China Cancels IAES

I mentioned back in February that I was excited to be attending this year’s IUAES conference in Kunming, China. I even arranged a Savage Minds party for the event, which had 10 confirmed guests and 22 “maybes.” So I’m very sorry to hear that the Chinese government has decided that anthropologists pose a security threat during the summer Olympics (which are being held in Beijing, 1,200 miles away), and canceled the event for fear of protests.

China is on the lookout for protesters seeking to disrupt the Beijing Olympics in the name of Tibet, press freedom, or religious rights.

Now anthropologists and ethnologists, academics who study human development, appear to have been added to the list.

Without giving a specific explanation, Chinese organizers have pulled the plug on July’s world congress of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, the latest in a slew of events to be canceled or postponed ahead of the games in August.

“I’m not very happy with it,” Union Secretary-General Peter J.M. Nas said by telephone from his office at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. “And I hope still that they will listen to our arguments.”

Although distant from Beijing, Kunming is home to many minorities and, as the article says: “China is extremely sensitive to critiques of its policies toward minority ethnic groups and their languages, even more so since anti-government protests broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and spread to other Tibetan areas in March.”

UPDATE: A blog post from the Chronicle:

On Tuesday the association’s Chinese affiliate wrote to the group’s international executive committee, saying that it had “encountered complex difficulties hard to resolve in its preparation work recently, which makes it impossible for us to hold the congress at the time originally planned.”

The executive committee has rejected the idea of a postponement, but it has not yet received a reply from its Chinese colleagues. “We still have no concrete information about the results of our plea not to postpone the congress,” wrote the association’s president, Luis Alberto Vargas, a professor of physical anthropology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in an e-mail message to The Chronicle today.

Mr. Vargas and other members of the executive committee declined to comment further, citing the delicacy of the situation.

UPDATE: From an article in the Chronicle: “Ms. Harrison, who is a member of the association’s international executive board, said that the conference might be postponed for a full year.”

10 thoughts on “China Cancels IAES

  1. Wow. This is the first I’ve heard of this. But I have to admit to a certain minor sense of relief, because all along I’ve been thinking that popping in on one of the most repressive regimes in the world for the purposes of academic tourism is somewhat self-indulgent. At least now I don’t have to play that game, and can maybe go for a walking holiday instead (unless, of course, this turns out to be a false alarm, and someone somewhere changes their mind)

  2. It’s worth pointing out that Kunming is also apparently experiencing an outbreak of Enterovirus 71 (EV71, hand foot and mouth disease) which has killed more than 20 children in China recently. This has been widely reported (CNN: and although the center of the outbreak is in Fuyang, a recent posting to H-ASIA suggests that “Kunming, Chuxiong, Yuxi, Baoshan, Dali, Honghe, Zhaotong and Lincang all have outbreaks of concern.”

    Of course, as Rex just pointed out to me, combating the image of China as the source of uncontrolled infectious diseases is also a political concern (as well as a public-health concern). But it’s probably worth noting that there may be possible reasons for the cancellation of the conference other than the repression of anthropological critique.

  3. This is particularly sad news indeed. Whatever ones views may be concerning the Tibet-China situation, the current pressuring of the Chinese state is carried out in such a way that it serves absolutely no one, and the cancellation of the IAES is just one of the negative repurcussions of this.

    I myself was to attend the conference, participating in a panel organised solely by local minority scholars. The cancellation is a major blow to Chinese anthropology’s engagement with the international anthropological community and a clear example of how international pressure, however much ‘needed’, can have problematic results for well-meaning scholars.

  4. Kate,

    From discussions that have been reported back on various e-mail lists, it does not seem that health concerns entered into this.


    I’d be curious what those local scholars feel would be appropriate action on the part of the international community?

  5. Kerim,

    That would be an interesting question indeed and until I get some news from them directly I could not say. However, having carried out research in Inner Mongolia (China’s ‘forgotten’ Tibet), I can say that many minority scholars are not resolutely pleased with the way in which the current Tibet debate is unfolding. Many believe it to be a knee-jerk response on the part of western protesters, complaining that when it was announced China would host the Olympics, there was nothing of the same condemnation that was shown recently. Then, after the commencement of local Tibetan protests, everyone in the west all of a sudden became supporters of the Tibetan cause. And now, as the situation has become more quiet, it seems to many that supporting Tibet is a fad, rather than a long-term interest.

    Some minority scholars whom I have spoken with argue that a far more nuanced approach is needed when it comes to minority issues, with shifts only coming to the fore in small stages, and only if the West avoids embarrasing the central government. The cancellation of the IAES, in this regard, is interpreted by many as a direct result of the protests, hindering potentially positive relationships between minority scholars and minority intellectuals, relationships that could have benefited minority peoples far more productively than any Parisian or London protester.

