China’s sanctions on Western think tanks

May 7, 2021

China’s sanctions on the prominent Washington-based think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has prompted a
great wailing and
wringing of hands
.  While I empathize with those affected, I do take issue with some of their specific concerns.

China’s sanctions on the prominent Washington-based think-tank the
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has prompted a
great wailing and
wringing of hands. This was at least the fifth US think tank to achieve this
‘distinction’. While I empathize with those affected, I do take issue with some
of their specific concerns.

The proximate reason for the domestic blocking of CSIS
website – a ban which may extend to individuals – is thought to be an opinion
piece by four CSIS researchers in support of the Berlin-based Mercator
Institute for China Studies (MERICS), which itself was sanctioned by China.

The Global Times –which often reflects government
claimed MERICS “has actually been colluding with anti-China forces
over the years since it was established in 2013” and was sanctioned not only
because of its research but because “it is the largest Chinese research center
in … Europe. Cutting off ties with China means its research channel will hardly
be sustainable and its influence will be critically hit.”

Apparently MERICS’ cardinal sin in Beijing’s eyes was to
support the claim that China is engaged in genocide in Xinjiang. This is a
controversial allegation and 
should be examined objectively. As for the article published by CSIS, it
should have been possible to “stand with MERICS” while maintaining balance or distance
from such a controversial claim.

Nevertheless, I get it. For Western scholars it hurts in a
personal visceral way. State bans on research institutions and individual
scholars because of their views attacks the basic premise of a “free society.”
It also potentially disrupts or damages the careers of those who will have to
analyze their chosen country of focus remotely and in isolation from primary
sources, undermining the credibility of their work.

But Western China specialists might have anticipated that
the Chinese government would lash out against attacks that could affect its
hold on power. As Shi Yinhong, director of the American Studies Institute at
Renmin University, 
explains, “[The government
has to] make Chinese people believe that the Chinese government, the central
committee of the CCP, is the best defender of China’s national interests and

As one analyst put it, Beijing apparently decided that it is
“better to lose friends but look strong than to show weakness and threaten
public legitimacy at home.”

This latest backlash goes with the territory of being an
expert on a country that the US has designated a strategic competitor and a
threat to the US-led international order – and, some believe, the very
“American way of life.”

US-China ”competition” has become for many – even some
analysts – a 
clash of ideologies generating dysfunctional mistrust and suspicion on
both sides.

The US and China are engaged in a soft-power war. They are
vying for the hearts and minds of Asia. The implications for scholarly exchange
have been building for some time. Both countries monitoring individuals sub rosa for decades. But public US
government China-bashing reached a crescendo under president Donald Trump and
his secretary of state Mike Pompeo. 
According to Pompeo, “China has sent propagandists into our press conferences,
our research centers, our high-schools and colleges.”

This focus on individual Chinese in academia and their
affiliated home institutions has been continued under President Joe Biden.
Chinese students are under particular suspicion and those studying in
particular science and technology fields must undergo additional screening,
sometimes resulting in delayed visas.

Republicans introduced legislation in Congress that would
deny visas to Chinese researchers affiliated with Chinese military
institutions. US intelligence agencies are “encouraging American research
universities to develop protocols for 
monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions”–
which includes some of the leading research institutions in China.

But many US educational institutions and think-tanks –
particularly those inside the Washington Beltway – have been silent or even
complicit as this “China-phobia” has swept the nation. In such a political
environment, it is not surprising that fear and mistrust have spilled over into
civil society and academia. Both sides share responsibility for this sad state
of affairs.

As for ‘blocking’ individuals because of their views, I
think that also happens in US think tanks. Indeed, I believe I and some
like-minded colleagues have been denied invitations to conferences and
publishing opportunities by individuals at establishment think-tanks because of
our contrarian views and affiliations with China think-tanks. I don’t like it.
I think such institutions and US policy decisions suffer from not considering
views contrary to the stove piped conventional view. But I accept the risk as
part of my chosen contrarian academic “territory” in these times.I learned the
hard way during the Vietnam War era that contrary to idealistic notions, the
exercise of free speech has consequences. Perhaps it is time these analysts
recognized this reality rather than bemoaning their fate.

Also denying reality, the CSIS article’s authors greatly
overestimate the value and influence of academic input to decisions in both

Decision-makers in both systems– and their numerous
government advisers –understand their adversaries and their intentions very
well based on personal interaction and public diplomacy. They just
fundamentally disagree. That is the reality, and no amount of academic
interchange is going to change that. In fact, familiarity may be breeding

Many academics on both sides simply echo or justify their
government’s views. Rather than help countries avoid conflict, they often
facilitate or amplify it. Indeed, contrary to welcoming “the perspectives of
our Chinese counterparts,” I have personally witnessed many times American
analysts and even officials rudely confronting and embarrassing Chinese
scholars and officials, bashing them with US-centric views.

Moreover, there is a big difference between objective
analysis and that based on implicit assumptions that further a particular
country’s interests. For CSIS, which collaborates with MERICS, this article may
have only been the straw that broke the Chinese camel’s back.

Critics have been pointing out CSIS bias against China for years – to no avail. A prime example has been CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Institute
(AMTI). It has been accused of bias 
by Asian and Western researchers both in its research focus and in its conclusions.

Lost amid the fear of damage to their own institutions and
careers is concern for the chilling effect of this soft-power war on Chinese
scholars and students – particularly those with broad and deep Western ties.

I have been interacting with Chinese academics for almost
half a century. I have seen them and their successor generation open and close
like flowers depending on the political “light.” Caution has always been there,
and now it is again dominant.

Indeed, I have observed a recent growing self-restraint by
formerly outspoken scholars and an increasing reticence to interact with their
Western colleagues, particularly those who publicly criticize China. This is a
natural response to the spreading and deepening mistrust.

To close, I respond to the authors’ closing red herring that
“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 … then China is unfortunately choosing
to close the door to genuine scholarly exchange.”

I would argue that if the US and its analysts think that
Chinese scholars must agree to continued American hegemony in Asia and the
South China Sea as a precondition for discussions of the issues, then they are
“closing the door to genuine scholarly exchange” – as well as to peace and
stability in the region.

A longer version of
this piece appeared in the Asia Times

Mark J. Valencia is an internationally known maritime policy analyst focused on Asia and currently Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

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