A pixie-ish literature professor is the latest person to run afoul of China’s government, denied permission to travel to a prominent academic conference in the US this week.
Cui Weiping (崔衛平) had her Chinese passport, US visa and airplane ticket to Philadelphia in hand when, she said, officials at the Beijing Film Academy where she works called her on Sunday and told her to cancel the trip. Though they gave reasons for the denial — she has classes to teach, her conference panel was not related to her academic discipline — those were excuses, she said.
The unstated reason — last year’s commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement and her recent outraged Twitter posts at the jailing of a peaceful political activist, she said.
“Really, they want to punish me,” Cui said on Thursday, sitting in a coffee shop in the university district. “They’re afraid, one, of what I might say abroad, and two, they want to pressure me.”
Following the uproar over Google’s tussle with Chinese Internet censorship, Cui’s case is a reminder that the Chinese government often resorts to more blunt ways to restrict the flow of ideas.
Cui is hardly a firebrand. Small, bookish and 54, she prefers her literary and film criticism, her translations of the works of people like Czech dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel, to political campaigning.
Nor is she the only person to see her freedom of movement curtailed. Writer and outspoken government critic Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) was taken off a plane in the southwestern city of Chengdu last month on his way to Germany for Europe’s largest literary festival; it was the 13th time he was blocked.
Ai Xiaoming (艾曉明), a feminist literary critic who has made pointed documentaries on AIDS and one village’s attempts to oust corrupt officials, only discovered she was subject to a five-year ban when she went to renew her passport in December and couldn’t. A police official looked up her name in a database and told her “you’ve been prohibited from going abroad,” she said.
“To use a Chinese phrase, it’s very shady. They don’t notify you directly, and you only find you’re being punished when you try to do something,” said Ai, a professor in Guangzhou. “There’s no way to seek redress.”
Cui too has been told not to travel to the US twice before, once in 2006 for a conference on the radical Maoist Cultural Revolution and last year for an event organized by a Chinese emigre who produced a documentary on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
For Cui, the predicament is another marker in her slow evolution into activism. Disturbed by the military’s quelling of the democracy movement in 1989, she only began speaking out about repression in recent years. A recurring theme of her research is retrieving for public memory tragic events governments and societies try to suppress. She said the academic world has begun to feel narrower, hemmed in by government pressure to conform.
“On the surface, we’re supposed to be academics, and we’re not supposed to cross that line,” Cui said. “There are people like me who are concerned with free speech. Rural issues, property prices are not my concern. But free speech is something that directly touches me. It’s sensitive but I cannot avoid it.”
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