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BEIJING — The international conference was meant to bring together some of the most promising and established Asian studies scholars from around the world in lush Honolulu.
Instead, at least five Chinese academics based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been barred from attending virtual events via Zoom, according to four people with direct knowledge of the matter.
They said Chinese security officials and education officials intervened directly, citing education regulations issued during a global coronavirus pandemic that require all Chinese scholars to receive clearance from the university to attend any international event in person or online.
“After years of encouraging and funding PRC scholars to participate internationally, the intensified controls of recent years are now on a large scale, and scholarly work, at least on China, needs to be put in place. quarantine of the world,” said James Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University who attended the conference. “The doors slammed quickly.”
The conference, which ended last weekend, was an annual gathering hosted by the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), one of the largest membership organizations in the field. For emerging scholars as well as more experienced scholars, the conference is an opportunity to network and hear the latest research on Asian countries from a variety of disciplines.
Due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, AAS has decided this year to host a combination of in-person events and online-only panels.
In one case, a group of police went to an academic’s home in China after he presented his research paper to an online Zoom panel earlier in the week, questioning the academic for hours, in part because they considered the title of the article “incorrect”.
“It was deeply chilling,” said an academic who attended the panel but requested anonymity to protect the identity of the academic involved.
NPR has reviewed the article but is not publishing its title or topic to protect the identity of the author. The document does not address topics that Chinese authorities normally consider sensitive, such as human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang or Hong Kong.
Chinese scholars participating in a separate virtual panel have also been asked by Chinese university administrators to cancel their presentations. Eventually, they emailed fellow attendees to withdraw from the panel for “medical reasons,” but hoped to attend AAS events again “at less sensitive times,” according to two people with direct knowledge of the incident.
“Topics that have seemingly been considered apolitical are now removed or deemed not allowed to interact with international colleagues,” said another academic who attended the panel and also wished not to be named so as not to identify the relevant Chinese scholars.
Strict COVID prevention policies had already hampered the volume of intellectual exchange between the PRC and the rest of the world. Those who study China have found themselves isolated by border closures that have made travel to and from China nearly impossible, rendering archives and field sites in China inaccessible for the past two years and more.
Since 2016, China’s Ministry of Education has required its scholars to obtain university approval for all overseas travel and collaboration. In September 2020, universities also started applying these rules for online events organized by international organizations, although these rules have not been widely applied so far.
Academics say such checks will further exhaust the already scarce exchanges between China and the rest of the world while hampering the careers of young Chinese scholars.
“We were already anxious, because for those of us who study modern China, it’s been two years with no end in sight as to when we might return to the archives,” said a third scholar who visited China. AAS conference. “You keep thinking maybe somethings will be better, so after the [Winter] Olympics, after [October’s Chinese Communist] Party Congress, there will be an easing of restrictions, but unfortunately it continues to get worse.”
The AAS said it was aware that some PRC-based academics were barred from participating and is now trying to determine exactly how many academics were affected. “The AAS strongly supports the right of scholars around the world to participate in the free exchange of ideas and research through conferences and other forms of academic cooperation,” the association said in a statement posted on Wednesday. its website.
AAS has already are under increased scrutiny in China. In March 2021, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs sanctioned a member of one of the SAA’s board of directors because of his research into Chinese state policy in the Xinjiang region, where the authorities had detained hundreds of thousands of mostly ethnic Uighurs. The scholar, Joanne Smith Finley, had hosted two panels on Xinjiang for the AAS annual conference a few days earlier.