Image: Cui Weiping
AP
Cui Weiping for photos at a park in Beijing, China, in 2007. The literature professor is the latest person to run afoul of China's government, denied permission to travel to a prominent academic conference in the United States this week.
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updated 3/25/2010 1:43:18 PM ET 2010-03-25T17:43:18

A literature professor is the latest person to run afoul of China's government, denied permission to travel to a prominent academic conference in the United States this week.

Cui Weiping had her Chinese passport, U.S. visa and airplane ticket to Philadelphia in hand when, she said, officials at the Beijing Film Academy where she works called her in 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, she said: last year's commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement and her recent outraged Twitter posts at the jailing of a peaceful political activist. "Really, they want to punish me," Cui said Thursday sitting in an artsy coffee shop in the university district.

"They're afraid, one, of what I might say abroad," she said, "and two, they want to pressure me."

Other ways to restrict flow of ideas
In the uproar over Google's tussle with Chinese Internet censorship, Cui's case is a reminder that the authoritarian 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, rather than political campaigning.

Nor is she the only person to see her freedom of movement curtailed. Travel bans have a rich tradition in China. The emperors prohibited ordinary Chinese off-and-on from leaving for several centuries. More recently, writer and outspoken government critic Liao Yiwu 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, a feminist literary critic who has made pointed documentaries on AIDS and one village's attempts to oust corrupt officials, found out she was under 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 won't notify you directly, and only when you try to do something do you find you're being punished," said Ai, a professor in the southern city of Guangzhou. "There's no way to seek redress. No process. It's a punishment outside the law."

Cui too has been told not to travel to the U.S. twice before, once in 2006 for a conference on the radical Maoist Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and last year for an event organized by a Chinese emigre who produced a documentary on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

"Those times, they were concerned about the event's organizer or the event itself. This time was different," Cui said.

Her hosts were to be the Association for Asian Studies, a prestigious academic grouping based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with 7,000 members worldwide, for its annual conference, which opens Thursday and runs through the weekend. The association gave Cui a grant to cover her airfare and the conference's registration fee. From Philadelphia, Cui was to have traveled to Harvard University in Boston and other schools for lectures.

Telephone calls to the Beijing Film Academy and the department of core curriculum where she teaches rang unanswered Thursday afternoon.

‘Infringement of academic freedom’
Six China scholars based in the U.S. and Canada have sent a letter to the association's president and circulated it among other academics, urging the group to issue a protest in hopes that the Chinese authorities would "reverse such blatant infringement of academic freedom."

"Ms. Cui is an esteemed colleague and world-renowned specialist in her area of expertise," said the letter. "Our loss is large. Quite obviously, silence will only encourage the perpetrators."

The authors have yet to receive a response from the association president, Boston University anthropologist Robert Hefner, said one drafter, Jian Guo of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Cui said she also did not receive a reply from Hefner to an e-mail sent Monday.

The association did not immediately respond to a telephone query, nor did its president to an e-mail sent Thursday by The Associated Press.

In recent years, the association has tried to broaden its membership to include more academics from China. Critics have said that the outreach has made the association reluctant to challenge Chinese institutions.

Foreign scholars also have been blacklisted from entering China for being too critical or engaging in research at odds with government views.

Slow evolution into activism
For Cui, the predicament is another marker in her slow evolution into activism. Disturbed by the military's quelling of the Tiananmen movement in 1989, she only began speaking out about repression in recent years. A recurring theme of her research: 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."

Last May, when Beijing authorities were on guard to quash any remembrances of the 1989 movement, Cui gave a speech to a small gathering of like-minded liberals on the duty to speak out. She posted "Are we intending to continue this silence?" on her blog and as censors excised it, others kept reposting it.

Plainclothes police in unmarked cars stayed outside her apartment for three days around the anniversary in June, she said. She has been invited in "to drink tea" — a euphemism for chats with the police.

What really outraged the authorities this time, she said, were the interviews she did with 100 Chinese, intellectuals mostly, after author-dissident Liu Xiaobo drew a heavy 11-year sentence for subversion in December; he had organized a petition calling for constitutional reform. She tweeted the interviews. While many of those she talked to did not agree with Liu, most criticized the government for continuing to make free speech a crime.

School officials suggested that the anger reached the top of the government. "They told me that the interviews on Liu Xiaobo were a 'great destructive force,'" she said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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