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Scholars with Spine: Notes from the field of China studies

National Review / Digital           August 27, 2012

Scholars with Spine
Notes from the field of China studies

BY JAY NORDLINGER

JEROME A. COHEN may not be known to the public, but he is well known to Chinese democrats and their supporters. A law professor at New York University, and a veteran China scholar, he is the sponsor and, in a way, protector of Chen Guangcheng. Chen is the Chinese legal activist — “the blind peasant lawyer,” as he has been called — who made a run for the U.S. embassy in Beijing earlier this year. This was after six years of imprisonment, house arrest, and physical assaults. Cohen played a key role in the negotiations that led to Chen’s departure from the country. Chen is now at NYU, under Cohen’s supervision. Not many are the China scholars in the West who are willing to stick their neck out for Chinese dissidents, democrats, and other “troublemakers.”

Why is that? First, it is perfectly human, probably, to shrink from trouble. But we can be more specific in our reasons. Obviously, some number of scholars are simply sympathetic to the Chinese regime. But a greater number are wary of crossing that regime, because they need or wish to go to China, and must have visas. Also, there is a great deal of Chinese money in China studies — and biting the hand that feeds you is problematic. In sum, there are plenty of reasons to steer clear of controversy. Plenty of reasons to avoid Beijing’s bad side, and blacklist.

There are similarities between China studies and Middle East studies. Bernard Lewis, the eminent Middle East historian, discussed them with me in an interview four years ago. First, there’s the money: As Chinese money affects China studies, Middle Eastern money — particularly Gulf money — affects Middle East studies. “Vast sums of money are pouring in from Arab governments, Arab princes,” said Lewis. Second, there’s the curse of political correctness, or academic orthodoxy. “It is difficult to make a career unless you conform,” Lewis said. Around the same time, I interviewed Richard Pipes, the eminent historian of Russia. There was never much money in Sovietology, he said. But there was certainly political correctness, plus a desire — a natural desire — to visit the Soviet Union. One day, Pipes testified in the Senate about an arms treaty. He took a hard, or realistic, line. A much softer line was taken by a fellow academic. As they were leaving the room, this second academic said to Pipes, “I really agree with you, but if I talked as you do, they wouldn’t give me a visa.”

The Chinese Communists are much more subtle about visas than were the Soviet Communists. The Soviets denied visas left and right, and they kicked foreigners out “by the shovelful,” as Jonathan Mirsky says. Mirsky is a China scholar and journalist of long experience. The Chinese, on the other hand, ban relatively few — although they seem to be banning more and more, says Perry Link, another experienced China scholar. Also, they tend not to tell you why they’re banning you. They’ll say, “You know. You know the reason. You have chosen this outcome yourself.” And when one scholar is banned, all the others wonder, “What did Smith do? How can I avoid the same fate?” Then they are all the more cautious. As Link says, the Chinese are much better at “psychological engineering” than the Soviets ever managed to be.

There are certain topics about which Beijing is especially sensitive. Sarah Cook, an East Asia specialist with Freedom House, mentions “the three ‘T’s”: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. This last, as you know, refers to Tiananmen Square, main site of the 1989 student protests, which ended in a massacre by the government. Cook also notes that Beijing is somewhat more relaxed about Taiwan than about the other two “T”s. Then there are the Uighurs and Falun Gong, she says. The Uighurs are a Muslim minority, much persecuted; Falun Gong is a spiritual movement, also much persecuted.

Link has been on the blacklist since the mid-1990s. And one of the annoying things about being on the list, he says, is that students and young professors regularly ask him, “What can I say or do? How can I be sure to stay off the list?” They might say, “Can I accept an internship at Human Rights Watch?” “Can I mention Tiananmen?” Even, “Can I say I know you?” Link can cite example after example of caution, or, to be more severe about it, cowardice. Some of his colleagues counseled a student not to write about Chinese democracy. He should pick another subject for his dissertation — democracy wasn’t worth the trouble. Another colleague had useful things to say about Falun Gong — but refused to go on television to say them. Link and other bold scholars can understand the concerns of their younger colleagues, particularly. They do not necessarily condemn them: A ban by China can cripple a career.

