Why don't I come to China

Chinese sanctions against German scientists : Why I don't travel to China anymore

Thorsten Benner is director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) ​​in Berlin.

I visited Beijing on December 10, 2018. This will be my last trip to China. The reasons for this make it clear that Beijing's repression has long since reached not only its own population, but also foreign researchers.

In Beijing I took part in a conference of political decision-makers and researchers from China, Europe and some other countries in Asia, organized by the Körber Foundation together with the International Department of the CP Central Committee. We had very productive discussions. The event brought together a wide range of voices from outside China (including the Federal President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier) and from within the Chinese system. There were no taboo subjects. I myself spoke about Xinjiang on December 10th at a panel on anti-terrorism. This was followed by an open discussion with the Chinese participants that went far beyond standard phrases.

Michael Kovrig is still in a Chinese prison today

But that day something else happened in Beijing, something I only found out about after my return: the hostage-taking of Michael Kovrig, a Canadian ex-diplomat and researcher who works for the think tank “International Crisis Group”. To this day, Kovrig sits in a Chinese cell on bogus espionage allegations in order to put pressure on the Canadian government. Ottawa had arrested Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou due to a US extradition request.

[If you want to have all the latest developments on the coronavirus pandemic live on your mobile phone, we recommend our app, which you can download here for Apple and Android devices.]

For me it was a dam break. I realized that a foreign passport no longer protects researchers from being thrown into a Chinese prison for years. The fact that the Chinese ambassador to Canada now cynically assures that the “overwhelming majority” of China visitors have nothing to fear only underlines this danger. Foreign researchers today can get caught in Beijing's crosshairs simply when they say things that the Chinese leadership does not like, or when (as in the case of Kovrig) they are useful as a human bargaining chip.

China's security laws also apply to actions outside of China - a new level of danger

The danger has only increased since Beijing claimed extraterritorial validity for its national security laws. Foreigners can therefore be prosecuted for acts “against national security”, even if they were committed abroad. The imagination knows no limits.

I have therefore decided not to travel to China any more as long as those in power like Xi bow down the law. Too often I have written things or had contacts that Beijing could easily declare as a criminal offense. And as much as I will miss the visits to China and the opportunities for personal exchange with previous cooperation partners, the step will be comparatively easy for me. I am a generalist. Access to China is useful for my work, but not essential.

[Every Thursday the most important developments from America straight to your mailbox - with the "Washington Weekly" newsletter from our USA correspondent Juliane Schäuble. You can register for free here.]

Fear is certainly not a good guiding star when dealing with authoritarian regimes. For some China researchers in particular, who get a lot out of research trips due to their language skills and access, there are good reasons to weigh up the risks differently. But dark times are also dawning for those who want to continue traveling to China. Beijing has long used visas as a weapon. Anyone who wrote too critically about the party state ran the risk of not receiving a visa next time, or only receiving it late. These pinpricks were supposed to encourage self-censorship. Only a few researchers received a complete entry ban - and this was never publicly issued.

China makes an example of Europe's largest China research institute

The needle pricks have now become the bazooka. On April 22nd, Beijing imposed sanctions, including against the entire Berlin Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics) and several other prominent European China researchers such as Adrian Zenz and Björn Jerdén. The sanctions mean entry bans and a ban on "doing business with China". The propaganda organ Global Times exults: "Cutting ties to China means that Merics' research channels can hardly be maintained and its influence is decidedly weakened."

One sets an example at Europe's largest China research institute. This is a massive attack on academic freedom. Beijing wants to put an end to independent China research. The message to the rest of the China researchers is clear: “We alone determine who is an acceptable interlocutor. Stay away from the sanctioned researchers and institutes. And those of you who do not write positively about the party state can soon meet the same fate. "

The silence of the Chancellery is shameful

It is up to all of us to make sure Beijing's calculations don't work out. The declarations of solidarity from more than 1,300 researchers and more than 30 European think tank directors are a good first step. Many members of the Bundestag and high-ranking representatives of the Foreign Office also publicly supported Merics. The silence of the Chancellor and the Chancellery on the sanctions is all the more shameful.

Out of a well-understood self-interest, the sanctioned institutes and researchers, who are indispensable resources for all of us, must continue to play a prominent role in our work in China. They must be regularly involved in parliamentary hearings, expert meetings with politicians and company representatives or events organized by foundations on the subject of China, even and especially when Chinese representatives are involved. Universities in particular that maintain close research ties with China in the natural and technical sciences should clearly position themselves in favor of freedom of research.

[How painful it is to forget your mother tongue, T + subscribers can read here: How I lost my Chinese]

The fact that the President of the University of Trier clearly condemned the sanctions and, in response, put the work of the Confucius Institute at the university and headed by a Trier professor on hold should set an example. One thing is clear: accepting money from China (regardless of the state or companies) should be taboo for universities and think tanks in order to maintain independence. The Free University of Berlin should finally get rid of Chinese state money. And German companies that are strongly active in China should invest in a fund to strengthen independent work on China in order to send a clear signal against the sanctions.

China research must develop new methods

China research has to learn more and more to use innovative methods to map the diversity within Chinese society and the party state, even under increasingly repressive conditions and with very limited physical access. At the same time, we have to invest massively in China competence in this country. It would be tragic if Xi's repression continued to lead to a decline in interest in learning the Chinese language. If you are not allowed or do not want to go to mainland China, Taiwan is an open and safe haven for developing language skills.

We have to strengthen the exchange with China with like-minded democracies, especially in Asia. As we have shown in the GPPi study “Risky Business”, research collaborations as well as exchange and dialogue programs can be important bridges, especially in times of conflict. But these bridges are only sustainable if we deal better with risks and stand up for freedom of expression and science with verve. Let's get to work.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page