Chinese leader Xi Jinping speaks during the unveiling of the Communist Party's new Politburo Standing Committee in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 2017. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Contributor, DemocracyPost, Global Opinions

“I call it a ‘whitelist,’” the Chinese government official told me. Beijing, he explained, wanted to reward academics, scholars and business people who spoke positively about the U.S.-China relationship, promoted engagement and overlooked Chinese human rights abuses. “We don’t want people critical of China” visiting China, said the official, who asked to speak anonymously when I met him in New York in August. So Chinese officials in the United States are creating a list of China-watchers whom they will reward with multiple-entry visas. I asked him to share the list, and he replied that it was confidential; he did say, though, that those who “signed the open letter” in The Post would certainly be viewed favorably.

He was referring to an article published in The Post on July 4 and signed by dozens of prominent American scholars, business people and former government officials. Entitled “China is not an enemy,” the open letter expressed deep concern “about the growing deterioration in U.S. relations with China” and argued that “the fear that Beijing will replace the United States as the global leader is exaggerated.” Some of its signatories, my source said, had already received the coveted visas.

The official’s remarks represented a rare admission that Beijing threatens to withhold visas for those who criticize its policies, and an indication that there might exist an actual “whitelist” of American scholars whom Beijing prefers. This contrasts with scholars believed to be on a blacklist — such as Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, prominent Sinologists and editors of the 2001 book “The Tiananmen Papers,” which revealed classified information about the 1989 massacre.

The open letter in The Post received wide coverage in both the Chinese and English-language editions of Communist Party publications. When former vice president Walter Mondale signed the letter several weeks ago, he received a glowing write-up from the state news agency Xinhua.

Beijing deputizes business people, journalists, academics, former government officials and think-tankers to act as boosters for the U.S.-China relationship. It encourages them to water down criticism of Beijing’s faults and crimes in order to promote engagement. And it sometimes rewards those who do so with visas, high-level meetings and attendance at important conferences. “This term you use, ‘concentration camp,’” the Chinese government official told me, is problematic. He was referring to my descriptions of the concentration camps in the northwestern Chinese region where Beijing holds upwards of 1 million Muslims, as, well, concentration camps. “I can understand that,” he said. However, he said, if I used that term to higher-ranking officials, they might not see it as helpful to bilateral relations.

But I am not a diplomat — and nor are the vast majority of people who write, speak and discuss China in the United States. Our job is not to speak diplomatically — or to put it differently, to help bilateral relations. Our job is to call it as we see it.

The problem lies not with those who believe that engagement is a better strategy, or that China is not an enemy, or that President Trump’s China policies are disastrous. Rather, the problem lies with those who curtail, soften or change their views because they believe that the Chinese should not hear their truths, or will punish them for speaking it.

Several weeks after meeting this official, I applied for an F, or conference, visa to China. I worried I would be rejected, but the process was painless. I applied on Tuesday and my visa arrived on Friday. Why did the China visa gods smile on me? Perhaps I’m seen as non-threatening. Perhaps another arm of the government or the Communist Party thinks I deserved a visa. Perhaps the consulate believes I’m a supporter, or perhaps I’m not important enough to have triggered a ban, or even a hassle. (I know they didn’t confuse me with another Isaac Stone Fish.)

The satirical poet Louis Jenkins describes an “agent of Fate, capricious and blind.” I see the China visa gods the same way. Placate them with praise of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, or blather about China’s 5,000 years of history, or offer justification of the imprisonment of a million Muslims, and they might still reject you. But one can state, as I do, that the Communist Party should not rule China — and still wait only three days for a visa.

The open letter in The Post states that “efforts to isolate China will simply weaken those Chinese intent on developing a more humane and tolerant society.” I believe that isolation, and the threat of isolation, is a weapon to curtail some of Beijing’s worst excesses. Disagree with me? Great. Just don’t sacrifice your integrity on the altar of the visa gods.

Read more:

M. Taylor Fravel, J. Stapleton Roy, Michael D. Swaine, Susan A. Thornton and Ezra Vogel: China is not an enemy

Josh Rogin: How Mike Pompeo became Trump’s China hawk

Josh Rogin: To avoid conflict, the United States must deter Chinese aggression

Josh Rogin: China’s efforts to undermine democracy are expanding worldwide

Catherine Rampell: Team Trump should be careful what it wishes for on China

Stephen K. Bannon: We’re in an economic war with China. It’s futile to compromise.