Still, scholars can go further than they think. They can say and do more than they imagine. They censor themselves. “You become your own policeman,” as Link says. Jianli Yang has observed this phenomenon for years. He is a Chinese democracy leader, a former political prisoner, and a scholar: the holder of two Ph.D.s from American universities, one in math from Berkeley, and the other in political economy from Harvard. People who are in perfectly secure situations, he says, behave as though they were in imminent danger. They can perform good — or simply tell the truth (which may amount to the same thing) — at virtually no risk. Yet they shrink from doing so. In 2007, Yang gave a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government entitled “Overcome Fear.”

 

AFTER Tiananmen Square, says Yang, the Chinese government made the decision to co-opt intellectuals — intellectuals both at home and abroad. This is something the Soviets never really bothered to do. The Chinese provide money, programs, and perks, in exchange for . . . cooperation? Goodwill? Non-hostility? Western scholars who visit China are often treated like royalty, says Yang. At home, they are just another guy or gal in the grocery store. In China, they are wined and dined. Naturally, this is pleasant and seductive — not easy to give up. What’s more, polite people don’t offend their hosts, do they? Above all, there is the lure of access — access not just to archives, but to people. A professor can say, “Well, as it happens, I was talking to someone close to Vice Chairman Liu, and he said . . .”

Arthur Waldron, a China scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, is very familiar with all this. “Once you have a project in China,” he says, “you become its hostage.” And “there’s tremendous pressure on China specialists to stay current” — to drop names and prove, or flaunt, insider knowledge. “If you’re like Perry Link and open to dissidents, people can say, ‘Well, Perry — great scholar and all, but he hasn’t been to China for more than a decade, and no matter how good he is, he’s bound to be out of touch. After all, China changes all the time.’” This has a sinister effect, says Waldron. There are many ways of “undermining” a person’s “academic authority.”

From my experience, Link is modest, but others are immodest in his behalf. A professor at the University of California, Riverside, and a professor emeritus at Princeton, he has stuck his neck out a long way. At the time of Tiananmen Square, he took Fang Lizhi and his wife, Li Shuxian, to the U.S. embassy. Fang was a famed dissident scientist, and No. 1 on the regime’s Most Wanted list. Years later, Link edited The Tiananmen Papers, a trove of (formerly) secret Chinese-government documents about the protests and massacre. His co-editor was Andrew Nathan, a scholar at Columbia — who is also on the blacklist. “Andy and I are sort of old standbys on the list,” says Link, “the ones held up as examples of going too far. We inadvertently have become tools of the regime: They use Andy and me to frighten the younger scholars.” Waldron tells me that Link used to head Princeton’s Chinese-language program in Beijing. When China banned Link, Princeton did what American universities characteristically do: nothing. But there was an alternative course, says Waldron. “They could have said, ‘Professor Link is our director, and will remain our director. If you don’t want him, fine. We’ll move the program to Taiwan. It’s up to you.’” But that is not the American way, where China is concerned. Waldron quotes the late James Lilley, an East Asia hand who ended his diplomatic career as U.S. ambassador to China: “You won’t get anything from them unless you squeeze them.” But Westerners — scholars, businessmen, government officials — are almost never willing to squeeze.

Chen Guangcheng and Jerome A. Cohen, May 19, 2012
Henny Ray Abrams/AP

Waldron, too, has stuck his neck out — but has not been banned. The Chinese authorities have made things difficult for him, and are stingy with the number of days they allow him to be in the country. But he is not on the blacklist. As he explains, he is on a kind of “graylist” instead. Recently, NHK, the Japanese broadcasting corporation, asked him to speak on air about Confucius Institutes. These are language-and-culture centers set up by the Chinese government all over the world, including on American campuses. They are an expression of Beijing’s “soft power,” its attempt to spread its influence in benign, or benign-seeming, ways. In my view, these centers are a mixed blessing at best, corrupting and malign at worst. In any case, NHK was having trouble finding an American academic willing to speak on the subject, and Waldron agreed. By agreeing, he thought, he could be costing himself a visa. But “the way I look at it is this: If your university has gone to the trouble of building an endowment so that you don’t have to fight in the marketplace for a living, but are guaranteed rice for life in return for what you think, you should say what you think. That’s part of the deal.” Waldron says he could not have lived with himself if he had turned down NHK.

