'Farewell': Qiao Mu, dis­sent­ing aca­demic, leaves China for US

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Tom Phillips in Beijing

Qiao Mu had al­ways in­sisted he would not be forced to leave China. “We must change our na­tion, not our na­tion­al­ity,” the out­spo­ken aca­demic told the Guardian over lunch in the sum­mer of 2015.

Last Fri­day morn­ing, how­ever, Qiao and his fam­ily set off for Beijing’s in­ter­na­tional air­port to catch a Boe­ing 777 bound for the United States.

“I’m leav­ing my coun­try and I’ll miss it. Farewell,” Qiao, 47, an­nounced on the so­cial mes­sag­ing ser­vice WeChat as he waited to board Air China Flight CA817 to Wash­ing­ton DC. He did not say when, or in­deed if, he might re­turn.

In the nearly five years since Xi Jin­ping be­came China’s top leader, Qiao, a jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor at Beijing For­eign Stud­ies Univer­sity and hu­man rights ad­vo­cate, had emerged as an in­creas­ingly iso­lated voice of dis­sent in a coun­try where po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion ap­pears to grow more per­ilous by the day.

China-based for­eign cor­re­spon­dents and diplo­mats com­plain that un­der Xi – who is about to

com­plete his first term in power – lo­cal schol­ars have in­creas­ingly shied away from dis­cussing po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive top­ics or, in some cases, meet­ing with for­eign­ers at all.

“The gen­eral cli­mate for re­port­ing in China de­te­ri­o­rated over the last year,” de­scribed a re­port re­leased by the For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents’ Club of China in Novem­ber 2016. “Many de­nounced pres­sure ex­erted on or­gan­i­sa­tions and academia, and cited grow­ing dif­fi­cul­ties in se­cur­ing in­ter­views with sources and ex­perts.”

But Qiao ap­peared to shrug off the pres­sure, grant­ing reg­u­lar in­ter­views to me­dia out­lets from across the globe in­clud­ing the Guardian, the Fi­nan­cial Times, the Wall Street Jour­nal, the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera English and the As­so­ci­ated Press.

He tack­led thorny is­sues such as me­dia cen­sor­ship, eth­nic ri­ot­ing, elite pol­i­tics and the Mao-style per­son­al­ity cult that some ac­cuse President Xi of try­ing to cul­ti­vate. “I’m a typ­i­cal Chi­nese per­son. I love my coun­try and I want to change it,” Qiao told AFP ear­lier this year.

Qiao de­clined to go into details about his de­ci­sion to swap north­ern China for the east coast of the US. “I’m busy mak­ing a liv­ing,” he said in a brief WeChat mes­sage this week.

But friends said he had de­cided to leave af­ter see­ing his aca­demic ca­reer wrecked by his re­fusal to fall into line. Since 2014 Qiao had been ban­ished from the class­room, ap­par­ently in pun­ish­ment for his pub­lic sup­port for ideas such as multi-party democ­racy and free­dom of speech.

In April this year Qiao re­signed cit­ing his frus­tra­tions at the po­lit­i­cal re­stric­tions as a mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tor. “A jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor [who] has to be against a free me­dia. Even Tchaikovsky couldn’t play a sym­phony with enough sor­row for my sit­u­a­tion,” he com­plained in an on­line let­ter.

Shi Jiepeng, a fel­low aca­demic who also re­cently fell vic­tim to the crack­down on lib­eral thinkers, said life had been made im­pos­si­ble for his friend. “Peo­ple like him can­not find any jobs within the sys­tem,” said Shi, who was sacked from his job at Beijing Nor­mal Univer­sity in July as a re­sult of his po­lit­i­cally charged on­line posts.

“There was still space out­side the sys­tem but with­out the backing of an in­sti­tu­tion a scholar faces all sorts of in­con­ve­niences,” Shi added. He sug­gested fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties had played a role in Qiao’s exit, since he would have lost the ben­e­fits that came with a univer­sity job, such as his daugh­ter’s ed­u­ca­tion.

“Go­ing to [Amer­ica] is the least bad choice for him. But it’s not the best choice and he has no al­ter­na­tive but to choose,” said Shi.

Dur­ing his 2015 in­ter­view Qiao said he was well aware of the risks in­volved in speak­ing out in Xi’s ever more il­lib­eral China. Just days be­fore se­cu­rity forces had launched a no­to­ri­ous round-up of hu­man rights lawyers and ac­tivists – later dubbed China’s “war on law” – spir­it­ing some of the coun­try’s best-known at­tor­neys into se­cret de­ten­tion.

“Be­fore Xi Jin­ping we feared only that they would delete our [on­line] posts. In the worst sit­u­a­tion they would delete [your ac­count],” Qiao said. “But since Xi Jin­ping came to power this changed. They be­gan to ar­rest peo­ple.”

Qiao avoided that fate. But with his de­par­ture last week he joined a grow­ing list of lib­eral Chi­nese aca­demics who are aban­don­ing their home­land and seek­ing sanc­tu­ary over­seas.

“The sit­u­a­tion in the last year has be­come not bet­ter but worse for in­tel­lec­tual life in China … It’s a sad time to be an in­tel­lec­tual,” said Jerome Co­hen, a New York-based China ex­pert who has been help­ing some of the refugee schol­ars ar­riv­ing in the US.

“It is not sim­ple to get a per­ma­nent job abroad as good as the one you have had in China,” Co­hen ad­mit­ted. “But with the in­cen­tive of not be­ing free to write and speak as they nor­mally would, peo­ple scram­ble for what­ever chance they can get.

“Peo­ple are try­ing to cope,” he added. “But they re­alise that they have at least five [more years of Xi Jin­ping] to deal with.”

News of Qiao’s un­ex­pected re­treat was cel­e­brated by friends and sup­port­ers on Twit­ter, which Qiao will now be able to use with­out hav­ing to use a vir­tual pri­vate net­work (VPN) to leap over China’s dra­co­nian in­ter­net con­trols. “Wel­come to the free world,” wrote Zhou Feng­suo, a Cal­i­for­nia-based ex­ile who was forced from China af­ter tak­ing part in the 1989 Tianan­men protests. “Breathe free air,” sug­gested an­other.

Two years ago Qiao said he dreamed of one day be­ing elected to of­fice in a demo­cratic China and vowed to re­main so he was ready to serve his coun­try when that day came: “I have stud­ied the tran­si­tion of eastern Euro­pean coun­tries – usu­ally it is pro­fes­sors, writ­ers, lawyers and jour­nal­ists who be­come politi­cians,” he said. “I want to be a con­gress­man – to crit­i­cise, to su­per­vise the cor­rupt govern­ment.”

Did Qiao still har­bour that dream, de­spite his de­ci­sion to leave? “It seems he still does,” said his friend, Shi.

Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by Wang Zhen

Pho­to­graph: James Wasser­man/De­motix for The

Since 2014, Qiao had been ban­ished from the class­room, ap­par­ently in pun­ish­ment for his pub­lic sup­port for ideas such as democ­racy.

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