The activities of an American anthropologist seem to have been behind Peking's decision to cut back sharply on social science research by United States scholar.
This is the opinion of well-placed American sources perturbed about China's decision, announced earlier this year. Under it, Peking banned extended on-site research projects in Chinese villages and limited scholars' visits at local institutions to three weeks.
But some US scholars suggest China is using charges against the anthropologist to justify a decision if would have made anyway.
The move has coincided with broader crackdown on artistic and intellectual freedom in China, new restrictions on contracts between Chinese and foreigners, and an increase in pressure on Western journalists in Peking.
It has led a number of American scholars to question the future of the overall US-China exchange program.
The anthropologist in question is Steven Mosher of Stanford University, who lived in a village in Shun Deh County in the Guangdong Province from 1978 to 1979. One of the first US scholars allowed to conduct research after the normalization of Sino-American relations, he carried out an anthropological survey in the village under a grant from the Washington-based Committee on Scholarly Exchange with the People's Republic of China.
According to several well-placed US scholar, his research was highly sucessful. He was reported to have obtained a great deal of local information, including internal documents, newspapers, and other data eagerly sought by, but not normally available to foreigners.
In recent months, however, serious allegations have been made by government officials and academics in both China and the United States over the methods Mosher allegedly used to acquire his data.
The first is that Mosher was able to obtain his unusually detailed and occasionally confidential information by purchasing a foreign-made van and giving it to officials in the commune where he worked.
The second is that he used relatives of his Hong Kong Chinese wife to assist him in gathering data in the village where they lived. Other American Sinologists with Chinese wives have used family "connections" to promote their work. But a number or Western and Chinese scholars question whether Mosher's alleged utilization of his relatives in this manner was consistent with the normal ground rules of anthropological field work.
Efforts to contact Mosher, at this writing doing research in Taiwan, to comment on these and other aspects of the controversy surrounding him were unsuccessful. After repeated telephone calls and attempts to arrange an interview, Mosher indicated through a third party that he did not wish to have any contact with the press.
However, the chairman of the committee overseeing his doctoral dissertation, Prof. Arthur Wolf of Stanford, said Mosher denies that the van was used as a gift or bribe in return for information. Wolf said Mosher claims he had obtained legitimate authorization to import the van, and that the authorities knew he would leave it behind.
Knowledgeable sources say the Chinese also questioned whether the donation of the van was related to Mosher's later acquisition of some rare antique coins.
Sources say officials at China's Academy of Social Sciences have charged that taking the coins out of the country was a violation of China's customs regulations.
However, sources close to Mosher say he rejects this version. "His response, " said Professor Wolf, "is that he purchased the coins from a man who had sold them to a number of other American travelers, that they were not valuable items, and that they did not fall under the customs regulations."
The Chinese first started bringing the case of Mosher to the attention of leading American academics last year. By this past winter, Chinese exchange program officials were raising the issue frequently with the American counterparts, accusing Mosher of abusing his status as a scholar, behaving immorally, and in some instances reportedly using language which suggested they viewed Mosher's activities as tantamount to espionage.
Shortly thereafter, Peking announced its decision to curtail social science research, in private citing Mosher's case as an example of how disruptive and dangerous it would be for China to allow such activities to continue.
Sources said the Chinese charges against Mosher, coupled with the ban, deeply upset leading US Sinologists. As a result, senior figures from the joint Committee on Contemporary China, the Social Science Research Council, and other organizations involved in the exchange program are to meet later this fall to discuss the case.
According to the sources, if the meeting upholds the Chinese allegations and censures Mosher, it would effectively torpedo his future chances of getting an academic job, and reduce the likelihood that the material he gathered in Guangdong would ever be published.
The whole affair has aroused strong feelings in the US academic community, both among scholars critical of Mosher and among those who feel he is being used as a scapegoat.
"If Steven Mosher didn't exist, the Chinese would have had to invent him," said one American scholar who also did research in China. "The Chinese cannot lived with social scientists getting on the inside of their society," he said.