He has suffered various professional bumps and bruises for stating such things as, “North Korea started the Korean War” — a simple fact to you and me, maybe, but a primitive, embarrassing notion to many academics. “Like a car, you get banged up,” says Waldron. “But I’ve survived, I’m at a top university, and others are in prison or dead.” (Here, of course, he is speaking of Chinese dissidents.)

 

POSSIBLY the most maddening, and effective, aspect of China’s approach to visas is its randomness, or seeming randomness: You never know when the boom will be lowered — on whom and why. The Chinese will allow a foreign scholar to criticize as he pleases, and come and go as he pleases, and then, one day: boom. “You know the reason. We don’t have to tell you.” In 2002, Perry Link wrote a well-known essay called “The Anaconda in the Chandelier.” The Chinese state is not like a snarling tiger or fire-breathing dragon in your living room (although it certainly can be that, for Chen Guangcheng and other dissidents). It’s more like “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is ‘You yourself decide,’ after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments — all quite ‘naturally.’”

Jonathan Mirsky worked in China, coming and going, for almost 20 years. He was one of the first Westerners in, in 1972. Because he wrote honestly, he figured he would be tossed out any day. But it took the Chinese until 1991 to do it. Why did they do it when they did it? Who knows? One fine day, Mirsky’s minder of many years said to him, “We would like you to leave our China the day after tomorrow.” Mirsky replied, “Really, Mr. Wang? You’re serious? Thank you so much. You’ve made me the happiest of men.” Wang was nonplussed. It was not the reaction he was used to. Mirsky explained, “You mean I’m not going to have to be in your mother-raping country anymore, and have my phone listened to, and be followed on the street, and be constantly warned to watch what I write? What a relief that will be!” There is a coda to this story. Some years later, Mirsky was starting a stint at Harvard, and bumped into none other than his old minder. “Mr. Mirsky,” said Wang, “this is like a dream!” “No, Mr. Wang, a nightmare.” They never saw each other again.

Andrew Nathan, the Columbia scholar, has had the honor of being banned, or blocked, on three separate occasions. The latest followed his work on The Tiananmen Papers. Audacious, he is affiliated with various human-rights organizations: Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, the National Endowment for Democracy. Virtually the whole array. Obviously, he regrets not being able to go to China, as any China scholar would. But he has not been all that harmed by his banning. First, he says, he has tenure. Second, his research does not depend on fieldwork in China. (One of his subjects is Chinese foreign policy, and that does not require your presence on Chinese soil. Anthropology, by contrast, does.) And third, “being banned is a kind of fieldwork of its own.” You learn all sorts of interesting things from it: about how the Chinese government operates, about how your colleagues operate. The government doesn’t necessarily send you a telegram saying, “Guess what? You’re banned!” They may simply not respond, next time you request a visa. Or they may say, “It is not a convenient time.” As for your colleagues, they may disinvite you from a conference here at home, because Chinese officials will be there, and you know how it is . . .

Western scholars who keep their head down, says Nathan, are not all “lily-livered liars and knaves.” He suggests that there are three groups. There are scholars who hold “the perfectly respectable view” that the U.S.-China relationship is too important to be disturbed in any way. We must have a dialogue with the Chinese Communists, find out what makes them tick, and get along with them. Then there are young scholars who have careers to make and simply cannot do without access to China. And the third group? Well, “the lily-livered liars and knaves.”

