Space Programme

The final frontier

Space scientist latest to face US visa problems

Wu-Yanhua-w

As vice chairman of China’s National Space Administration Wu Yanhua is used to technical challenges. During his time at the agency China carried out it longest manned space mission (33 days), launched its second space station and landed a probe on the dark side of the moon (see WiC436).

But that’s nothing compared with the difficulties of getting a US visa, it seems.

Like the heads of the world’s other space agencies, Wu was meant to attend the International Astronautical Congress in Washington late last month. The annual event, organised by the International Astronautical Federation, is supposed to bring together space researchers from around the world. Yet, when sector specialists from Europe, India, Japan and Russia convened last Monday there was one noticeable absence – China.

The omission was so glaring that live polling of the audience for questions to the panel generated “Where is China?” as the top result.

Embarrassingly the query was displayed on a huge screen behind the expert panel for much of its time on stage.

Wu eventually appeared for the final day of the conference but many delegates from Chinese space companies did not.

So what happened? Initially Wu’s absence was passed off as a scheduling conflict, but it later emerged that it was a visa issue caused in part by the Trump administration’s new wariness of visits from Chinese officials and scientists.

Conference organisers told the Washington Post that they knew the Chinese and Russian delegations would have difficulties getting visas so they encouraged officials from those two countries to submit a list of names more than a year in advance.

But the Chinese side only submitted their documents in July – a timeline corroborated by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

In the past this would have probably been time enough, but as readers of WiC will know, fears over spying and intellectual property theft mean that many Chinese with scientific backgrounds or suspected ties to the government are facing longer waits for travel permits or being refused them all together (in February top quantum physicist Pan Jianwei couldn’t get a visa to travel to Washington and receive the Newcomb Cleveland Prize; see WiC465)

China’s foreign ministry denounced the delay in granting Wu a visa and accused the US of “weaponising” them. “As a matter of fact, this case involving China’s National Space Agency is only the tip of the iceberg… the US has been denying visas, delaying processing visa applications and revoking long-term visas for some time,” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman added.

A New York Times report in April claimed that at least 30 Chinese scholars had had their long-term visas rescinded or put under review. The Global Times puts the figure at more like 280, however, including people like Lu Xiang, who studies China-US relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Zhu Feng, an academic in the same field from Nanjing University.

Both had their 10-year US visas rescinded last year.

This month the US State department announced that it now requires Chinese diplomats to give advance notice of any meetings with state, local and municipal officials too, as well as any visits to educational or research institutions.

The US ambassador in China, Terry Branstad, defended the measures, saying the changes introduced a degree of “reciprocity”. He added that US officials in China are regularly stopped from travelling to certain regions or meetings with ordinary citizens. He said that “thousands” of meetings had been thwarted over a period of decades.

The move comes in the same month that the US introduced a new law denying visas to Chinese officials accused of detaining Uighurs in Xinjiang. Last September the US Justice Department also imposed rules requiring employees of Chinese state media organisations to register as ‘foreign agents’.

Meanwhile the new difficulties in securing American visas continue to be a concern for Chinese students in general, more of whom are considering studying at universities elsewhere (see WiC466).


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