Wednesday, April 18, 2007

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Are China scholars bought and paid for by Beijing?

Carsten Holz has a must-read in the Far Eastern Economic Review on the relationship between China scholars and the Chinese state:

Academics who study China, which includes the author, habitually please the Chinese Communist Party, sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously. Our incentives are to conform, and we do so in numerous ways: through the research questions we ask or don’t ask, through the facts we report or ignore, through our use of language, and through what and how we teach.

Foreign academics must cooperate with academics in China to collect data and co-author research. Surveys are conducted in a manner that is acceptable to the Party, and their content is limited to politically acceptable questions. For academics in China, such choices come naturally. The Western side plays along.

China researchers are equally constrained in their solo research. Some Western China scholars have relatives in China. Others own apartments there. Those China scholars whose mother tongue is not Chinese have studied the language for years and have built their careers on this large and nontransferable investment. We benefit from our connections in China to obtain information and insights, and we protect these connections. Everybody is happy, Western readers for the up-to-date view from academia, we ourselves for prospering in our jobs, and the Party for getting us to do its advertising. China is fairly unique in that the incentives for academics all go one way: One does not upset the Party.

What happens when we don’t play along is all too obvious. We can’t attract Chinese collaborators. When we poke around in China to do research we run into trouble. Li Shaomin, associate professor in the marketing department of City University in Hong Kong and a U.S. citizen, spent five months in a Chinese jail on charges of “endangering state security.” In his own words, his crimes were his critical views of China’s political system, his visits to Taiwan, his use of Taiwanese funds to conduct research on politically sensitive issues, and his collecting research data in China. City University offered no support, and once he was released he went to teach at Old Dominion University in Virginia. One may wonder what five months in the hands of Chinese secret police does to one’s psyche, and what means the Party used to silence Mr. Li. To academics in Hong Kong, the signal was not lost.

China researchers across different disciplines may not all be equally affected. Economists and political scientists are likely to come up against the Party constraint frequently, and perhaps severely. But even sociologists or ethnographers can reach the forbidden zone when doing network studies or examining ethnic minority cultures.

[What about academics that rely on U.S. government funding? Isn't that the same thing?--ed. Potentially, and scholars have made this point. Because of the large number of U.S. foundations that can supply independent research funding, however, the effect is much more muted.]

This paragraph stood out in particular:

Article after article pores over the potential economic reasons for the increase in income inequality in China. We ignore the fact that of the 3,220 Chinese citizens with a personal wealth of 100 million yuan ($13 million) or more, 2, 932 are children of high-level cadres. Of the key positions in the five industrial sectors—finance, foreign trade, land development, large-scale engineering and securities—85% to 90% are held by children of high-level cadres.

posted by Dan on 04.18.07 at 09:00 AM


Providing dynastic children with immense power - what could possibley go wrong?

Fascinating statistics. Should we wait for these companies to fail for lack of meritocracy? Or will the effects of extremely cheap labour swamp the effects of nepotism for decades to come?

If nepotism brings down the Chinese economy as many (not including myself, really) think it did the East Asian economies, the IMF had better start saving....

posted by: George on 04.18.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

"What about academics that rely on U.S. government funding?"

Edward Said wrote about this in Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (1981 edition)

posted by: Neil on 04.18.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

What is the relevant funding mechanism for social science academics? I am most familiar with NIH funding, where proposals are voted on by peer academics from other institutions.

If social science operates in the same way, I'd argue that the government has at best cursory influence in the findings. Is this an incorrect mode of thinking?

posted by: Klug on 04.18.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

This guy is lucky that (a) he teaches in Hong Kong, not the mainland and (b) he isn't Chinese. Another guy who wasn't quite so lucky got muzzled for writing similar stuff on his blog.

In any event, his assertion that the China's economy will overtake America's in 2008 or 2009 is highly dubious.

posted by: Emmanuel on 04.18.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides money for research in political science in the U.S., and there is no hint of "government" interference in what gets funded, what questions get asked, or what conclusions scholars draw from their research. I have been fortunate enough to get some of this money and there has been no explicit or implicit pressure from above. If you get through the review process, the NSF just cuts you a check. The decisions are all made by other scholars in the discipline. The issue that is influenced by the state is the total size of the NSF funding pot, but not the content of the research that gets funded.

Of course, there is also money available for scholars to work on contracts for Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon, and the CIA. I don't know this, but I expect when you take this money there is heavy screening, if not ex post constraints, on what a scholar is allowed to say publicly.

posted by: Mike Tierney on 04.18.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

1) Take a centuries-old culture that reveres family ties above loyalty to the government.
2) Overthrow the old aristocracy and replace it with CPC party cadres.
3) Find it astonishing that the "Red princes" run things.

posted by: Ralph Hitchens on 04.18.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

"What about academics that rely on U.S. government funding?"

Not every government is equal. Some are elected, some are not. Some accept dissent, some crush on it.

For an U.S. academic, to make propaganda for the government who funds him is not easy - which party should he choose? There are so many ...

Much easier in China. There is only one.

posted by: Ulrich Speck on 04.18.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

China controls access into the country, as well as access to its interior. Whether the funding comes from the PRC or the USA, the PRC can impose an Eason Jordan situation upon the academics.


posted by: chsw on 04.18.07 at 09:00 AM [permalink]

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