic. Interdependence between China and the US has reached such a great extent that it's not easy to delink the two countries. The current state of tension results from lack of exchange and mutual confidence.

Shirk stated recently that the US is over-reacting to the "China threat," and this may evolve into a McCarthy-style Red Scare that harms US interests.

Those who craft America’s China policy should listen carefully to such insightful advice.

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