Row erupts over state-approved research trips in China

A row among German academics who specialise in China studies has highlighted the dilemmas and pitfalls of state-sanctioned fieldwork in China, particularly in Xinjiang, which is largely shut off for independent work by most researchers and academics.

On 11 September Thomas Heberer, a senior professor of Chinese politics and society at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, professor of Chinese studies and director of the China Centre at the University of Tübingen, Germany, published an article in the highly respected Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) about their recent trip to China’s Xinjiang region.

Foreign academic visits to the region are rarely permitted by the Chinese authorities. However, in May 2023, at the invitation of the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, Heberer and Schmidt-Glintzer undertook what they later called a “self-funded exploratory academic trip” to the regions of Kashgar and Urumqi in Xinjiang, as members of a group of four German sinologists from different disciplines, as well as an international law expert. The other three members have not been named.

The Xinjiang region has been the site of a major crackdown on the Uyghur Muslim minority since the early 2000s and the detention of over a million Uyghurs in what the Chinese government called re-education camps since 2017.

The crackdown included a purge of academics at universities in the region, with economics professor Ilham Tohti and Uyghur ethnographer Rahile Dawut, a professor at the Xinjiang University College of Humanities, both sentenced to life imprisonment – the latter’s sentence was only confirmed this month after nothing was heard of her case for years.

When she was still UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet released a landmark report on 31 August 2022 concluding that the Chinese government had committed “serious human rights violations” in Xinjiang. The report described “large-scale” arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the north-western region of China.

Previous ‘sensationalist reporting’

In their NZZ article Heberer and Schmidt-Glintzer referred to previous “sensationalist reporting” of Xinjiang’s internment camps, forced labour and cultural oppression, and repeated China’s own justifications for the crackdown: a response to Islamist terror between 2010 and 2016.

They wrote: “Beijing was forced to react with undoubtedly overly harsh measures in order to stop the terror and get the situation back under control. At stake was the internal security of all of China.”

They added that the visiting group was “unable to detect” any general discrimination against the Uyghur language and culture.

“On the part of the Uyghur population, the modernisations initiated by the central government in terms of education, medical care and work are clearly met with sympathy,” they claimed. “It is reported that the various [internment] camps that emerged during the peak phase of the fight against terror have now largely been dismantled,” they wrote.

According to the two sinologists: “There are now clear signs of a return to ‘normality’. In the regions visited by the group, police road checkpoints are clearly no longer in use.”

They note the introduction of 15 years of free education (kindergarten, school and vocational training) for young Uyghurs. “This can be seen in modern vocational training centres in every Xinjiang district,” they wrote.

Touching a raw nerve

The article appears to have touched a raw nerve in the German-speaking academic community of China scholars who have responded with a barrage of social media comments. Some have called the NZZ article at best “naïve”.

Others have labelled it “pure propaganda” by senior China academics who are regarded as highly influential in Europe and who have, in Heberer’s case, provided testimony to the German parliament in the past.

For others, it highlights the notion that it is simply not possible to do independent academic field work in sensitive regions of China which include Xinjiang and Tibet. The debate has also raised the question of whether prominent academics should take part in such state-approved trips and whether such trips have academic value.

In a social media debate among German-speaking sinologists last year on the importance of field research in China some had argued a need for “tactical compromises” with the Chinese government in order to be able to continue with research on the ground.

“However, I and some others responded that if you do field research in China, you do so in a politically circumscribed environment, knowing that you will have to engage in a form of self-censorship,” said Andreas Fulda, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, UK, and an expert on Germany-China relations.

“The compromises inherent in such field research need to at least be properly documented and discussed in the publications that follow,” he told University World News, noting that Heberer and Schmidt-Glintzer had not provided any such details about their trip.

Referring to fake Russian villages constructed during the communist era to present a more sanitised façade to outside visitors — a strategy also used in China — Fulda said: “whether you’ve been shown Potemkin villages or it was more substantial, if you were to then reflect on your experiences in the field in an op-ed, you would be able to describe this in quite colourful ways. They did not.

“This sorry episode shows that we made the right point. It is not possible to go to China with the invitation of, say, the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, and then claim it is still objective research that has any kind of validity.”

Speaking to people on the ground

In their article, Heberer and Schmidt-Glintzer claimed “Xinjiang is by no means a sealed-off region [anymore], but can be visited openly and without any problems.”

Henryk Szadziewski, director of research at the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), said his organisation has been warning people against guided tours to Kashgar and Urumqi currently being offered by international travel companies. These can include visits to Uyghur homes “which families are not in a position to refuse, given an environment of securitization and state control”, he told University World News.

