James Holmes

Visas as Anti-Access Weapons

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James Holmes

Visas as Anti-Access Weapons

Are researchers who fear being denied visas to China self-censoring their words in order not to offend?

Chinese influence has a long arm. Academics far, far away from Asia sometimes modify their behavior lest Beijing disapprove of their words or deeds and take countermeasures. Military people are always talking about “access” to Asian waters and skies these days, but scholars confront their own form of anti-access. By denying would-be entrants access to the country, and by trusting that word of its displeasure will get around, Beijing can impose what the ACLU calls a “chilling effect” on scholarship critical of China. Message: excessive candor will elicit costly reprisals.

In effect Beijing sets individuals’ career incentives against their commitment to principle, and trusts that the former will win out. Who doesn’t think of his livelihood and family first? Researchers who fear being denied visas may self-censor their words in order not to offend. Or they may abjure sensitive topics—Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen being the unholy trinity—altogether. Abstract principle just isn’t worth the risk to one’s tenure, promotion, or other career milestones. Better to keep to safer, apolitical ground.

In Pentagon-speak, withholding visas for any reason, or for no reason at all, represents an easy, cost-free way for Beijing to “shape” the intellectual climate in a more “permissive” direction.

All of this is why an article on China studies from National Review pundit Jay Nordlinger resonates so. The author consults a variety of well-known China scholars about how effectively intellectual access denial works. Experts like Columbia’s AndrewNathan have “spine,” says Nordlinger, sticking up for self-determination and other worthy causes. (To be fair to more junior scholars, already having tenure makes it easier to have a stiff spine. Scholars with job security can do their work from afar, avoiding the contested zone.) The Naval Diplomat must confess to being a little disappointed that his friend ArthurWaldron, another one of the interviewees and never one to go easy on Beijing’s transgressions, has dismally failed to earn a spot in good standing on the blacklist. He only made the “graylist.” Pick up your game, Arthur!

Other scholars softpedal their treatment of China. Put yourself in their shoes. Being denied access to primary research materials means being unable to publish the peer-reviewed articles and books that move the academic literature forward, sending the lifeblood coursing through a university career. Being barred from Chinese officialdom means being unable to drop names in lectures about the royal high muckety-mucks with whom one hobnobs in Asia. And so forth.

Having spent several years in the think-tank world, I would only add that anti-access targets more than individual scholars. Grant-seeking organizations that pursue work in China have a financial stake in assured entry to the country, just as individuals need access to bolster job security back home. Self-preservation primes such institutions to shun controversy. For instance, the leadership may soften the language in reports relating to China. Individual staffers may find themselves discouraged from saying or publishing anything critical of Beijing, lest that reflect back on the organization—potentially costing it the ability to execute the projects it must execute to survive and thrive in the dog-eat-dog world of funded research.

Nordlinger’s article is well worth your time. I should close with a counterargument, however, namely that I have encountered the phenomena he and his interlocutors recount only secondhand. I have no doubt they are real. But despite the critical tone I often (always?) take in commentary on Beijing’s foreign and defense policies, my own interchanges with experts in China have been uniformly positive and, I hope, mutually beneficial.

So, draw your own conclusions about how widespread the problem is. Is spinelessness a chronic malady within Western academe, or just a sporadic one that has been blown out of proportion? Inquiring minds want to know.