DONALD TRUMP, the US president, has signalled a change of stance on the trade war, saying that he is not prepared to reach a deal with China at the moment. Meanwhile China's state media outlets have struck a tough pose, warning that "don't say we did not give you a heads up". The State Council has even published a white paper titled "China's Position on the China US Economic and Trade Consultations", saying that the United States is fully responsible for the setbacks in China US trade talks. All the indications are that the disagreements between the two powers are likely to spill over from the trade war into other areas. What is unpalatable is that political and economic bickering might have harmful consequences for the academic arena. This will do all harm and no good for not only the academic worlds in both countries but also academic progress in the entire world.
Struggles between two countries make both of them losers, and no one in the world wants to see that. However, when those in power are determined to gain supremacy, ordinary people — whether out of patriotism, self interest or the need to comply with the law — have to follow the lead of the country. In China, the policies of the government dominate everything. Orders from Beijing are executed through the administrative hierarchy the moment they are issued. In the US, while ordinary people enjoy a high degree of freedom, the government can, through legal means, customs, approval of investment, conditions attached to funding, etc, leave private organisations with little choice but to obey its orders.
With China and the US in a clash and locking horns over every matter, there is one area that should be left alone. What the academic field pursues is technology that benefits the entire human race, production techniques, management skills and the study of human behavioural patterns, all of which have universal meanings. Hence the saying "academic research has no frontiers". However, several incidents that have happened in the US recently run counter to the ideal of "academia as a place unspoiled by arguments between nations".
First, some US universities no longer accept Chinese students studying in some fields. The only reason is that Chinese students studying in fields related to national defence technology might equip themselves with the knowledge and pose a threat to the US's national security. The US cannot be faulted for believing so and acting so. After all, the US has the discretion to decide whether students from another country can be issued a visa. This has happened in the past, and when the historical circumstances change, so will the policies.
Second, the US is conducting a "purge" of Chinese academics. Li Xiaojiang and Li Shihua, tenured professors and husband and wife who have served Emory University for 23 years, have been sacked by the university. The couple's academic research is of global importance. However, they were dismissed for failing to disclose funding sources coming from outside the US and details of their cooperation with higher education institutions in China.
Beijing has repeatedly stressed that "we do not want to be in a trade war, we are not afraid to be in a trade war, and we will not shy away from a trade war when it is necessary". In the current stage, the emphasis is on being "not afraid to be in a trade war". But we believe academics from either country do not want to be in a trade war. If the dignity of academic freedom is trampled on and technology becomes a slave to politics, it will be a matter of great sadness to scholars all around the world.