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Tariffs have been the weapon of choice in an escalating rivalry between the United States and China. But what about visas? NPR's Emily Feng reports that some prominent Chinese scholars have suddenly had their U.S. visas revoked.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Wang Wen likes to proudly list every state he's been to in the U.S.
WANG WEN: California, Michigan, Texas, Georgia.
FENG: He flies between the U.S. and China every few months for his job as director of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, a state university think tank. That was, until, he received an email from the U.S. embassy in Beijing a few weeks ago. His tenure U.S. business visa, canceled with no explanation. He was told he could apply for a single-entry visa every time he visits the U.S. And he's being asked a lot of questions.
WANG: For example, the travel history, location history, in the past 15 years.
FENG: Wang Wen frequently met American experts and gave talks at think tanks. He thinks he and fellow Chinese scholars are viewed with suspicion by the U.S. government, which sees them as peddling propaganda and even stealing state secrets. That's why he believes his visa was canceled, although NPR couldn't verify this.
WANG: And we often exchange our views with American academies, American universities, as well as a lot of the younger generations. We just tell you the truth, tell America the truth. So maybe they think, OK, you want to improve Chinese influence.
FENG: A spokesperson from the U.S. embassy in Beijing declined to comment on individual cases but said there was no widespread campaign to deny visas. However, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement had identified an increasing number of instances in which foreign intelligence services co-opt academics, researchers and others. Prominent China expert Jerome Cohen argues that Chinese experts like Wang Wen are important conduits between the U.S. and China. Now in his 80s, he remembers when travel between the two countries was almost completely restricted.
JEROME COHEN: I used to trot up to Ottawa in 1970, '71, so I could talk to the then-newly established Chinese ambassador there because he couldn't then come to America.
FENG: Cohen says he depends on Chinese experts, like Zhu Feng, a scholar connected to China's Communist Party. But Zhu Feng's visa was also canceled this year, a move Cohen disagrees with.
COHEN: And the thing that makes them so valuable is these are not pure academics. These are people with unusual access to important Chinese leaders.
FENG: But visa problems cut both ways. American academics say these visa restrictions match how China denies Americans visas. Michael Pillsbury is a defense scholar who advises President Trump. China's foreign ministry never responded to his visa application to attend a Beijing conference this month, preventing him from going. This is the first time he's had a Chinese visa failed to be approved.
MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Well, as usual, these things are not explained by the Chinese side. I have many friends who've had this happen to them.
FENG: Pillsbury advocates reciprocity in visas and hopes both sides, especially China, back down in restricting travel.
PILLSBURY: What I, myself, advocate is a cease-fire in this visa war, that it's of both sides' interest have scholars on the topic of U.S.-China relations to be able to understand what's going on and bring their experience to bear.
FENG: Meanwhile, the scholar Wang Wen says he's sad he won't be going to the U.S. anytime soon.
WANG: I often publish op-ed articles about America, and I often suggest to my audience and the leaders that China should learn from America.
FENG: He feels a bit differently now.
WANG: Now I'll never write the articles again.
FENG: Emily Feng, NPR News.
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