‘Visa cancellations absurd’
Rare situation in 40 years of academic exchanges
Published: Apr 19, 2019 12:13 AM Updated: Apr 19, 2019 12:20 AM

The FBI's J. Edgar Hoover headquarters building in Washington. Photo: AP

 Editor's Note: Many are still in shock over a New York Times report that 30 Chinese scholars had their US' visas canceled last year, or put on administrative review. The scholars affected by the FBI counterintelligence operation are mostly well-known social science experts and China-US relations specialists.

When the US suddenly blocked their entry, no evidence was offered on Chinese scholars' alleged intelligence links. 

When the two countries established diplomatic relations 40 years ago, mere thousands of mutual visits were made, whereas now the number has risen to over 5.3 million every year, with some 14,000 people flying across the Pacific Ocean between the two countries every day.

Five Chinese scholars, who were questioned by FBI agents or had their visas canceled, shared their stories and understanding of China-US relations in recent interviews with Global Times reporter Fan Lingzhi.  

Lü Xiang

Research fellow of China-US relationship at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)

I received a call from the US Embassy in China in October 2018 telling me that my 10-year US visa had been canceled as I didn't meet its criteria. That happened just 15 days after my last trip to the US. I had been to the US five or six times using my 10-year visa, but now I will have to apply for a single-entry visa if I want to go there again. 

When I was at an airport in the US waiting for my flight back to China, two FBI agents showed up - it was my first contact with the bureau - saying they wanted to talk with me at a private place. I refused and then, there in a public area, they asked me questions, such as who is related to my job and whether I had secretly met someone in the US - they seemed to worry that I was going to infiltrate their country. The conversation lasted about 30 minutes. 

"I can tell you every detail about every meeting with every person if I have enough time. Nothing needs to be off-the-record," I told them. Actually, Chinese scholars are much more cautious in the US than American scholars are in China. Our visits were at the invitation of formal, mainstream think tanks and academies. Moreover, we would refuse any invitation from people or organizations whose identity we are unable to confirm as we don't want to be involved in any sensitive event in the US. 

My previous visits to the US were quite pleasant. Although there were arguments due to different viewpoints, the talks were friendly and direct. My experience of being questioned by the FBI was like a windfall for me. It was a good opportunity to learn more about the US through FBI agents' questions and the way they questioned me. 

I have heard about the cancelation of US visas, but it really surprised me when it happened to me. I couldn't help thinking why the US government did that. 

The CASS is a public institute - its research and meetings are all public. Even if we have a 10-year US visa, we registered according to US law every time prior to any trip, and nothing took place behind the scenes. The current situation is unprecedented during my 10 years of research on US affairs. 

It's ludicrous to reject Chinese scholars from entering the US based on FBI concerns that they are related to China's intelligence agency. The CASS is an independent academy which doesn't report to, or follow the orders of, any intelligence department. The US is unreasonably anxious now and blocks the regular interaction of personnel. This is very unreasonable. 

I  hope this is an anomaly of a specific historical period rather than something very serious. I have talked to some US scholar friends about the incident. They are even more shocked than I am and cannot understand the US government's move. They call me an "always respected visitor."

Some US media outlets stated that China is also rejecting Americans' applications for visas, but the two cases are entirely dissimilar. The biggest difference is we won't contact any non-mainstream people or those who threaten US national security. However, there have been Americans who have previously come to China to contact such people. 

In the medium and long term, I believe China-US ties will improve because large conflicts between the two countries are not in the interest of either country or the world. Short term, it is difficult to predict what will happen next. After all, the current US administration is the most unpredictable in history.

Jin Canrong

Associate dean of School of International Studies at Renmin University of China

My impression is such a situation is very rare. Of course, some Chinese were deliberately targeted when visiting the US and had their baggage searched, but cases of canceling visas are not common. However, such instances did occur often during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

Social science scholars are targeted because their research often involves China's policies and communications with government departments. 

However, such research is also very normal in Western countries and no normal country will treat scholars undertaking policy research as spies. This is just ridiculous.

I was also interviewed by the FBI and some of my friends in the US also find it incredible. They thought that this is a misuse of the concept of national security and they do not agree with such an approach.

Zhu Feng

Executive director of China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University

"Go back to China…You will receive a notification," I was told by an FBI agent at a Los Angeles airport before travelling back to China. 

Though I was not accused of being a spy, the US cancelled my 10-year multiple entry visa, forcing me to cooperate with the FBI. 

