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China, US Make Researchers' Travel More Difficult


In this May 2, 2012 file photo, Chinese students wait outside the U.S. Embassy for their visa application interviews in Beijing. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)
China, US Make Researchers' Travel More Difficult
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Anecdotal reports suggest that both the United States and China are increasing restrictions on travel by educators between the countries. Some experts worry about the effect those actions could have on understanding between the world's two largest economies.

In recent weeks, news media have reported on how some professors and researchers learned they would no longer be able to travel freely between the two countries. These academics have been making such trips for many years, but are no longer permitted to do so.

One Chinese scholar was stopped by U.S. federal agents at Los Angeles International Airport in January as he prepared to return to Beijing. The New York Times reported that the agents took his passport. Then the officials cancelled the 10-year visa that he had used to travel freely between the countries.

Michael Pillsbury works for the Hudson Institute and has advised the Trump administration on China policy. He completed a visa request so he could attend a conference in Beijing. Last week, he told the Axios website that the Chinese embassy in Washington delayed action on his visa for so long that he was unable to attend.

There are no available records that show exactly how many Chinese and U.S. academics have been denied visas in the recent past. But people who study relations between the countries claim the rate of denials has risen sharply.

David Shambaugh is director of the China Policy Programme at George Washington University. He wrote in The South China Morning Post that limiting academic exchanges can only hurt both countries.

FILE - People line up for visa applications outside the US embassy in Beijing on July 26, 2018.
FILE - People line up for visa applications outside the US embassy in Beijing on July 26, 2018.

Understanding each other

"This kind of tit-for-tat action is a race to the bottom, only hurts both sides and adds to mutual suspicions," he said. "Both governments should depoliticize scholarly visas and allow unfettered academic exchanges between the two countries so as to contribute to scholarly research and enhance mutual understanding."

Visa denials are not a new thing for either country, but in the past, most of the denials have been one-way. China has long barred scholars from visiting the country when they have written books critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

This time, however, the push for more visa denials appears to be coming from the U.S. government. U.S. officials worry about the Chinese government's power to force non-government officials into gathering information for its own state intelligence services.

Telecommunications worries

Other U.S. officials have raised similar national security concerns about the use of telecommunications equipment made by Chinese companies. Chinese law requires companies operating in China to help when government intelligence services asked them to do so. That leads U.S. officials to be concerned that Chinese equipment could be made to create hidden ways to control computers in the United States. If those computers were at power or water treatment stations, the results could be disastrous.

There have already been cases of industrial spying and intellectual property theft by Chinese companies. There appears to be concern among U.S. officials that the attacks could expand into other areas.

Recently, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center confirmed that it had dismissed two Chinese researchers and were planning to dismiss a third person. The move followed an investigation that suggested they had been involved in efforts to steal records related to government-supported research.

The dismissals come several months after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave a warning to U.S. biomedical researchers. It warned about Chinese nationals stealing information and sometimes going so far as to set up "shadow laboratories" in their home country to copy protected research methods.

The NIH has said there are many ongoing investigations around the country into activities like those that ended in the dismissals at the University of Texas.

Some experts worry that the number of people and organizations that are prevented from traveling between the U.S. and China will keep increasing.

Stuart Anderson is the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy. He told VOA he worries that the visa denials are only the latest step down a dangerous path -- one that could have a bad effect on the U.S. economy.

If the U.S. government prevents more and more individuals and industries from entering the country, he said, fewer foreign companies will try to do business here. He said that would be a result the government did not plan or want.

But not everyone feels the situation is hopeless. Pillsbury, the Trump administration China advisor, told VOA that he thinks things will improve.

"I'm optimistic [the] Chinese government will eventually give me another visa," he said. "I visited China five times in the last two years. I have many friends in China. There are more conferences to attend this year, so I think there should be a ceasefire in the visa war." Each country needs its scholars to be able to travel.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Rob Garver reported on this story for VOA News. Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

anecdotal – adj. based on unscientific reports or observations

tit-for-tat – n. a situation in which you do something to harm someone who has done something harmful to you

depoliticize - v. to change (something) so that it is no longer influenced or controlled by politics

unfetteredadj. to loosen up; to free or release

enhance – v. to build up or improve

intellectual property - n. something (such as an idea, invention, or process) that comes from a person's mind

implement - v. to begin to do or use something, such as a plan

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