US Scholars Should Stay Away From China

SINCE the June 4 massacre in Beijing, official United States-China exchange of scholars has been suspended. Lately, however, some American scholars have urged that the exchange be resumed. They argue that sanctions will not work, that the presence of American scholars in China can help protect their Chinese colleagues and that international exchange is always valuable. I disagree with these views. Since there is no doubt that international scholarly exchange is extremely valuable under normal circumstances, exchange with China should be resumed eventually. This does not mean, however, that the US should resume it now or soon. There are two reasons for this. First, the free exchange of ideas between Chinese and American scholars is not possible under current conditions. Second, the Chinese government would exploit the return of foreign scholars to support a claim of normalcy - in order to lure back foreign investors.

Chinese leaders claim that normalcy has returned. The academic environment, however, is anything but normal. As of late September, Chinese soldiers still occupied the entire top floor of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences building in Beijing. How can scholars maintain an inquiring spirit while literally laboring under the boots of the People's Liberation Army? In addition, Chinese scholars and college students have to attend political classes to study the speeches of Deng Xiaoping and to denounce the pro-democracy movement.

Under the martial law which has existed since May 20, human rights are precarious and contact with foreigners risky. The intimidation is felt even by high officials. For example, in late May in Beijing, I contacted a high-level government economist for an interview about his subject. He agreed to meet - but only at night at a third person's house.

Naturally, Chinese leaders welcome the visits of well-known academic and political figures. On Sept. 16, professor T.D. Lee of Columbia University, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was warmly received by Deng Xiaoping, and their picture was displayed on the front page of all major newspapers in China. Recently, both Alexander Haig and Richard Nixon have traveled to Beijing to meet with China's leaders. These visits have great propaganda value for the Chinese government, as they tell the world - and Chinese citizens - that its reformist open-door policy is intact. The message: foreign investors, it's time to come back.

But the ``open door'' is a misleading metaphor so far as foreign scholars are concerned. Western economic theories are increasingly condemned as a source of ``bourgeois liberalization'' and ``spiritual pollution.'' The visits to China in the past few years of Milton Friedman and other prominent Western economists are now criticized in the Chinese press.

Thus, if the Chinese government allows American scholars to return, it would be logical for it to minimize their ``pollution'' by restricting contact while at the same time maximizing their propaganda value through photo opportunities. Suppose American scholars were in China now and Deng Xiaoping invited several to a ``victory-over-the-counterrevolutionaries'' celebration. How many of them would be in a position to say ``no'' without being sent packing?

Exchanges would have value if American scholars in China could somehow protect their Chinese colleagues. Unfortunately, this is a delusion. A government that did not hesitate to kill its own innocent students and citizens will not be deterred from persecuting its dissident scholars just because some well-intentioned American academicians are there. Worse still, ``improper'' association with foreigners can become a liability when the political wind shifts. Visiting scholars can never be sure whether their activities are not unwittingly harmful.

Take my own case. On June 5, while visiting a scholar at Qinghua University in Beijing, I attended a student memorial ceremony for two murdered classmates. The occasion was so moving that I asked to pay my respects. As I walked toward the altar with the scholar, several camera flashes went off from what appeared to be plainclothesmen in the crowd. Even now I don't know whether this may have harmed the scholar.

At this time the resumption of exchange with China will bring little benefit to American or Chinese scholars, but may provide much aid to China's leaders. The Chinese economy has grown dependent on foreign capital and technology, hence the open-door policy. Exactly for this reason, the Chinese government is susceptible to external pressures. By refusing to return to China to give its rulers business-as-usual respectability, American scholars, and others, can help bring about changes in China's repressive policies.

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