American academics have warned that a tit-for-tat visa war targeting scholars from China and the US will only hurt both sides, fuel mutual suspicion and damage academic channels of communication. The assessment came after several prominent Chinese academics said they had been questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigations on suspicion of spying and have had their 10-year, multi-entry US visas revoked. But some of their American counterparts pointed out that China had been imposing restrictions on academics for decades and blocking scholarly visits, and urged both sides to halt the “race to the bottom” and allow more access to visiting experts. “At this time of significant stress in US-China relations, it is precisely when we need to have as much dialogue among academic experts as possible,” said David Shambaugh, a professor of Chinese politics at the George Washington University. He said it only aggravated the already broken academic dialogue between the two nations as “many of the institutional channels for such ‘track-two’ [unofficial] dialogues have broken down in recent years”. James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University in Washington, said: “It is the height of folly to demonise scholars in the way the FBI seems to be doing”. The FBI has been vocal about China’s alleged espionage activities in US academia, with the bureau’s director Christopher Wray describing China as the most “concerning” counter-intelligence threat America faced in January. The old men running both countries are engaged in a stupid p****** match and saying ‘you can't play in my yard’ Professor James Millward, Georgetown University A report released by the US intelligence community early this year also warned that the Chinese intelligence services “will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means.” The US State Department has denied “unfounded allegations of a widespread and baseless campaign to deny Chinese visas”, adding that the US had welcomed more than 350,000 students and scholars from China in 2018. Millward said the US security apparatus may be justified in its worries about some exchanges of scientific information, but it was worrying that the visa blocks had been extended to social sciences and humanities. “Here's the bottom line: you can't combat threats to academe by posing more threats to academe. Scholarly exchange, especially in the social sciences and humanities, poses no threat to US national security, and to demonise scholars from China harms the US reputation for academic freedom and cuts off an important conduit of communication with the Chinese people and intellectual community,” he said. “At this moment of global peril, when we should be pulling out all the stops to work together, instead the old men running both countries are engaged in a stupid p****** match and saying ‘you can't play in my yard’.” Last week two US China experts, including the sometime White House adviser Michael Pillsbury, were unable to attend a conference they had been invited to because their visas had not been approved in time – an act widely seen as retaliation. But last July China shut down more than 200 higher education programmes run in conjunction with foreign universities, including some in America. Michael Pillsbury calls for a visa war ceasefire after being denied China visa Shambaugh – who has also set out his arguments at further length in an article for the South China Morning Post – argued that “China started this dilemma by banning and not issuing visas for a number of American scholars” over the past two decades. “This kind of tit-for-tat action is a race to the bottom and only hurts both sides and adds to mutual suspicions,” Shambaugh said. “Both governments should depoliticise scholarly visas and allow unfettered academic exchanges between the two countries.” Andrew Nathan, also a professor of Chinese politics at Columbia University in New York agreed that “China started the visa war”. Nathan said that China has long been more strict in denying visas to American academics and less willing to issue 10-year multi-entry visas than the US. Calls made for ceasefire in ‘visa war’ targeting Chinese and US academics “This asymmetry or lack of reciprocity has for a long time been a low-level issue on the US side, but now the US government seems to be retaliating,” he said. The professor warned that “I do believe it will harm what has been a useful set of channels – academic and journalistic – of understanding between the two sides”. He suggested the Chinese side should “offer a greater degree of reciprocity on visa issues than it has done in recent decades”.