We Stand with MERICS

On March 22, China’s Foreign Ministry announced sanctions against 10 European individuals and four organizations in retaliation for the European Union’s sanctions on four Chinese officials for their role in carrying out human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Those targeted by Beijing are prohibited from traveling to China and are “restricted from doing business with China.” On March 26, the Foreign Ministry doubled down, announcing parallel penalties against nine scholars and four organizations from the United Kingdom. While China’s actions against officials are, in our opinion, shortsighted, what most concerns us is the targeting of civil society organizations and scholars, including the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), Europe’s leading think tank on China—an organization which is highly respected for its independent, evidence-based research and with which we regularly collaborate. This escalation against the international scholarly community directly undermines China’s own claims that it desires good relations with the West and that it does not interfere in our politics and society.

These actions are the latest sign of deteriorating relations between Beijing and Europe, but they are also reflective of a darkening trend in how Chinese officialdom treats international research organizations and scholars that focus on China. Since the late 1970s, China has opened its doors to scholarly exchange, admitting foreign students and experts for study and research and encouraging Chinese scholars to travel abroad. Many of these international scholars have published work that goes beyond debate parameters typically permitted within China or is critical of Chinese government policy, yet Beijing has had the confidence to allow the large majority of them to continue with their travel and research, largely unmolested. These exchanges have been mutually beneficial; they have deepened understanding between China and the rest of the world and have been central to improving social, economic, and political ties.

We have ourselves enormously benefitted from these exchanges, both personally and professionally. We have collectively traveled to China hundreds of times, carrying out research and meeting people from all walks of life in every corner of the country. CSIS has, in turn, hosted countless Chinese students, scholars, think tanks, businesspeople, and officials. And regardless of the location, as a rule, we have welcomed hearing the perspectives of our Chinese counterparts on a wide range of issues regardless of whether we agree. Such interactions are not only the core of the scholarly enterprise, in the case of U.S.-China relations, they have been crucial to achieving greater understanding between us, which is the foundation of facilitating constructive ties, avoiding conflicts, and addressing global challenges.

Scholarly exchange with China has never been entirely open and straightforward. There have long been limits on travel within China and on whom one could meet. Historians have had difficulty accessing Chinese archives, even for periods prior to the founding of the People’s Republic. Economists have long faced obstacles obtaining comprehensive and objective quantitative data. And policy analysts have had difficulty deciphering an opaque policymaking system. Although unwelcome, those are the expected obstacles to understanding phenomena in an authoritarian polity.

But in the last few years, China has gone significantly further in obstructing independent research and constructive scholarly exchange. China has been more restrictive in issuing visas for scholars, particularly those who work on topics that could reflect negatively on China’s claims of good governance. Field research is increasingly risky, even for those focused on topics like economics and business. Anecdotal evidence also suggests there is an increase in the frequency of foreign experts being followed or harassed, their Chinese interlocutors being interrogated, and their electronic equipment being monitored or even intentionally damaged.

Even more troubling are the unjustifiable detentions—and most recently, secret trials—of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. As with the recent sanctions against the European Union and United Kingdom over Xinjiang, this was an act of retribution, in this case because of Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. China’s vague accusations of wrongdoing by Kovrig and Spavor thus far remain entirely unsubstantiated, and both men have been held for over two years and denied the basic legal rights that Chinese law demands. We are particularly troubled by Kovrig’s treatment, as he was an expert with the think tank International Crisis Group at the time of his detention. The vague charges against Kovrig could potentially be leveled against any foreign scholar who works on China and utilizes information related to China that has not yet been published in Chinese official sources.

Furthermore, the worsening environment and risks for scholars working on China are no longer confined to being physically within the country, with Beijing increasingly policing China-related research and analysis beyond its borders. Chinese officials now routinely and publicly criticize researchers whose work they do not agree with, and we also personally know of instances in which Chinese officials and visitors have threatened U.S. experts on China when visiting the United States. There are also cases of Chinese officials going so far as to threaten Chinese-born scholars with the punishment of their families in China for publishing opinions abroad that do not align with those of Beijing.

Needless to say—but apparently necessary to say—the blacklisting of MERICS along with other organizations and scholars, the gross mistreatment of fellow think-tanker Michael Kovrig, and the other recent restrictions are producing all too predictable negative consequences for China. They are damaging China’s relationship with Western countries, driving the latter together in a united defense of human rights. If China’s precondition for stable relations with the West is that scholars all agree with Beijing’s position on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, other “red lines,” and its broader narrative—regardless of where or in which language the opinions are shared—then China is unfortunately choosing to close the door to genuine scholarly exchange.

The damage caused by China’s actions is profound. These steps cannot but reduce mutual understanding, harm China’s reputation, and lead to greater negative reporting on China. The appropriate place for the Chinese to challenge the views of international think tanks and experts is not in the visa line or court room but in the sphere of scholarly interchange that occurs in reports, journals, commentaries, podcasts, roundtables, and conferences.

While writing in our own independent capacities, we believe we speak for many of our colleagues at CSIS and other Washington-based think tanks who travel to or do work with and on China in saying that we hope Beijing will reconsider its self-defeating strategy of sacrificing independent, evidence-based research and scholarly exchange deeply beneficial to China for short-term political expediency. MERICS and the global scholarly community—and China—deserve much better.

Scott Kennedy is senior adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Bonnie S. Glaser is senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS. Jude Blanchette is Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Matthew P. Goodman is senior vice president for Economics and Simon Chair in Political Economy at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Scott Kennedy
Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics
Matthew P. Goodman

Matthew P. Goodman

Former Senior Vice President for Economics

Bonnie S. Glaser