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Nobel Prize winners say China tried to 'bully' scientists into disinviting Dalai Lama from meeting

They say China demanded a Nobel summit disinvite two prize winners China calls “secessionists,” the Dalai Lama and Taiwanese scientist Yuan Lee.
Nobel chemistry laureate Yuan T. Lee speaks to reporters at the San Francisco International Airport on March 18, 2000.John G. Mabanglo / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — More than 100 Nobel laureates are expressing outrage over what they say was an attempt by the Chinese government to "bully the scientific community" earlier this year by seeking to censor two Nobel laureates during the Nobel Prize Summit in April held by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the Nobel Foundation.

They say the Chinese Embassy in Washington demanded that the summit disinvite two speakers, the Dalai Lama and the Taiwanese chemist Yuan T. Lee — both Nobel Prize winners who have criticized Chinese policy regarding their native lands.

After they rejected the Chinese demands, the Nobel laureates allege, a video transmission during the session was disrupted "by a presumed cyberattack," though they are not able to attribute it to China.

"We are outraged by the Chinese government's attempt to censor and bully the scientific community by attempting to prevent two of our fellow Laureates (or indeed anyone) from speaking at a meeting outside of China," the laureates said in a statement. "The future of our planet will require collaboration between all nations and all scientists across the globe. Many of us have valued scientific colleagues and long-standing friends in China, with whom we interact productively. Unfortunately, actions such as those described above only serve to hinder such essential cooperation, and if continued, will affect our willingness to participate in events in China, particularly those fully or partially sponsored or supported by the Chinese government."

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama outside his residence in the hill station town of Dharmsala, northern India, on July 1, 2011.Kevin Frayer / AP file

Among the signatories was Steven Chu, a Chinese American who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997 and served as the secretary of energy from 2009 to 2013.

The Chinese Embassy did not respond to a request for comment, but the Chinese state media Global Times called the two men "secessionists," and added, "U.S. politics is severely poisoning international science."

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetans, has lived in India since he fled his homeland in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. China doesn’t recognize the Tibetan government-in-exile and accuses him of seeking to separate Tibet from China.

In a statement to NBC News, the Department of State condemned what it called Chinese "harassment."

"This, unfortunately, is just another example of the PRC attempting to suppress free expression and bully people and institutions outside of China whose views and values differ from the Chinese Communist Party's political agenda," the statement said, referring to the People's Republic of China.

The statement added: "We are aware of an official from the PRC Embassy in Washington, D.C. harassing a senior National Academy of Sciences (NAS) official…We condemn this harassment, and have warned the Embassy against this inappropriate conduct."

The State Department said it could not confirm any Chinese role "in the particular cyber disruption referenced in the letter, the PRC's use of cyber harassment and online intimidation as a mechanism to expand the reach of its Great Firewall, especially among researchers, dissidents, and academics, is well-documented. Last year, for example, there were several reports of disruptions during events hosted on Zoom to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre."

“We applaud the Nobel Laureates for taking a stand against efforts by China’s authoritarian regime to censor and suppress free speech at the 2021 Nobel Prize Summit," said Michael Orlando, acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC). "International collaborative summits such as this are critical in upholding the values of transparency, integrity, and trust in science."

Science Magazine, which first reported on the matter, said the Nobel statement was delayed until the National Academies of Sciences and the Nobel Foundation had a chance to investigate.

The incident came to light shortly after a confrontational meeting in the northern city of Tianjin between Chinese officials and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

China claims Taiwan as its own territory to be won over peacefully or by force. Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, and China does not recognize Taiwan’s democratically elected government.