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Indiana University Professor Barred from Entering China

Elliot Sperling got a visa, landed in Beijing, and was immediately ordered to fly back to the U.S. Why?
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An Indiana University professor was prohibited from entering China this week, despite the fact that he had a valid one-year visa.

The New York Times reports that Elliot Sperling was questioned by border authorities just moments after landing in Beijing and ordered to take the next flight back to the United States.

The professor, who teaches in Indiana's Central Eurasian Studies department, told The Times that he believed he was singled out because of his support and assistance to an ethnic Uighur scholar named Ilham Tohti. Tohti was charged with with sedition by the Chinese government earlier this year, an arrest that sparked outraged among human rights activists around the world.

“The issue for me is not my being denied entry — I can certainly continue my research and academic work without going to China — but the attempt to pressure those who speak in support of Ilham to retreat into silence, or at least to isolate them,” Sperling told the Times.

Sperling had helped Tohti, an economics professor, obtain a one-year scholarship position at Indiana University, but Tohti was detained before he could arrive in the United States. Sperling’s expulsion from China is raising questions about the state of academic freedom in China and whether there is a blacklist of professors and journalists who are forbidden from working in the country. Several prominent journalists, including from The New York Times and Bloomberg, have had their work visas canceled in recent months.

The incident is seen by many as the latest of a series of events intended to suppress China's Uighur community, an ethnic minority group who are predominantly Muslim. Earlier this month, it was announced that Muslim teachers, students, and civil servants living in the northwest region of Xinjiang would be forbidden from "fasting and other religious activities," during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

There are about 10 million Uighurs currently living in China and many want more autonomy from the Chinese state. Tensions between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese majority have been high for several years and violent clashes between the groups have become increasingly common in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority area.