China: Revoke sanctions on international scholars and respect free and open scholarly inquiry

Posted May 4, 2021

Scholars at Risk (SAR) denounces China’s sanctions on scholars and academic institutions in the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) for their research activities—a grave threat to global academic freedom. SAR calls on Chinese authorities to revoke the sanctions and to commit to respecting and promoting fully free and open scholarly inquiry.

On March 22 and 26, 2021, China imposed sanctions on three academics, Björn Jerdén, Director of the Swedish National China Centre at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs; Jo Smith Finley, Reader in Chinese Studies at Newcastle University, UK; and Adrian Zenz, Senior Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, US; and a research center, the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), in Germany, in retaliation for their research, teaching, and public discourse about China, including reported human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which some scholars and advocates have labelled an ongoing attempted genocide. Their research on Xinjiang has been cited widely, including in support of human rights sanctions by the EU and other states against government officials in the XUAR, the officials responsible for overseeing the alleged violations.  

Rather than refute their research with verifiable contrary data, China imposed sanctions on the researchers including travel bans, a freeze on assets, and a ban on cross-border collaborations with Chinese counterparts. The sanctions are a clear attempt to silence academic discourse and to intimidate any scholars or institutions engaged in research which does not conform with the approved narrative or ideology of the Chinese Party-state. As such, the sanctions are a grave threat to academic freedom not only in China but everywhere, and must be resisted.  

The sanctions fit a longstanding pattern of efforts by the Chinese government to silence expression or inquiry it finds displeasing or inconvenient. But they also reinforce concerns that this problem is not constrained within China’s borders, and that academic communities around the world are vulnerable to the Chinese government’s efforts to restrict academic freedom. China targeted foreign scholars to send a message and suppress truth. This highlights the importance of protecting scholars and institutions who provide and seek truth.

SAR stands in solidarity with Drs. Jerdén, Smith Finley, and Zenz, MERICS, and all individuals and institutions around the world who have been punished for exercising their academic freedom.  

SAR calls on state authorities and higher education leaders in China to: 

  • Revoke these sanctions, refrain from future sanctions and other coercive actions against members of the academic community, and to take all available steps to protect and promote academic freedom within and outside China; 
  • Abstain from direct or indirect involvement in pressures and attacks on academic freedom within or outside China, including by external interference or compulsion; criminal, legislative, or administrative actions; judicial actions against scholars conducting research, teaching, or publicly sharing their ideas (such as the recent case against Professor Zenz in Xinjiang); or travel restrictions that punish or deter nonviolent academic conduct or expression;
  • Lift or reverse any pending actions or restrictions on the work, travel, movement, or residence of scholars, students, and higher education personnel based on academic conduct or expression; and
  • Uphold academic freedom and institutional autonomy in a manner consistent with international law, as articulated in Article 19 (freedom of opinion and expression) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory, Article 13 (right to education) and Article 15 (freedom indispensable for scientific research) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which China is a party, and UNESCO’s Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel (1997).


About Scholars at Risk: Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of over 500 higher education institutions and thousands of individuals in over 40 countries that is leading the charge in protecting and offering sanctuary to threatened scholars and students. SAR’s mission is to protect higher education communities and their members from violent and coercive attacks, and by doing so to expand the space in society for reason and evidence-based approaches to resolving conflicts and solving problems. SAR meets this mission through direct protection of individuals, advocacy aimed at preventing attacks and increasing accountability, and research and learning initiatives that promote academic freedom and related values. SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project identifies and reports attacks on higher education to protect vulnerable scholars and students, hold perpetrators accountable, and prevent future violations. Institutions or individuals interested in participating in network activities are invited to visit or email