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: March 22, 2021

Attack Types: Travel Restrictions | Other

Institution(s):Mercator Institute for China Studies | Swedish Institute of International Affairs | Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation

Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On March 22, 2021, Chinese authorities announced sanctions targeting two scholars — both citizens of the European Union (EU) — and a Germany-based academic think tank, in apparent retaliation for their research regarding China and their work with their counterparts in the same country.

The scholars are Bjorn Jerdén, Director of the Swedish National China Centre at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, and Adrian Zenz, Senior Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, located in the United States. Zenz is known for having conducted extensive research into China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where authorities have detained large numbers of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities at so-called re-education camps and other detention facilities. Jerdén is a specialist in Chinese foreign affairs. Other individuals targeted include five members of European Parliament, a Dutch politician, and two parliamentarians from Belgium and Lithuania.

The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), which describes itself as the “the largest European research institute focusing solely on contemporary China studies,” was among four European institutions and groups targeted with sanctions.

According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, those targeted by the sanctions “severely harm China’s sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation.” Chinese authorities have not provided an evidentiary basis for the allegations. The announcement followed recent sanctions by the EU on Chinese officials in response to human rights violations in the XUAR that Zenz and others have studied.

The sanctions stipulate that the aforementioned individuals and their families are barred entry to China and that any assets they hold in China will be frozen. Further, Chinese citizens and entities are prohibited from “having dealings” with those individuals and institutions named in the sanctions order, and any companies and institutions associated with them.

Within days of the EU sanctions being announced, a UK-based scholar, Jo Smith Finley, was also subjected to the same sanctions (see report).

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of politically-motivated sanctions against scholars, a research institute, and others, in order to, in part, restrict academic activity and the peaceful exchange of ideas — conduct that 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 restrict academic travel based on political considerations and should refrain from other actions intended to retaliate against scholars, their families, and academic institutions. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such efforts undermine academic freedom and the international exchange of ideas.