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U.S. scholars say their book on China led to travel ban

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Thirteen American scholars say they have been barred from traveling to China because of a book they wrote, an incident that raises awkward questions about academic freedom at a time of unprecedented collaboration between U.S. and Chinese universities.

The academics have taken to calling themselves the Xin­jiang 13 to emphasize their shared misfortune. Seven years ago, they assembled a book about Xinjiang, a vast region of western China that has a large Muslim population and an occasionally violent separatist movement.

They say their book triggered a backlash from the Chinese government because of its sensitive topic. Contributors have repeatedly been refused visas, thwarted from returning to the region that is the focus of their careers.

“It took us a couple of years to figure out that all 13 of us were banned,” said Dru Gladney, an anthropology professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who contributed two chapters on politics to the 2004 book. “And now China is taking off, and we can’t go. It’s devastating.”

The authors of “Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland” said in recent interviews that the diplomatic impasse is the broadest attack on academic freedom since the United States established diplomatic relations with Communist-led China in 1979.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The book’s authors said the actions against them have never been formally acknowledged. Their visa woes became widely known only this month, in a Bloomberg News report.

Andy Laine, a State Department spokesman, said that he could not confirm the report but that the U.S. government is “troubled by reports of official Chinese pressure on U.S. scholars to alter their publications on political grounds.”

Academic freedom is a touchy topic in international higher education. China’s authoritarian regime is accustomed to exerting some measure of control over the nation’s university professors. As Sino-American col­laboration grows, some U.S. scholars have voiced fears that the Chinese government will attempt to exert influence overseas.

Growth of overseas study

China is the leading source of foreign students at U.S. universities, with 127,628 Chinese enrolled here as of 2010, according to the Institute of International Education. Duke, Stanford and New York universities are building branch campuses in China, joining the University of Chicago and others in a growing community of overseas study. The Chinese government has funded more than 60 Confucius Institutes at prestigious American universities, subsidizing peda­gogy and scholarship related to China.

Confucius Institutes are a particular source of controversy; faculty members at some universities have opposed bringing them to campus. Spokesmen for the University of Maryland and George Mason University, both hosts to institutes, said their China scholars are under no academic constraints.

Some of the Xinjiang scholars said their university employers have seemed reluctant to petition the Chinese government on their behalf, for fear of upsetting relations.

James Millward, a Georgetown University historian who contributed to the book, said he was repeatedly refused visas to visit China beginning in 2004. He appealed to Georgetown administrators for help.

Georgetown President John DeGioia wrote two letters on Millward’s behalf and “personally spoke to the Chinese ambassador” in support of Millward’s visa applications, said Rachel Pugh, a university spokeswoman. She said the university “did its best” to help its embattled professor.

But those appeals were ignored, and Millward said university leaders declined to press further.

“What I have been dissatisfied about was that I couldn’t seem to get any traction to do anything else, or to make them really see that this was a very bad precedent to allow a visa to be denied without reason, particularly when I was engaged in university business,” he said.

The book was organized and edited by S. Frederick Starr, a Central Asia scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. It was presented as a definitive compendium of cutting-edge scholarship on a region that was overdue for book-length study.

A tactical error?

Some of the authors contend that Starr made a tactical error by giving an advance copy to the Chinese government. Starr said he shared it with a Chinese scholar, not a government official.

In any case, the book triggered a large-scale response by the Chinese government. Chinese officials produced their own book on Xinjiang. China also published Starr’s book in translation, appending an introduction by a Chinese scholar who dismissed it as “a hodgepodge of scholars, scholars in preparation, phony scholars, and shameless fabricators of political rumor,” according to the Bloomberg account.

The authors said Chinese officials perceived the book as a political tract advocating independence for the region, a cause that has sparked violent clashes between Chinese authorities and a local Muslim population known as the Uighurs.

Starr’s group had innocuously dubbed its work the Xinjiang Project. “And I think they took it to be something like the Manhattan Project, and blew it up into something bigger and, to them, more scary than it was,” Starr said.

Several of the authors said their work depends on regular visits to Xinjiang. Only a few have been allowed back.

Gardner Bovingdon, a political scientist at Indiana University, said he had traveled to China eight times ahead of the book’s publication. But then his fortune changed, and he has been refused visas several times since, successfully entering China only once.

“My research was based on fieldwork,” said Bovingdon, who said being unable to travel to China left him feeling “very vulnerable.”

Some of the authors said they fear the visa dust-up will lead other academics to self-censor their China scholarship to avoid similar hassles.

“The ones who are singing China’s praises get invited to banquets and invited to visit China,” Gladney said. “Those who are critical of China suddenly don’t get invited or are suddenly no longer welcome.”

© The Washington Post Company