Friends say Qiao’s decision has come after his academic career was wrecked by refusal to fall into line.
Qiao Mu had always insisted he would not be forced to leave China. “We must change our nation, not our nationality,” the outspoken academic told the Guardian over lunch in the summer of 2015.
Last Friday morning, however, Qiao and his family set off for Beijing’s international airport to catch a Boeing 777 bound for the United States.
“I’m leaving my country and I’ll miss it. Farewell,” Qiao, 47, announced on the social messaging service WeChat as he waited to board Air China Flight CA817 to Washington DC. He did not say when, or indeed if, he might return.
In the nearly five years since Xi Jinping became China’s top leader, Qiao, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University and human rights advocate, had emerged as an increasingly isolated voice of dissent in a country where political opposition appears to grow more perilous by the day.
China-based foreign correspondents and diplomats complain that under Xi – who is about to complete his first term in power – local scholars have increasingly shied away from discussing politically sensitive topics or, in some cases, meeting with foreigners at all.
“The general climate for reporting in China deteriorated over the last year,” described a report released by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in November 2016. “Many denounced pressure exerted on organisations and academia, and cited growing difficulties in securing interviews with sources and experts.”
But Qiao appeared to shrug off the pressure, granting regular interviews to media outlets from across the globe including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, Al Jazeera Englishand the Associated Press.
He tackled thorny issues such as media censorship, ethnic rioting, elite politics and the Mao-style personality cult that some accuse President Xi of trying to cultivate. “I’m a typical Chinese person. I love my country and I want to change it,” Qiao told AFP earlier this year.
Qiao declined to go into details about his decision to swap northern China for the east coast of the US. “I’m busy making a living,” he said in a brief WeChat message this week.
But friends said he had decided to leave after seeing his academic career wrecked by his refusal to fall into line. Since 2014 Qiao had been banished from the classroom, apparently in punishment for his public support for ideas such as multi-party democracy and freedom of speech.
In April this year Qiao resigned citing his frustrations at the political restrictions as a motivating factor. “A journalism professor [who] has to be against a free media. Even Tchaikovsky couldn’t play a symphony with enough sorrow for my situation,” he complained in an online letter.
Shi Jiepeng, a fellow academic who also recently fell victim to the crackdown on liberal thinkers, said life had been made impossible for his friend. “People like him cannot find any jobs within the system,” said Shi, who was sacked from his job at Beijing Normal University in July as a result of his politically charged online posts.
“There was still space outside the system but without the backing of an institution a scholar faces all sorts of inconveniences,” Shi added. He suggested financial difficulties had played a role in Qiao’s exit, since he would have lost the benefits that came with a university job, such as his daughter’s education.
“Going to [America] is the least bad choice for him. But it’s not the best choice and he has no alternative but to choose,” said Shi.
During his 2015 interview Qiao said he was well aware of the risks involved in speaking out in Xi’s ever more illiberal China. Just days before security forces had launched a notorious round-up of human rights lawyers and activists – later dubbed China’s “war on law” – spiriting some of the country’s best-known attorneys into secret detention.
“Before Xi Jinping we feared only that they would delete our [online] posts. In the worst situation they would delete [your account],” Qiao said. “But since Xi Jinping came to power this changed. They began to arrest people.”
Qiao avoided that fate. But with his departure last week he joined a growing list of liberal Chinese academics who are abandoning their homeland and seeking sanctuary overseas.
“The situation in the last year has become not better but worse for intellectual life in China … It’s a sad time to be an intellectual,” said Jerome Cohen, a New York-based China expert who has been helping some of the refugee scholars arriving in the US.
“It is not simple to get a permanent job abroad as good as the one you have had in China,” Cohen admitted. “But with the incentive of not being free to write and speak as they normally would, people scramble for whatever chance they can get.
“People are trying to cope,” he added. “But they realise that they have at least five [more years of Xi Jinping] to deal with.”
News of Qiao’s unexpected retreat was celebrated by friends and supporters on Twitter, which Qiao will now be able to use without having to use a virtual private network (VPN) to leap over China’s draconian internet controls. “Welcome to the free world,” wrote Zhou Fengsuo, a California-based exile who was forced from China after taking part in the 1989 Tiananmen protests. “Breathe free air,” suggested another.
Two years ago Qiao said he dreamed of one day being elected to office in a democratic China and vowed to remain so he was ready to serve his country when that day came: “I have studied the transition of eastern European countries – usually it is professors, writers, lawyers and journalists who become politicians,” he said. “I want to be a congressman – to criticise, to supervise the corrupt government.”
Did Qiao still harbour that dream, despite his decision to leave? “It seems he still does,” said his friend, Shi.
By Tom Pillips
Additional reporting by Wang Zhen