Self-Referential and Self-Serving

I recently attended a really interesting conference at Penn State called Global Asias. Like many interdisciplinary “pan-Asia” conferences, I found myself representing both the token Southeast Asianist and the token political scientist. Most everyone else was a China humanities person; there were a couple of India and Japan humanists too, but that’s about it. So I spend a lot of time at these things translating their regional and disciplinary interests into something that I can understand.

Over lunch, I found myself (surprise!) at a table full of China people. Three of them, in particular, were easy and fun to talk to. I had given a presentation on political business relations in Southeast Asia, so the topic turned to political business relations in China. They told me fascinating stories about the absolutely nauseating levels of corruption in China, how the CCP is frantically forcing the state-owned banks to pump billions of yuan into the wobbly property sectors around the coastal cities to keep the country’s economic system afloat, and thereby to keep the CCP in power. After we complained about the state of affairs, we had a quiet moment. Then one of them said, “Yeah, but I just hope that China can maintain this system.”

Huh? Well, OK, maybe I don’t know what this means. We got to talking further about the plight of China’s urban labor force, which outside of the high-skill industries is really vulnerable to the business cycle and is politically marginalized (they are all basically illegal migrants within China because they have no local residency status, therefore are ineligible for most government services). They talked about these horrible stories of factories poisoning workers, then firing them, and forcing them to return to the countryside, crippled and broke and now a burden to their families. Again, the conversation wound down for a moment, and the second one said, “I really hope that the Chinese can keep this system together.”

Wait, what? Before I could probe further the conversation turned to the countryside, to the ways in which urban China has grown at an astonishing rate since the early 1990s while the countryside has stagnated, how the CCP–which ones lavished favors on the local village enterprises–has turned essentially into an urban big business party. How rural smallholders have no property rights, no political voice, yet they get to participate in fake elections every couple of years which foreign Polyannas think are some sort of sign of orderly society rather than firm social control. As we paused to get some dessert, the third one said, “I just look at China and hope that the Party can figure out how to protect the system.”

The f***? At this point I had to intervene. “What,” I asked, “do you three mean when you express this desire for the Chinese regime to keep the country together? The story that you’re telling me is one of a brutal and repressive dictatorship, corrupt to the very core and basically indifferent to the plight of 90% of its population. You guys are academics in U.S. universities. None of you is Chinese. You all expressed disgust and hope for political reform in the countries that I study. Why do you hope that the system in China will remain intact?”

Their answers were instructive, and at the risk of generalizing too far from their informal remarks, I think that they illuminate something fundamentally rotten about much of the recent contemporary China scholarship in the U.S. Many–not all, but a good many–China scholars are self-referential, and they are self-serving.

My lunchmates responded to my question like this: we have to keep the current system going because the risks of it coming apart are too great. I pushed further on what they meant. Well, they replied, do you want another 1911 or 1949? They are referring here to the Revolution of 1911 (which ended the Chinese imperial dynasty) and the end of the Chinese civil war (20 years of nationalist versus communist). Both of these events were marked by huge social unrest, economic collapse, and untold human death and suffering. These were really bad. It would be nice not to repeat them.

But the point here is that their referents for what it would mean for the CCP to come apart were exclusively Chinese. There was no sense that the political and economic experiences of, oh, Russia or Brazil or Indonesia or Mexico or Egypt or South Africa or whatever could possibly be relevant for the Chinese experience. I ask them directly about this, and they looked at me like I was crazy. But think about it–if you wanted to guess what would happen in China without the CCP, would you look to the fall of the Qing Dynasty or would you look to the collapse of another one-party state in with a rapidly modernizing economy? I’m not saying that China will be just like Brazil; far from it. I’m saying that it is peculiar not to even consider that another country’s experience could have anything to contribute to a China scholar’s view of what China is like. Political change is always difficult, but it is usually not genocidal. China, for them, is sui generis. There’s nothing like it, and China can be (nay, it must be) understood completely on its own terms.

This view, like its parallel in U.S. politics of “American exceptionalism,” bugs me to no end. Maybe it’s just because I’m a Southeast Asianist, but no one in political science thinks that Indonesia that special anymore. The risk of this sort of self-referential China scholarship is that it leads to asymmetric parochialism. Indonesianists, Latin Americanists, Middle East scholars, we all are required by our discipline to know the broad canon of comparative politics of developing countries. China scholars just need to know China. That’s nonsense.

But of course, there’s a deeper critique that I want to make, and this brings me to the second point. Fine, due to the way that China scholars tend to think, they believe that political change cannot lead to anything other than humanitarian disaster. You know who else thinks that, and consistently reminds Chinese people that any political or economic reforms that are not directed from the center are going to result in disaster? The CCP–that is, China’s own political elite. They say this because they obviously stand to lose the most from reform. To put it crudely, they are first up against the wall.

My lunchmates expressed no sympathy for the CCP leaders or the corrupt new politically-connected capitalists. But I believe that like China’s elites, my lunchmates (like a lot of China scholars that run in certain circles) stand to lose a lot from political and economic reform. Why? Because the current Chinese political-economic system makes it very lucrative to be a U.S. scholar of China.

It’s lucrative in a couple ways. First, in purely monetary terms, there is great demand in China for the prestige that a U.S. degree brings. If you speak Mandarin and can show up to say “I am the professor of Blah at the university of Blah” you can almost certainly arrange for yourself and your family a sweet gig at Beida or Nanda and make a pile of loot (we academics almost never make piles of loot, so it matters). It’s also lucrative because China funds Chinese studies around the world, most recently through the establishment of Confucius Institutes. They bring teaching and research funds that are unmatched, which can be used to do great things (like, have conferences on Asia that invite people like me).

There’s a second, less monetary way in which the current system is lucrative: people seems to understand it and it makes sense to them. China scholars know how this Chinese system works, and it would be costly to have to learn how a new Chinese system works.

This does not make China scholars support the regime. But it makes them indirectly interested in the same sorts of things that the CCP is interested in: stability, not change; and orderly if astoundingly unequal society, not what they fear would be the chaos of a country in which ordinary Chinese have political and economic rights and exercise them. The distaste for reform, in other words, is not just self-referential, it is also self-serving.

To return to our conversation: after hearing them out, I asked them, “so, surely, you would advocate some sort of reforms, right? You don’t support the continuation of every single policy or practice in place now, right?” Of course, they said. But from their perspective, what China needed was gradual reform, from the top, with the CCP clearly on board and the military actively supporting the decisionmakers. That way Chinese society will adapt to the new changes at the proper pace. Sounds familiar to me. “Is such change likely,” I asked? Well, they responded, probably not: when you look at specific events like the Shanghai rail disaster, or chronic problems like internet censorship, you definitely get the sense that the elite may talk about small reforms, but that the system cannot tolerate real reform.

Sounds to me like hoping for gradual reform is another way of hoping that the current system hangs together.

Comment 1

  1. Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD November 4, 2013

    Really illuminating post, Tom. As a comparativist (and a weird one, as I study North America which includes Mexico!), I know that I’m supposed to know and understand all three countries, with their own quirks. You’ve hit the nail in the head on how some scholars can be self-serving, self-referential, and narrow-focused/minded.

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