Zheng Yongnian on “the death of China Studies”

A recent article by Zheng Yongnian of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen campus) was regrettably brought to my attention, and I am in turn bringing it to your attention.

The topic, according to Zheng’s title, is the “death of China Studies.” Curious, I thought, that Zheng and I may actually agree on something, insofar as I also feel that the field is in the midst of unprecedented crisis. Yet after eagerly reading Zheng’s article, the only thing that has died is a few of my brain cells.

Before I begin slamming Zheng’s article, however, let’s do a general overview of his argument (if you are short on time and prefer to leap to the main point, just skip over the next four paragraphs).

Zheng begins his article as follows: “Broadly speaking, China Studies in the West (including Europe, the United States, and Japan) has passed through three historical stages: (1) classic Sinology, (2) area studies, and (3) the era of the social sciences.”

This first sentence should be a sufficient clue that one is about to read some serious nonsense. Zheng’s basic paradigm here is Marx’s tired historical evolutionism applied to the history of China Studies, with the primary purpose not of providing a novel perspective on anything that has actually happened in the field, but rather of developing a potentially plausible over-simplification that lays the groundwork for his desired, predetermined conclusions.

Zheng wastes no time in serving up the over-simplifications that none of us ordered yet that we all know will arrive, like the moon cakes that will inevitably arrive in your hands, regardless of whether you actually want some, in the run-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival. Yet rather than a cake that one finds hard to bite into and is filled with an indecipherable substance, Zheng serves us an argument that is at once genuinely hard to bite into, yet which, even after one puts in all of the effort to bite into it, also lacks any substance.

Zheng tells us about Sinology and philology, the rigor of China Studies in Japan, the relationship between area studies and the Cold War, the role of Hong Kong in China research, and the development of comparative perspectives: two-thirds of one’s way into the article, after reading all of these points, one is left wondering what exactly is the point? Some pieces are correct, others are incorrect… some are clichés, and others are ideological over-simplifications… but in all cases none are discussed in any convincing or substantive detail because this pseudo-theory of stages is really just an unnecessary buildup to Zheng’s real argument.

This argument arrives in the final section, “A deep crisis hidden amidst growth.” In this title, one can again see echoes of the Marxist paradigm haunting Zheng’s argument from the start: he tells us that under the weight of its contradictions, China Studies today is in a state of crisis that will lead to its inevitable collapse.

The section begins: “Although from a quantitative perspective we are seeing ever more essays and books in the field, China Studies in the West has already lost its scholarly meaning and is essentially on its death bed.”

Zheng provides five causes for this decline: (1) myopia, (2) ideological influence, (3) Western supremacism, (4) Americanization, and (5) the decline of Western social science.

If Zheng’s opening was an unwelcome moon cake, here he serves us an extra juicy ideology sandwich: the two pieces of bland bread on either side are (1) myopia and (5) the decline of Western social science, neither of which he spends substantive any time developing.

For example, here is his discussion of the decline of Western social science: “the decline of the social sciences in the West is another even more important factor. Social sciences in the West have been in a state of decline since the 1960s. This reality has dragged down China research.” In case you were wondering, no, this is not just the introduction to his discussion: this is his entire discussion of this topic!

The real meat of Zheng’s article, and thus the real point of my article, are to be found in his discussion of (2) ideological influence, (3) Western supremacism, and (4) Americanization. Let’s take a look at Zheng’s rendering of these three points before I destroy his argument.

First, in discussing ideological influence, Zheng asserts that a comparative perspective on societies can be enlightening. He even argues that it can be useful tool for deciphering the comparative advantages and disadvantages of political, social, and economic systems. Yet he then tells us that comparative perspectives in Western China Studies have become “a tool for Western scholars to promote their ideology.” He continues, “once you force Western values like freedom, democracy, and human rights onto China Studies, you are no longer engaging in China research, but rather in criticism or even moral critique of China.”

Second, in evoking Western supremacism, Zheng asserts that cultural biases have had a detrimental effect on China research in the West. He argues that, based in its values, Western society is plural and diverse, but that none of this plurality and diversity is apparent in China research: “Western scholars show not even a hint of tolerance to Chinese civilization.”

Finally, in discussing “Americanization,” Zheng claims that Europe is losing its independent thinking on China and simply increasingly following the guidance of America.

Where to begin?

I’ll start with Zheng’s deeply flawed discussion of plurality. This is an old CCP talking point, attempting to usurp the ideal of plurality in the service of state-enforced uniformity. The logic goes as follows: you “Westerners” embrace plurality and diversity, but we “Chinese” embrace ideological homogeneity under CCP rule, so it is a violation of your plurality for you to not cheer on our state-enforced homogeneity.