  6. I agree that the ‘fear of disease’ is probably just a stalking horse. I don’t know the geography of China, well, aside from the far SW, but a quick scan of a map of provincial boundaries shows that the affected provinces are no closer to Kunming than they are to Beijing and that Beijing is in fact closer to one of them.

    On the other hand, starting from the time of reports of a Tibetan uprising, I worried that this meeting would be cancelled or postponed because of the topics to be discussed in some panels such as indigenous rights, Tibetan peoples, and many other ethnic minority groups in Yunnan and Szechuan. My session was entitled “How the Lisu Became Southeast Asian,” and the Lisu, like many other minority groups in SW China, are Tibeto-Burman speaking peoples whose physical location, and ritual and political cultures were deeply influenced by the substantial influence of Tibetan kingdoms and models of governance from long before the real, everyday influence of the Chinese empire.

    And then there’s anthropologists, whose core ethical principles revolve around the rights of cultural expression if not outright self-determination. Chinese officials were apparently nervous enough about how they would be depicted in these sessions to compel the organizers to include a session on the advantages of Chinese government assimilation for the ethnic minority peoples (I can’t remember my source for this right now, sorry, but it was one I judged as reliable in its analyses).

    Then you’ve got the fact (or at least a fact reported in the New York Times) that the Chinese government has basically closed off a part of western China (up to? including?) the size of France, then you’ve got the prospect of many uncontrollable outsiders very close to an area the government is nervous about.

    Finally, think of the bureaucracy involved. The report of cancellation was finally confirmed at the time when we should have been receiving letters of invitation that would ensure our getting a visa. These bureaucratic requirements on top of those for the Olympics has to have stretched the Chinese visa services very thin indeed.

    I feel terrible for our Chinese colleagues. Like Richard Irvine, I was having some doubts about whether it was right to show support for the Chinese government at this time by attending an international conference that would symbolically support its claims to being a beneficient state. But, again on looking at the program, I had decided that our Chinese anthropologist colleagues in Yunnan and their students deserved a stage on which to shine, to get support for their own academic and intellectual work. I’ve worked with several colleagues from Yunnan over the years, and have been consistently impressed with how carefully and delicately they walk the line of free intellectual expression and the power of their government to control what they can do. They’ve put a fantastic amount of work into organizing in a place that isn’t all that receptive to Western-styles of organization. Up to just a few days before the announcement, I was getting quick responses to questions I posted through the IUAES web site. Think of the graduate students who spent so much time helping to set this up — it’s a great loss to them.

    Even if this is just a postponement, I doubt I’ll be able to attend at a later date. I have already bought my plane tickets (my partner was coming with me), and doubt I’ll get the full amount, or even a little, back.


  7. As an undergraduate student in anthropoloy and an activist (in many ways) I wonder how proffessional academics feel about carrying on and meeting in China anyways even if it is less formal than what was planned; especially since many people probably already have plane tickets and travel plans already in place. Would this be in any way unethical or could it be an appropriate form of resistance?

  8. You would probably want to have a good sense of the way the CCP conceives of the subtle distinction between “academic freedom” and “spying” before you try anything like that.

    “Lu Jianhua, a prominent sociologist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was reportedly sentenced to 20 years for ‘leaking state secrets’ in a case linked to that of Hong-Kong based reporter Ching Cheong, who was sentenced in August 2006 to five years for ‘spying.’ Lu was well known for the essays he wrote and his appearances on TV talk shows and often assisted Ching with articles on the political and social situation in China that were published in the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times. Some Chinese officials claimed that three of these articles, published in 2004, contained state secrets.” (Excerpted from HRIC’s report on China’s State Secrets System, full text available “here”: )

  9. @KateG – This is indeed difficult for our Chinese colleagues; in 2003 at the Florence meeting, my classmate and others in the Chinese delegation worked really hard to get the IUAES to choose Kunming for the site of the 2008 meeting. Since I work with mostly Han colleagues, I was interested to hear Richard and others express the viewpoints of minority anthropologists.
    Another difficult that has come up has been for students planning fieldwork in China this summer (I still have my multiple-entry that is still good) – as many probably already know, visa procedures have changed, making it more difficult for students to go to China this summer, even using a tourist visa. I have one student who is scrambling to try to get everything done in time! After talking about the ICAES situation, she noted that the international otolaryngology meeting in Shanghai in July has not been cancelled.

  10. My parents were planning to take my kids to china for the week, but it is unclear as of today if the visa’s will be granted. It appears that the government is very concerned about either the security or the amount of political unrest relating to the Tibet question.

    There leaving on Wednesday and we still don’t know if the Visa has been granted.

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