China Cuts Funding for Visiting Scholars After Dalai Lama Visit


Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

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China will no longer fund travel for visiting scholars at UC San Diego, according to a memo apparently written by government officials circulated among Chinese academics. The move, according to UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy professor Victor Shih, is likely in retaliation against UCSD for inviting the Dalai Lama to serve as the 201617 commencement speaker last Spring.

Shih broke the news by tweeting a document shared by a Chinese colleague with its English translation. “Regarding questions about government-sponsored study (visit) abroad to UC San Diego, here is a brief explanation,” reads the translated document. “…If you have not successfully made visa appointment by September 17 (excluding September 17), Study-abroad Service Organizations will no longer process any applications.”

The document, sent to his colleague by the China Scholarship Council (CSC), indicates that the Ministry of Education will no longer approve funding for visiting scholars to travel to UCSD if they do not already have a visa interview scheduled. This new policy will not directly affect undergraduates or graduate students. Visiting scholars with questions about their status have been recommended to contact the consulate general in Los Angeles.

The 14th Dalai Lama is considered an enemy of the Chinese government, which describes him a separatist and holds him responsible for several acts of political violence. The Tibetan spiritual leader spoke twice on RIMAC Field in June, first in a public address and then at the Class of 2017 All-Campus Commencement.

The university’s February announcement of its commencement speaker was denounced by the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) in a statement written with the Chinese consulate’s input. The CSSA did not respond to The Triton’s request for comment.

The move is unprecedented for China, which has never taken punitive action targeting a U.S. university. UCSD has the thirteenth highest percentage of Chinese F-1 student visa holders. However, existing students and postdocs will not notice any changes due to the new policy, which only affects visiting scholars who have yet to apply for a J-1 exchange visa. Of the 2,722 visiting scholars that UCSD hosted in 2014, the 756 from China formed the plurality. University officials told The Triton that UC San Diego was not notified directly by the China Scholarship Council and that they are currently seeking this confirmation.  

Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy, said that she also lacks direct context for the change. “We have not been officially informed about the CSC decision or its rationale but we are trying to learn more about it. We would like to know exactly why the CSC has decided to target UC San Diego, a leading research university that has been at the forefront of building education and research partnerships with China since the 1970s.” Shirk believes that China’s tactics will result in a backlash negatively affecting the country’s international image and U.S-China relations, and describes Chinese media’s “sensational reporting” as unhelpful.

In an editorial published on Sept. 21st, Global Times, a Chinese state-controlled newspaper, wrote that Chinese authorities have not confirmed the reports to them either. In June, Global Times published a similar article accusing Chancellor Pradeep Khosla of promoting Tibetan separatism and recommending that “authorities not issue visas to the chancellor and not recognize diplomas or degree certificates issued by the university in China.”

It remains to be seen whether China’s punitive actions will end here or if the government has further plans for UCSD. The U.S. government has yet to formulate a response.

Refusing to recognize students’ degrees would deal a drastic blow to UCSD, which hosted 2,000 Chinese undergraduates in 2014. China took such an action in 2010, eight months after the University of Calgary conferred an honorary degree upon the Dalai Lama. The university was removed from China’s list of accredited universities, throwing many Chinese alumni and students’ post-graduation plans and financial stability into jeopardy. The Canadian institution regained its accreditation in April 2011.

David Bachman, a professor of international relations at the University of Washington, considers American retaliation unlikely and speculates this action will eventually affect the quality of Chinese research domestically and at UC San Diego. The exchange of knowledge and ideas between Chinese and American researchers is prevalent across both countries.

“The kinds of scholars and people working at UCSD would be valuable people for China to collaborate with and develop partnerships with and so the Chinese scholarly community, by missing out on UCSD, is likely to take a blow,” says Bachman. “The question on the American side is whether other American universities, in solidarity with UCSD, choose to voluntarily restrict or limit Chinese scholars coming to the United States to work with American-based scholars.”

The action could have far-reaching implications on the world of academia. American universities may now have to tread cautiously when dealing with the Chinese government or risk damaging their international alliances. While China’s crackdown is currently limited to its issues with the Dalai Lama, Bachman says that in the future, universities may have to reconsider inviting speakers who support Taiwanese sovereignty.

“It may reduce the number of undergraduate applicants from China to UCSD,” he said. “Simply, though, because the PRC [is] saying official funding will end—that doesn’t mean that through private means or individual efforts that all these collaborations will end. It simply means that Chinese government-sponsored people will stop coming.”

Nevertheless, the precedent this act sets and the message China is sending to U.S. universities disturb many scholars. This is only the second time the Dalai Lama has been invited as a commencement speaker to any university, and his speech to UCSD graduates was entirely apolitical. The Chinese government appears determined to ostracize him by dissuading American universities from giving him a prominent platform.

“The Chinese Communist Party has always used political, economic, and diplomatic means to threaten free society,” says Frank Tian Xie, a professor of business at the University of South Carolina Aiken, told The Triton in an interview conducted in Chinese. “This decision proved that all its academic exchange programs and scholarships are a facade serving a political purpose. If these programs are for academic purposes, they shouldn’t be influenced by politics.”

Other universities have recently clashed with China over its stringent policies toward academic expression. Last month, Cambridge University Press decided then promptly reversed its decision to stop making certain articles in the journal China Quarterly available to Chinese internet users. The journal, which covers controversial issues in China including the Tiananmen Square massacre and the Cultural Revolution, originally removed 300 articles due to Chinese General Administration of Press and Publication threats to block the publisher’s website altogether. Cambridge explained that its decision to reinstate access to the articles was “to uphold the principle of academic freedom on which the University’s work is founded.”

A similar incident occurred in June when officials from the Chinese consulate in Sydney urged a University of Sydney professor to reconsider hosting a public forum on the Tiananmen Square incident. The forum continued with the university’s support.

Shirk defines a distinct boundary between the university’s autonomy and China’s interests. “If this was done because UC San Diego invited the Dalai Lama to give the commencement address in June 2017, these measures imperil the protection of academic freedom that is vital to higher education in the United States,” she says. “No government, American or foreign, should tell a university who may and may not speak on its campus.”

The Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Cambridge University Press did not respond to requests for comment.

Rohan Grover is a staff writer for The Triton.