The implication here is that not embracing a narrow-minded dictatorship is a manifestation of narrow-mindedness, which is not in fact the case. In reality, plurality and diversity need to be manifested not at the international level in refraining from critical discussions of a flawed and dangerous form of governance (which Zheng mistakenly labels “Chinese civilization”), but rather at the social level in the ability to openly and thoughtfully engage with different viewpoints.

To put it another way, if the PRC government resolutely suppresses alternate viewpoints in discussions of China’s reality today, how can it demand that other people embrace its model, which is precisely the driver of this suppression? (I am reminded here of the time that the Liaison Office newspaper Wen Wei Po laughably ran a headline claiming that I was suppressing media freedoms in Hong Kong, simply because I spoke to international media honestly about Wen Wei Po’s creepy stalking).

A similar paradox can be seen in Zheng’s discussion of the “ideological” nature of scholarship. Zheng claims that incorporating any discussion of human rights into China research is “ideological,” and that one is then no longer engaging in research, but rather in criticism of China. Zheng’s definition of “ideological” here affixes the label to, ironically, anything that would not make it past Beijing’s ideological censors because it violates the CCP’s strictly enforced ideology: the way to not be ideological, he tells us, is to abide by CCP ideology. This is, I must say, not a terribly convincing definition of ideology!

Basically, in his appeals to “plurality” and his criticism of “ideology,” Zheng is advising the field not to speak about contemporary China’s troubling political and humanitarian realities: Zheng is advocating self-censorship. The label of Americanization, his third point, is merely an attempt to affix to honest discussion a stigmatizing label from which many scholars will flee.

Such self-censorship silent complicity may appear to be a plausible position from within official Chinese academia: after all, in order to maintain a certain degree of job and life security, work within the CCP system necessarily excludes any open and honest discussion of such issues. The rewards for the path that Zheng prescribes are plentiful, as his own career demonstrates.  

Yet the export of CCP speech controls and censorship to the international community of China researchers is not in fact the novel ground-breaking suggestion that Zheng imagines it to be, nor will it having any chance of “saving” China Studies.

The CCP has been cultivating such self-censorship for decades, whether through the politics of visa access, funding of Confucius Institutes and other pseudo-scholarly initiatives from shoddy journals to international campuses, or using state-controlled overseas media to astroturf two-minute hate sessions against professors who crossed “red lines.”

Such incentives and disincentives have in recent decades combined with a particular structural-functional differentiation of the field of university-based China research to encourage scholars to avoid discussion of a rapidly deteriorating political situation. Insofar as the news media, NGOs, and think tanks, all of which play an important role in shaping public perceptions, are closely engaged with revealing and analyzing the disturbing realities of the PRC today, the university-based China scholar, as an “expert” who “understands” the country, finds his or her differentiating functional role in “explaining” or even rationalizing fundamentally inexplicable realities.

This mode of engagement places state-friendly analysis on a higher intellectual level via the ruse of nuance, telling us time and again that on account of their biases and Orientalism derived from media demonization and right-wing Sinophobia, the poor common folk “misunderstand” the full “complexity” of China today. Induction into the school of “understanding” enables a higher level of intellectual sophistication in the form of mental gymnastics finding excuses for the inexcusable. One can see plentiful examples of this mode of analysis in discussions of everything from the one-child policy to the Tiananmen Massacre to ethnic relations to the CCP’s imperialist threats against Taiwan.

The cruel reality of CCP rule today has however reached a point where such positioning is no longer terribly tenable. We can see this in, for example, recent cringe-inducing efforts to inject “nuance” against the “mainstream narrative” about the Party’s ongoing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

Setting aside Zheng’s pseudo-concerns, the real threat is not the over-zealous criticism that he imagines after reading a few articles that challenge his orthodoxies, but rather the widespread eagerness to make oneself complicit: at best turning away or at worst rationalizing the discomfiting realities emerging in the PRC today. These realities have outstripped the tired narratives of a discipline trained to transcend supposed “ideological biases” and provide “understanding.”

As these realities stare us in the face, there will be ever more appeals of Zheng’s type to steer clear of “ideology,” precisely because as the system becomes increasingly unhinged, thereby making criticism an ethical imperative, it is also becoming ever more resistant to even the slightest hint of criticism.

In sum, in an era of abandoned term limits, a growing personality cult, endless crackdowns on one social field after another, and accelerating totalitarian micro-management of everyday life, what we need in the field of China research is not less discussion of the failings of the PRC political system, but rather far more.

In an era of self-immolations, concentration camps, and bellicose threats against democratic neighbors, what we need in the field of China research is not less discussion of human rights and freedoms, but rather far more.

The real risk to the field lies not in facing these realities, but rather in fleeing from them. It is at the end of the day up to each of us to determine whether we will be of any relevance in the rapidly evolving discussion around disconcerting developments in the PRC today: contributing to this discussion will not bring about the death of Chinese Studies, but rather prove the field’s relevance through its ability to provide critically engaged analysis of the actually existing realities among which we find ourselves today.