Embed from Getty Images

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, it has become increasingly difficult for academics to do research in mainland China, say two Taiwanese scholars interviewed by Hong Kong-based news outlet Apple Daily.

According to professor Wang Hsin-hsien (王信賢), head of the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies of Taiwan’s National Cheng-Chih University (NCCU), conducting field studies in mainland China has become harder for Taiwanese scholars after Xi Jinping ascended to power.

“For example, Taiwanese academics that travel to mainland China to conduct field studies face increasing difficulties, many [Chinese] are unwilling to be interviewed,” Wang said.

“I think this is not only due to the deterioration of cross-strait relations, but also due to stricter domestic control in mainland China,” Wang continued. “This affects not only Taiwanese or foreign scholars, but also mainland Chinese scholars themselves. It has become more and more complicated for them to do research, too.”

As a result, understanding China’s domestic situation has become more difficult for Taiwanese and Westerners alike, he remarked.

Beijing is now waging “cognitive warfare” against Taiwan and other countries such as the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia, Wang explained. China’s strategy consists in disseminating a mix of real and false news, in influencing public opinion and sowing chaos.

With regards to the Chinese Communist regime’s assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms, Wang argued that the former British colony’s role as an international financial centre and China’s gateway to the outside world is not important to Xi Jinping, who views Hong Kong in the context of China’s geopolitical struggle with the United States.

Tseng Wei-feng (曾偉峯), professor at the Graduate Institute of China Studies of Taiwan’s Tamkang University, told Apple Daily that Beijing wants to “tame Hong Kong” and turn it into an “ordinary Chinese city”.

He warned that Taiwanese scholars who travel to Hong Kong should “exercise more caution than in the past”.

“Some people may think that Hong Kong is different from China and so they’re not afraid to go there, but in fact, though Hong Kong’s international academic standards are high, the current circumstances are worrisome,” Tseng said.

After Xi Jinping took office in 2013, he began to tighten the Communist regime’s grip on society in a manner not seen since the era of Mao Zedong.

In mainland China, academic freedom has been increasingly stifled. Prestigious universities recently issued charters in which they pledged loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Shanghai’s Fudan University also removed from its charter principles like freedom of thought, prompting rare student protests.

Academic freedom in Hong Kong has been severely undermined since Beijing imposed a National Security Law in June of last year. Among the dozens of people arrested under the law were pro-democracy scholars Benny Tai and Claudia Mo. Meanwhile, Hong Kong institutions warned students not to discuss certain political issues and cracked down on freedom of expression on campuses, for instance by removing pro-democracy and anti-CCP message boards.

Beijing’s harassment of academics reaches beyond Chinese borders. Reacting to sanctions and criticism over its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, on March 22 China sanctioned German scholar Adrian Zenz, Swedish scholar Björn Jerdén and the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Germany. On March 26 it sanctioned UK scholar Joanne Nicola Smith Finley and the China Research Group.

Journalism, too, has been heavily targeted by Xi’s suppression of free speech.

Last year at least 18 journalists were expelled from China, one detained and two others fled home to Australia due to diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Canberra.

On 23 March, BBC correspondent John Sudworth and his wife, Yvonne Murray, a journalist who works for Ireland’s RTÉ news, left China after an aggressive pressure campaign from Chinese state media.

The Chinese Communist regime aims at being the sole source of information about China to the outside world, as well as the sole arbiter of truth. But by putting party loyalty above independent media coverage and academic research, it has undermined the country’s reputation and made it harder for people to understand China.