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The political dimension of mobility surfaces in Sino-American diplomatic rows

It was a face-saving step taken by Chinese and American politicians to end a diplomatic row in May with a ‘study abroad’ arrangement. The study abroad option was offered to a blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng as a ‘normal channel’ to leave China. This was an unprecedented approach taken by the Chinese authorities, as in the past dissidents were sometimes allowed to leave the country for ‘medical treatments’ and are normally forbidden to return to their motherland. With an unexpectedly mild tone, the activist, after arriving safely in New York with his family, commended China for acting with ‘restraint and calm’ and indicated his wish to return to China one day.

According to a webpage of the New York University (NYU), the rescue exercise was orchestrated by a NYU law professor Jerome Cohen. Professor Cohen was reported to have been in contact with Chen since 2003 and has lined up a fellowship for him to study abroad at NYU through the Scholars at Risk Network created to defend human rights of scholars and activists. In the wake of the scholarship offer, it was reported that NYU had been censored in Chinese search engines, which could have had an adverse impact on the NYU campus in Shanghai. However, the ban was lifted shortly afterwards, although the name of the activist remains a censored term.

For China, mobility or internationalisation in higher education has been openly associated with foreign policies. The establishment of the Confucius Institutes around the world, for example, is to promote the ‘soft power’ of China as much as the Chinese language itself. Such an entanglement of politics and academia has aroused much suspicion over the influence of the Institutes in the US, Britain, and Canada. This was said to be one of the underlying reasons driving the US State Department to issue an abrupt statement on 17 May to ‘deport’ dozens of Confucius Institute instructors working on US university campuses on the ground that they have been teaching at schools without proper employment visas. Again, this was a short-lived diplomatic dispute ended with the US amending the statement one week later, allowing the instructors to stay in the US while applying for the correct visas.

The line between politics and the academia has never been as clear as one would like it to be. While the Chinese government has clearly associated mobility with the extension of its ‘soft power’, it is not the only country trying to project a positive image of itself through international activities in higher education. The difference is perhaps the underlying intentions and values behind the actions. On 20 June, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi received in person an honorary degree from Britain's Oxford University – a degree awarded to her in 1993 when she was still under house arrest. The award of honorary degrees by universities to influential political figures or potential donors could also be controversial sparking off debates over conflicts of interest.  In the case of Suu Kyi, there was no dispute but genuine applauses for the honour she earned through non-violent expression of ideas in the past two decades that will hopefully bring about rule of law and democracy to her country.

There is no one clear rule of whether and how politics and academics should or should not be entangled. Nevertheless, the unclear political dimension of mobility is one that should not be overlooked - not for the reason of self-censorship but for reinforcing the academic value of higher education which is more than just earning foreign currencies.
US Department of State (Press Statement)

New York University

Scholars at Risk Network

Hanban (Confucius Institute Headquarters)