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: May 08, 2021

Attack Types: Travel Restrictions


Region & Country:Eastern Asia | China

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 8, 2021, Chinese authorities barred human rights lawyer Lu Siwei from leaving the country and traveling to the United States to undertake an academic fellowship, on national security grounds.

Roughly four months prior to this, Lu’s legal license was revoked shortly after the family of a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist who had been arrested after attempting to flee the special administrative region, appointed him to represent the activist. Lu, who, according to the Associated Press, had reportedly been told by Justice Department officials to drop the client, remained vocal about the case. In connection with his license revocation, he was accused of violating the country’s “Law on Lawyers” for allegedly posting comments online that were “inappropriate” and had caused a “negative impact on society.”

In March 2021, Lu traveled to Beijing to obtain a visa to the United States after having been granted the Humphrey Fellowship, funded by the US Department of State. The fellowship is awarded to mid-career professionals from designated 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. Allegedly, authorities warned Lu against travelling and told him that he would be barred from leaving the country.

Chinese immigration officials stopped Lu in Shanghai Pudong International Airport as he was attempting to board a flight to Seattle to attend the fellowship program. According to Lu, he was held in a restricted part of the airport for two hours before being released and told that he would be unable to travel to the US because he “may endanger national security or interests.” Lu was not formally detained, but was prevented from accessing his phone for the two hours he was held.

On April 1, 2019, Chinese authorities blocked human rights lawyer Chen Jiangang from leaving the country also to attend the Humphrey Fellowship.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about 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 protected rights so long as they are exercised peacefully and responsibly. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.