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Home WORLD China researchers face online abuse, sanctions as Beijing looks to silence critics

China researchers face online abuse, sanctions as Beijing looks to silence critics

On Weibo, people have called for her family to be tracked down and ordered to apologize for raising such a daughter. Others said Xu should never be allowed back into China, issuing not-so-veiled threats. “Meet a traitor, kill a traitor,” one user wrote. Her family asked her to change her name for her own safety.

The torrent of abuse targeting Xu, one year after she co-wrote an Australian Strategic Policy Institute report on Uyghur labor in supply chains, is the most extreme example of a growing Chinese campaign to defend its Xinjiang policies and to silence overseas researchers through sanctions and intimidation.

In recent weeks, China has imposed sanctions on scholars and think tanks while state propaganda organs fanned nationalist anger at companies such as H&M and Nike for not using cotton from Xinjiang. Researchers like Xu, who said people close to her in China have been detained and interrogated because of her work, face increasingly personal attacks.

“As someone who analyzes propaganda activities for a job I can see it’s clearly a coordinated attack,” she said. “At this point, the Chinese government has made it abundantly clear that if you want to keep talking about Xinjiang, the Chinese state would not treat you nicely.”

In March, Beijing announced travel bans and asset freezes on more than 20 scholars and officials, and their families, as well as think tanks in the European Union and Britain, in response to sanctions from the United States, the E.U., Britain and Canada on Chinese officials linked to abuses in Xinjiang. China also barred its citizens and organizations from dealing with the blacklisted entities and individuals.

Scholars focusing on China, who have already seen more restrictions on academic exchanges between China and Western countries, say the latest measures will damage fragile ties and mutual understanding over the long term. More than 1,150 scholars have signed a statement urging Beijing to revoke the sanctions, which they say amount to “academic repression.”

“There is no legal or moral basis for the persecution of scholars, merely because they expose and criticize a powerful government’s human rights abuses,” it said.

Silencing voices

Foreign scholars say the personal attacks against researchers and sanctions on institutions go beyond the scope of recent Western measures against China, which only target government officials, and represent a shift in Beijing’s focus to U.S. allies in Europe.

Among the institutions now banned by China is the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin, whose researchers publish analysis about Chinese politics, foreign and economic policy and the China-Europe relationship.

“MERICS is probably the one think tank in Europe doing the most pathbreaking work on sensitive issues like Xinjiang and Made in China 2025,” said Bonnie Glaser, incoming director…

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