Referring to the German sinologists’ visit, he added: “If they did speak to people in Xinjiang, those were the ones who were carefully selected for them, therefore giving a very strong bias to the kinds of information that they were being told.”

The same goes for visiting places in Xinjiang, said Szadziewski.

“It's quite difficult to talk about normalisation without going to places that aren't on the prescribed tours that are given by the state to outside visitors. As academics, they would want to be looking at different kinds of sources of information, rather than the ones that were just fed to them on a tour.

“I work with Uyghurs and many are quite disturbed by the fact that international tour companies send tourists into a region [from which] they could not even get information on their family members for seven years, and that academics are entering the region, and then come out saying everything is coming back to normal after stabilising, when they haven't been able to contact their own family members,” Szadziewski said.

In a reference to Dawut, he said: “What is normal about imprisoning for life an anthropology professor with knowledge and talent, and an asset to China?

“I can see why this blew up in Germany and people have pushed back, because it's [normalisation] an absurd claim.”

Field work restrictions

Sascha Klotzbücher, based at the Comenius University of Bratislava, previously at the University of Göttingen in Germany, undertook fieldwork in Xinjiang from 2006 to 2009. Riots took place in Urumqi in 2009.

“After that, any kind of academic field work was no longer possible in Xinjiang,” he told University World News. It was either “highly guided” or restricted to certain spaces using previously trusted networks.

“I was very surprised when I heard they [Heberer and Schmidt-Glintzer] had done that kind of fieldwork. It would have to be under conditions where no autonomous observation or unrestricted access is possible. So, of course, we have to be suspicious.”

Klotzbücher pointed to China’s interest in inviting overseas experts, including a highly publicised trip to Tibet in May this year involving academics, diplomats and journalists, under highly restrictive conditions.

“There always have been people who have been very close to the talking points of the Chinese Communist Party,” according to Klotzbücher, but they were not so openly criticised in the past by the academic community in Germany.

“The problem now is that the political situation has changed in Germany, and there's a lot more focus [on] what is going on in China and also in Xinjiang,” he noted, referring to the change of government in Germany and a more China-critical discourse.

“These kinds of figures who have been very China-friendly are much more obvious now, because they are in a minority position; this is why the public reacted much more strongly,” he said, adding that Schmidt-Glintzer “has been saying for years we should cooperate with China but there wasn’t such strong blowback as now.

“There is not much that is scientific or academic about what they wrote in NZZ, apart from their academic titles,” according to Klotzbücher. In his view, the stated objectives of their “exploratory academic trip” to Xinjiang served as a “smoke screen” for their wider lobbying to lift sanctions against China. “But they did not anticipate the reaction.”

Heberer and Schmidt-Glintzer concluded their NZZ article as follows: “If the human rights situation continues to demonstrably normalise the EU should start dialogue and reconsider the sanctions imposed on China over Xinjiang.”

A second article

After the ensuing uproar among sinologists, while refusing to answer specific questions or engage in debate, but evidently stung by the unexpectedly strong criticism, they published a second article in NZZ on 18 September, which also appeared in English in the China Table newsletter, in which they attempted to explain their trip.

“The core interest was not to investigate the indisputable allegations about the human rights situation. This would hardly have been possible independently,” they wrote.

“We wanted to find out whether any changes have occurred in regional policy since the appointment of a new leadership in Xinjiang at the end of 2021 and – if so – in which direction these changes are going.

“In this context, the group suggested visiting the relevant institutions and conducting discussions, as well as talking to representatives of villages, communities and districts to deepen and classify what they witnessed. In Urumqi, discussions were held with academics, representatives of legal institutions, etc. Beforehand, informal, confidential talks were held in Beijing with academics from various disciplines, including long-time Xinjiang researchers,” they wrote.

Referring to the partner-organisation Academy of Social Sciences of Xinjiang, they said: “We were well aware that it was a state institution and that the opportunities for obtaining information were generally limited.”

“In addition, we asked questions about the whereabouts of the two internationally renowned Uyghur scientists, Professor Tashpolat Tiyip, geographer, former president of Xinjiang University, and Professor Rahile Dawut, the world’s leading ethnologist in the field of Uyghur culture,” they added.

“We initially assumed that we might encounter a situation like the one that existed until 2021: omnipresent controls, army and police posts everywhere, an oppressive atmosphere. We were stunned that all this no longer existed and that ‘normality’ seemed to prevail. The interlocutors were also relatively open,” they wrote.

They said they would not respond to “further questions” until their academic work is published.