On April 1, 2019, Chinese authorities blocked human rights lawyer Chen Jiangang from leaving the country to attend an academic fellowship program in the United States.
In 2018, Chen received an offer to study law and human rights in the United States as a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow. The fellowship, funded by the US Department of State, is awarded to mid-career professionals from countries “undergoing development or political transition” who have demonstrated leadership and “dedication to public service.”The program funds ten months of non-degree, graduate-level study and provides fellows with opportunities to engage with US-based peers and organizations. Sources do not indicate the institution at which Chen was expected to take up the fellowship.
Chen had previously faced repression for his work serving as a defense attorney for human rights activists facing prosecution in China. In 2016, Chen and his family were briefly detained by authorities, apparently in connection to revelations he made about torture being used to extract confessions from Xie Yang, another rights lawyer he was representing, in 2015.
In March 2019, Chen allegedly contacted Chinese authorities to ask whether he would be allowed to leave the country to attend the Humphrey Fellowship Program. Authorities allegedly informed Chen that he was banned from travel because of his defense of Xie Yang in 2015 and because of the fellowship program’s connection to the US government. On April 1, Chen, nevertheless, attempted to board a flight to Los Angeles, but was denied exit by customs officials at Beijing Capital Airport. Customs officials reportedly refused to cite the grounds for denying him travel to the US.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by the use of a travel restriction to restrict the exercise of academic freedom — conduct which is expressly protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from interfering with and retaliating against the peaceful exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and other related rights. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.