Perry Link, for his part, says he felt “liberated” after being banned. The anaconda had ruled, or affected, his behavior, in ways conscious and unconscious. “You avoid sensitive terms and sensitive topics. You try to be acceptable.” The relief he felt after being banned was confirmation that the anaconda’s sway was real. In his essay, he cites a Chinese proverb: “Dead pigs aren’t afraid of hot water.” Once he was “dead,” i.e., banned, you could threaten him with boiling water, or pour it all over him, what did he care? Besides which, his main scholarly concern is literature, and he can do his work in beautiful California as well as he can anywhere else.

 

KNOWN to every China scholar, surely, is a book published in 2004. This is Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland. (Xinjiang is the home of the Uighurs.) The book brings together contributions by 15 scholars, all of them Western, or in the West, apparently. Last year, Bloomberg News ran a fascinating article by Daniel Golden and Oliver Staley about the publication of the book and its aftermath. The book’s editor, S. Frederick Starr — a well-known Sovietologist and Russianist, actually — chose not to include scholars of Chinese nationality: He did not want to get anyone in trouble with his government. Furthermore, he assured the Chinese embassy in Washington, before publishing the book, that the book would be scholarly and objective — nothing much to worry about. He took yet other steps to reassure the Chinese. You and I may wonder, “Why should a man in a free country bend over backward to soothe the sensibilities of a one-party dictatorship with a gulag?” But this behavior is perfectly normal and, to a degree, understandable.

Working with Starr to assemble the contributors was Justin Rudelson, a China scholar then at Dartmouth. The Bloomberg article quoted him as follows: “I remember people saying at the beginning, ‘Do you think China will ban us?’” China did ban them — all 15. Said Rudelson, “I wound up doing the stupidest thing, bringing all of the experts in the field into one room and having the Chinese take us all out.” According to Bloomberg, “Dartmouth almost fired Rudelson because he couldn’t go to China.” He now works elsewhere, evidently of his own accord. One of the 15 authors, Dru Gladney of Pomona College, said, “As a group, most of us have been very disappointed in the colleges’ and universities’ lack of sympathy and support.” Institutions are “so eager to jump on the China bandwagon, they put financial interests ahead of academic freedom.” Incidentally, I said that all 15 contributors were banned, but that’s not true, or did not remain true for long: At least two of them wrote statements disavowing any support for Xinjiang’s independence movement. That did the trick.

Jianli Yang says that he and other dissidents are not entirely comfortable at American universities. Link says that another prominent dissident recently told him the same thing. If you’re a dissident, says Yang, people may regard you as radioactive, a bit untouchable — as though they might catch a disease from you. You are too “political.” You could put a professor or a program or a university in an awkward spot. Dissidents sometimes hear, “Sorry, but this conference is for scholars, not dissidents.” Yet, as Yang says, some of the dissidents are top-notch scholars. Fang Lizhi, the man Link took to the U.S. embassy, was a towering scientist, an astrophysicist. Yang himself knows a thing or two about math, political theory, economics, international relations, the Chinese penal system, poetry — lots of things.

I have a memory from the mid-1980s. Harvard invited Armando Valladares to give a talk. He had just emerged from 22 years in the Cuban gulag, and had written a memoir called Against All Hope. Some people called him “the Cuban Solzhenitsyn.” The university would not let him speak on his own. They paired him with a professor, whose job was to give the pro-Castro point of view. Every other day of the year, of course, the professor had the students to himself. Valladares, who knew something, was not allowed to appear for an hour by himself.

It is not the job of a scholar to help a dissident, you could say (although we might hope the scholar is not hostile). Scholars are not human-rights activists or heroes. But they should probably tell the truth, and the full truth, to the extent they can ascertain it. And we are constantly told how important China is to the world, and that this importance will only grow in the future. Shouldn’t we, the “world,” have solid and complete information? Even, or especially, on the verboten subjects? Also, when a Jerry Cohen runs interference for a Chen Guangcheng — we can applaud. This may not be the job, strictly speaking, of a scholar, but we can applaud. We can applaud even when an Arthur Waldron is willing to say we ought to think twice about Confucius Institutes. Some contend that Chinese authorities themselves have respect — highest respect — for those foreign scholars who challenge them. Whom they might even find it convenient to ban. If so, that’s one thing we can give them credit for.

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