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Field Researchers in China Beware

9 January 2009 5:22 am
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BEIJING—Last September, two British students on a geophysics expedition in western China ran afoul of local authorities, who confiscated their GPS equipment and fined each student roughly $1450. The incident, which came to light earlier this week after Chinese officials released a statement, offers important lessons for foreign researchers contemplating fieldwork in China.

The Ph.D. student and an undergraduate, both from Imperial College London, were collecting seismic data on the Keping fold-thrust belt in the Aksu-Keping area of western Xinjiang Province. The aim of the work is to understand earthquake and geohazard risk in the foothills of the south Tien Shan range, says Imperial remote sensing specialist Liu Jian Guo, the students’ adviser. The Institute of Crustal Dynamics in Beijing had invited the team to China, but Liu’s group had not obtained a research permit from local authorities. In most other parts of China that might not be a problem, but Chinese security services are keeping an especially close watch on Xinjiang, the site last year of several deadly terrorist attacks attributed to Uyghur separatists.

On 19 September 2008, officials from Aksu Bureau of Land and Resources halted the Imperial team’s research and questioned the students—neither of whom speaks Chinese—for several hours at their hotel. “The students were not threatened and were treated politely,” says Liu, who had been with his wards at the start of fieldwork but had by then returned to London. The students got their equipment back on 28 September and flew home a few days later.

There are several take-home lessons, says William Chang, a U.S. National Science Foundation official who established NSF’s Beijing office.

All international scientists who wish to conduct research should have county-level permits arranged by a Chinese institute, he says, and all sensitive equipment must be operated by Chinese. In China, he says, foreigners are not allowed to operate GPS equipment or collect weather data. These rules also apply to ethnic Chinese who do not hold Chinese passports. “The Chinese government really needs to be very specific about these rules,” Chang says. “Without additional clarification and procedures, more international researchers will [encounter] this problem.”

Liu says he and his colleagues at Imperial are “reviewing the lessons that can be learnt.” But he for one is intent on returning to Xinjiang: The local officer in charge of the case, he says, told him that the incident “should not hinder my future research in the area.”

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