Science

Nobelists decry Chinese government’s censorship attempts at the Nobel Summit

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., wanted to prevent Nobel laureate Yuan Lee, a Taiwanese chemist seen here in 2003, from speaking at a high-profile conference.  

Ricky Chung/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

More than 100 Nobel laureates have signed a statement expressing outrage after the Chinese government intended to “bully the scientific community” earlier this year with attempts to censor two Nobel laureates during the Nobel Prize Summit, organized by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Nobel Foundation in April.

The statement alleges that staffers at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., phoned NAS officials in March, and again in early April before the summit, to insist that two scheduled speakers, the Dalai Lama and Yuan Lee—a Taiwanese chemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986 for his work on chemical kinetics—be disinvited and not allowed to speak. An email with the same demand was received by NAS on 25 April, 1 day before the start of the summit. On all three occasions, NAS said no.

William Kearney, a NAS spokesperson, confirmed to Science that the Chinese embassy pressured NAS to remove both speakers from the agenda, “which of course, we did not do,” he says.

The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment.

“I don’t think a government has a right to dictate or even try and influence who’s going to be speaking at a meeting outside their own country,” says biologist Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, former president of the Royal Society and one of the laureates who led the statement.

According to biochemist Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs, who organized the statement, the calls launched an investigation involving the Department of State and FBI.

Then, on 26 April, during a session titled “Science as a Human Right,” the streaming platform went black for about 10 minutes from an alleged cyberattack. The next day, another alleged cyberattack disrupted the platform. Kearney says NAS doesn’t have “any further information on it, or on the cause.”

Although there is no evidence that the calls and email from the Chinese embassy had anything to do with the cyberattacks, “it’s very suspicious,” Roberts says.

The April events add to documented pressure from the Chinese government to suppress academic freedom abroad.

Lee, former head of Academia Sinica—Taiwan’s national academy of science—says the Chinese government has attempted to censor him before, probably because he has supported Taiwan’s independence. He says the Chinese officials tried to organize a boycott of his election as an officer of the International Science Council in 2008. A few years later, the Chinese embassy in Brazil tried to prevent his attendance to the Rio+20 meeting, organized by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro in 2011.

The laureates say they brought the statement to NAS and the Nobel Foundation about 1 week after the summit, but neither would sign on to it because the investigation was not finished. Anna Sjöström Douagi, vice president for science and programs at the Nobel Prize Museum, says the Nobel Foundation will wait for the investigation to conclude before taking any action. “Since we don’t know what happened, we can’t do anything,” she says.

That frustrates physicist Steven Chu, one of the five laureates who led the statement. “I think the right thing is to protest.”

Roberts says he won’t attend scientific meetings in China until its governmental censorship policy stops. Others say a boycott is not beneficial. “Many of us have colleagues in China. The last thing we really want is an Iron Curtain coming down and isolating scientists from China with the rest of the world,” Chu says. “It does nobody any good.”

Relations between China and other Western countries have deteriorated in the past few years, “which is a pity,” says Ramakrishnan, who works at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology. “The world needs China and China needs the world, and they need to figure out how to get along.”

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