February 9, 2005: Perspective

(Illustration: Tomasz Walenta)

Turned back at China’s door
Why Princeton should speak out against a blacklist of scholars

By Perry Link

Perry Link is a professor of East Asian studies at Princeton.


We have checked with the higher authorities, and they say you are not welcome in our country,” said the border guard at the Beijing airport, soon after my plane arrived on the evening of Aug. 8, 1996. I asked if there was a problem with my visa. The guard just shook his head and smiled. It was his job to relay the message, not to explain.

He and three other young policemen then accompanied me to the United Airlines counter and, because United had imported an “illegitimate” passenger, asked that it pay for a hotel room. In the room, the officers stiffly read me the rules: They would stay with me, I must not leave the room or their view, I could not use the phone. Then, as we sat to watch TV together, they relaxed and treated me with a curiosity more typical of young people in China: “How did you learn Chinese so well?” “How much did your watch cost?” The next morning they put me on the first plane back to the United States.

I had come to Beijing for work with Princeton-in-Beijing, the intensive summer Chinese language program that my colleague C.P. Chou and I founded in 1993 and which, if I may be immodest, has set the standard in its field ever since. Each summer we receive 120 students, about a third of whom are from Princeton, and put them through a wringer they never forget. But they do learn Chinese.

Why was I denied entry at the airport? I don’t know, but clearly someone has a reason, because I have been denied visas ever since. For the past eight years, all of the in-China labor for Princeton-in-Beijing has fallen to Professor Chou. When the Chinese consulate in New York rejects my applications it never gives reasons, although it is interesting to me that the consulate staff, when they learn who I am, seem more polite than usual. Several times I have gone through friends to try to discover the reason informally, and the answer comes back: “Perry Link himself knows the reason.” This phrase — “You know the reason” — has been standard for decades in China (as it had been earlier in the Soviet Union) when the state detains its own people. To me, therefore, the frustration of hearing the answer was tempered by an odd sense of promotion: I was now a sort of honorary Chinese.

Some people assume that my blacklisting stems from my sins of 1989. I am a friend of Fang Lizhi, the astrophysicist who was a hero to Chinese students in the late 1980s because of his principled statements on democracy. I was in Beijing working for the National Academy of Sciences’ scholarly exchange program with China when the massacre of June 4, 1989, occurred. In the afternoon of that bloody day, Fang Lizhi was listed first on the Chinese government’s “most wanted” list. His wife telephoned me to ask if I would help bring them to refuge in the U.S. Embassy. What would you have done? I found a car and helped them. They stayed in the embassy for 13 months, and the Chinese government was not very happy with this. I can see why.

But as far as the blacklist is concerned, the timing makes no sense. These events happened in 1989, and I visited China six times between 1993 and 1996. In the summer of 1994, I worked for 11 weeks as field director of Princeton-in-Beijing and endured nothing more than an extended search of my luggage upon departure.

Other people assume that I am barred because I helped my friend Andrew Nathan, a professor of politics at Columbia who is also blacklisted, to translate and edit The Tiananmen Papers, a trove of government documents that details the process that led to the 1989 massacre. But again, the timing is off. A Chinese official brought these papers out of China in the late 1990s, and I had not heard of them until spring of 1999. They were published in January 2001. I was blacklisted in 1996.

Still others speculate that the problem is my various associations. I am on the boards of Human Rights Watch/Asia and Human Rights in China (a group of Chinese based in New York), and was chair of the “Princeton China Initiative,” a group founded in 1989 by a generous grant from John Elliott ’51 that allowed Princeton to be a temporary home for 26 refugees of the 1989 events. All three of these groups have been labeled “anti-China” by China’s Ministry of State Security, where the blacklists are made. (There are several lists, by the way; the list of Chinese who are prevented from returning to their own country is much longer than the list of miscreant Sinologists.) But many other scholars are associated with the same groups and are not blacklisted. Why some, not others? A reliable source in Beijing tells me that there are 19 names on the list that includes Nathan’s and mine. As far as I know, none of us has been given any reason.

The toll that blacklists take is not just that the named people cannot work in China. There are ripple effects that reach deep into China studies. Because the reasons for blacklisting are so vague, scholars wonder, “Is my work crossing a line? Is my access to China at risk?” Adjustments naturally follow. I have a Princeton colleague who declined an invitation from the News Hour with Jim Lehrer to comment on the Falun Gong movement because public expression on such a sensitive topic might hurt access to China. A brilliant Princeton graduate student interested in democratic theory recently heard well-intentioned advice not to enter the China field — because access to China is crucial for this field, but is difficult to maintain if one addresses a sensitive topic like democracy. The graduate students who helped Andrew Nathan and me to translate The Tiananmen Papers all declined, with our full understanding, to have their names associated with the book.

There are real costs in this. Why should young scholars not get credit for work they have done? How well is the public served when the most expert analysis does not get onto the evening news? How healthy is democratic theory when the China case is avoided or handled with kid gloves?

The very language of China-watching can be affected. For example, a significant portion (though less than a majority) of the Taiwan population favors the island’s outright independence from China. But because the Beijing government adamantly opposes this idea, Western China-watchers won’t even use the phrase “Taiwan independence” unless it is cast in obviously negative terms.

I’m not sure what can be done about the problem. Much hangs on the existence of the blacklists themselves, so a lot of good could come from getting the Chinese government to see that blacklists are an embarrassing anachronism in the modern world. This requires a willingness to speak up, and occasionally someone does. I am involved in a long-term project at the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) aimed at improving translation in the social sciences. The group was scheduled for a conference in Beijing next month. Officials at ACLS wrote to the Chinese ambassador in Washington requesting assistance in getting a visa for me and explaining that the conference could not take place in China if one of the conferees were barred. ACLS received no response, and so rescheduled the conference for California.

ACLS handled the matter well, in my view. I am disappointed, by contrast, with the stance that my own Princeton colleagues, led by President Tilghman, took during their high-profile trip to Asia in November. Vice President Robert K. Durkee ’69 tells me that University leaders “spent a fair amount of time” before the trip exploring ways to raise the issue with high-level Chinese officials but access was unavailable, and that once they were in China, it was raised only with the U.S. ambassador. It was not raised at a luncheon with several high officials from the Beijing Education Commission, during President Tilghman’s several media appearances, or in any other interactions with Chinese people. President Tilghman did discuss — and rightly so — the difficulty since 9/11 that Chinese students have had in getting visas for study in the United States. She has been a national leader on this issue. But that only makes it odder, in my view, that she chose not to mention “the other” visa issue.

The University’s rationale, I was told, is that only when Princeton officials have access to sufficiently high-ranking people can a protest be effective. But it is unreasonable to expect that President Tilghman, or any Princeton visitor, will ever meet personally with the state security people who control the blacklists. Even the premier of China’s state council and its minister of foreign affairs do not have direct authority to change the lists. Any influence must be indirect. The officials whom President Tilghman met certainly would have relayed a message, and a public comment certainly would have been heard in the “concerned quarters.” The problem with saying nothing is that silence itself becomes a message. When a case has been going on for eight years, and is fairly well known, and the president of the concerned university comes to town and says nothing, the heard message is: “We have no objection; you can keep going.” I don’t believe that this is the message President Tilghman wanted to deliver. end of article



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