Though his own experiences have been positive, The Diplomat’s James R. Holmes laments the “chilling effect” that Beijing has on the scholarly community by denying visas and valued access to potential critics:
In effect Beijing sets individuals’ career incentives against their commitment to principle, and trusts that the former will win out. Who doesn’t think of his livelihood and family first? Researchers who fear being denied visas may self-censor their words in order not to offend. Or they may abjure sensitive topics—Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen being the unholy trinity—altogether. Abstract principle just isn’t worth the risk to one’s tenure, promotion, or other career milestones. Better to keep to safer, apolitical ground.
In Pentagon-speak, withholding visas for any reason, or for no reason at all, represents an easy, cost-free way for Beijing to “shape” the intellectual climate in a more “permissive” direction.
Possibly the most maddening, and effective, aspect of China’s approach to visas is its randomness, or seeming randomness: You never know when the boom will be lowered — on whom and why. The Chinese will allow a foreign scholar to criticize as he pleases, and come and go as he pleases, and then, one day: boom. “You know the reason. We don’t have to tell you.” In 2002, Perry Link wrote a well-known essay called “The Anaconda in the Chandelier.” The Chinese state is not like a snarling tiger or fire-breathing dragon in your living room (although it certainly can be that, for Chen Guangcheng and other dissidents). It’s more like “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments — all quite ‘naturally.’”
Journalists face the same challenges, as Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan experienced earlier this year. For Washington City Paper, Will Sommer reports that the Washington Post’s visa-less China bureau chief will be headed elsewhere after reporting on China from the outside for three years:
So much for the Washington Post’s three-year long attempt to actually get its China bureau chief into China. Ever since the Post hired Andrew Higgins in 2009, the paper has been trying to convince the Chinese government to grant him a visa, even enlisting the services of Henry Kissinger at one point.
The Chinese, you see, haven’t forgiven Higgins for reporting on dissidents that earned him a boot from the country in 1991. That hasn’t stopped Higgins from covering China—he follows the Chinese impact on the Asian countries he can travel to, and judging from his datelines, he can still go to Hong Kong.
But Higgins won’t need those workarounds any more. According to an internal newsroom memo sent out this afternoon by Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl, a still visaless Higgins is leaving the paper to cover Europe for the New York Times.