SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: July 05, 2014

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Travel Restrictions

Institution(s):Indiana University

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

An American professor was denied entry to China despite having a valid visa, apparently in retaliation for nonviolent, expressive activity in the United States in support for detained Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti.

According to reports, on July 5, 2014, Elliot Sperling, an associate professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University, arrived at Beijing International Airport where he was taken into custody by border officials, briefly interrogated, and denied entry into the country.  His valid tourist visa was cancelled, and he was taken to a plane and forced to return to the United States. According to Sperling, border officials refused to tell him why he was being refused entry into China, and Chinese government sources have not commented on the case.

Professor Sperling is an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations, has never previously had visa problems, despite having traveled frequently to China, including having previously served as a visiting scholar at Peking University where he regularly gave lectures on Tibet.

According to Sperling, he believes he was placed on a “blacklist” and denied entry into China because of his recent, public support for Professor Tohti, who has been detained in China since January 15, 2014 on charges of separatism. According to Sperling, “[t]here was obviously an order about me entered into the database.”  “I saw no point in arguing. I mean, I had a pretty clear notion about why I was being denied entry. For me, it was clearly about Ilham.”

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the denial of entry to a scholar, apparently in retaliation for nonviolent expressive activity which is protected under international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. Scholars at Risk is especially concerned that the action against the scholar is in retaliation for the exercise of his professional responsibility to express concern for a detained colleague, and for negative impact such retaliation can have on academic freedom, institutional autonomy and the quality of higher education institutions, teaching and research in China. State authorities not only must refrain from such retaliation, but have an affirmative responsibility to protect academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Similarly, while States have the authority to regulate entry into their territory, denying entry based on the content of nonviolent professional expression would violate academic freedom and State obligations under international law.