This is a key issue as it shows the harshness of the US national security machine. Some American scholars and friends also think that this is very inappropriate. They think this is an action that is close to the anti-Communist ideology of the Cold War era.

The nature of China-US relations has changed and the changes come in an all-round manner. Obstructing normal academic exchanges is just one of these changes. 

Since the US listed China as a rival power in its National Security Strategy report in December 2017, a series of such measures has been launched. 


Chinese scholar, who was questioned by FBI agents and had his visa canceled

If you want to cancel my visa, just cancel it. I told the FBI agents who threatened me after their carrot-and-stick tactics did not work on me. 

This may have angered them and my visa was canceled, but I am a Chinese scholar and I cannot betray my homeland. 

In theory, I can apply for a single-entry visa now, but I found that the US will still set up various obstacles. They always said that they need to carry out reviews, but these reviews are actually something like a blacklist. 

Though some US media said that there are also American scholars who can't get a Chinese visa, these are two completely different situations. 

The US is disturbing normal exchanges of Chinese scholars on a large scale and forcing Chinese scholars to cooperate by threatening to cancel their visas. I discussed this with an American who has worked in China for many years. He was shocked. 

He said that he has never encountered such a thing in China during his many years here, so this really reflects the aggressiveness and rudeness of the US approach.

We must handle this situation appropriately. The more such situations occur, the more we must unite with Americans and promote China-US exchanges. 

I believe that insightful people in the US are very clear about this. At the same time, we must make sufficient estimates and responses to the complexities of the future development of China-US relations.

Wang Wen

Executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China

My visa was canceled after I attended a conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Before that, I went to the US three to five times a year, normally for academic exchange events such as dialogues on trade and South China Sea issues between Chinese and US think tanks. 

None of these are sensitive activities.  

I saw my name, as well as many other Chinese scholars, mentioned in the China's Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance released by the Hoover Institute of the US. The report warned of a rising threat from China's "penetration and influence-seeking" activities in the US. 

It's normal for China and the US to have competition and cooperation, and everyone just plays by the rules. 

You come to China to tell the story of the US and I come to the US to tell the story of China and let's see who tells the story better. Now the US is beginning to feel anxious about the influence of Chinese scholars and they have decided not to play by the rules and cancel their visas.

However, it cannot be ruled out that this is a move by a US government department to expand its authority in order to seize power. On the whole, the US government appears to be lacking in self-confidence. This kind of behavior can also be regarded as part of the decoupling policy against China.

Though over 280 Chinese scholars have had their US visas canceled or obstructed, or have been harassed by FBI agents since 2018, I think we should stay calm on this. The US may be able to "delink" the 280 Chinese scholars, but it cannot cut off the 5.3 million mutual visits every year.

What is happening now is a normal fluctuation in bilateral relations and won't affect the integration and exchange of the world's two largest economies. China and the US are fighting with each other but they won't cut relations.

There's no need to make a fuss. If you pay too much attention, it only encourages the arrogance of US politicians who want to decouple from China. It will also affect the willingness of some Chinese scholars to go to the US for exchanges.

As far as I am concerned, the impact of visa cancellations is limited. You can do research on China-US relations even if you do not go to the US, and the proportion of US research in China's foreign and international studies is declining. 

I am still confident about going to the US in the future, so to some extent I am quite calm in the current the situation. 

Some may feel pessimistic about China-US relations, saying the good-old days are gone, but this is not in contradiction to staying calm throughout. 

In the past, the US has been in a strong position where China was weak. However, as China has grown stronger, the China-US relations will gradually recover and we will see a balance in the new era.

The current China-US relationship is a bit like that of China and Japan in 2007. During that time, China's economic volume was about to surpass Japan's. 

Japan was abnormally anxious and it frequently challenged China over the Diaoyu Islands, which led to an unprecedented deterioration of bilateral ties. Now, China's GDP is close to three times that of Japan, and China-Japan relations are more moderate than they were.

In fact, the US has a history of setting up barriers to China-US exchanges. In the early 1990s, visas were difficult to get for Chinese scholars who went to the US for study and exchange. 

But now, the number of scholars who have been treated unfairly is relatively small compared with those who have not been harassed. It is now the internet, and the public's high expectations for China-US exchanges that have triggered a wide response in China. 

The US is extremely anxious, and it may resort to more extreme means in the short term. We must have long-term preparations. 

At the same time, we must also look at the problems from China's strategic interests, to be more inclusive and treat China-US exchanges with a more open mind than the US so that we will not fall into any traps set by some small groups.