Thursday, August 6, 2009

In response to my article “Have China Scholars All Been Bought”

In response to my article "Have China Scholars All Been Bought"
(Far Eastern Economic Review 170, no. 3, April 2007, pp. 36-40 []),

I have received a small number of critical comments (and a large number of positive ones).

Below I respond to the critical comments. (6 July 07)

Apart from a colleague who questioned me directly on a radio program, and apart from one letter published in the FEER, all other comments are e-mails passed on to me by third parties from an e-mail discussion group. 

Critique 1:

>… The essay is inaccurate and does not describe how … many … study and teach Chinese politics. Who ignores the Party or pretends that the Party doesn't control (or try to control) government appointments, policy implementation, SOE restructuring, and judicial decisions? What about this question posed by Holz:

    "Which Western textbook on China's political system elaborates on the Party's selection and de facto appointment of government officials and parliamentary delegates, and, furthermore, points out these procedures as different from how we view political parties, government and parliament in the West?"

    I would say every textbook that I ever used including [omitted], which as my students tell me goes into "excruciating detail" regarding the Party's actual power over government offices and the entire political system.

    It's important to discuss these matters, but his summary of the field did not ring true. <

    I suspect that I did not get my point across. Let me categorize three layers: (1) description of the "government" structure; (2) description of the "Party" structure and the interlinkage between "Party" and "government;" (3) elaboration on what (2) means.

I agree that textbooks cover (1) and much of (2).

    My sentence was intended to convey the third part (in the quote of my article above: "and, furthermore," beyond doing all the other stuff). I.e., which Western textbook… "points out these procedures ["Party" – state linkage] as different from how we view political parties, government and parliament in the West?" As far as I am aware, there is no direct comparison in the China textbooks that (i) pin-points the differences between China and the West and [I am adding this now] (ii) elaborates on what the setup in China means. By not evaluating the procedures in China—in comparison to the West / based on our values / showing the implications—we present some (neutral) structure out there. I call that a "sanctified" picture of the dictatorship. Students memorize the structure. They study the textbook (or textbook chapter(s)) the way they study molecular biology.

    The same concern comes up in two other locations in the article. First, the issue of language; we blindly accept the "Chinese Communist Party's" ("CCP's") language without discussing that the content may be quite different from the label. If we work with dictionary definitions of language and use the term "mafia" to label an organization that meets the dictionary definition of "mafia," that label gets across to students something quite different from "Party." Don't call something "election" that isn't an election in our sense of the word—words have meaning through associations, and the default associations of our students are those of the West—unless you provide an explicit definition of "election" as used in this textbook.

    Second, I give one example of what's missing in the textbooks: the sale of leadership positions. I.e., not only do I wonder if we get the content (real-world meaning) of the "CCP" system across, but I also wonder to what extent covering (2) obfuscates reality.

    Imagine a textbook that starts with a chapter outlining how "government" and "CCP" positions are bought all across China, with the going price list. Only in a second step, outline how people are supposed to get their jobs, say, by elections, and explicitly define "elections." Discuss the meaning of actual practice and of "elections" in China for everyday life and/or compared to the West. In that respect, the current textbook is possibly doubly farcical: by not getting across to students what "elections" in China mean for everyday life and/or compared to the West, and by not breathing a word about the fact that "election" à la "CCP" covers up for a yet different allocation mechanism of positions. One may question how widespread the sale of positions is; by thinking a bit about the details of what we know about Heilongjiang 2005 (and numerous revelations from other locations), it's difficult not to conclude that this is a truly systemic feature across the country.

    Another approach would be to start the textbook with a chapter on the appointment structure and locations of power under China's imperial system, and then introduce and contrast the current system. The implications for everyday life and/or the comparison to the West is still missing, but at least the current system is put into some context.

    Yet another approach would be to start the textbook with a chapter that goes through citizens' rights as enshrined in the PRC Constitution. Take each of these rights and show what it means in practice. What happens to a Chinese citizen, who, out of the blue, puts up his/her name for election to a local People's Congress? (Art. 34 "All citizens of the People's Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of…") What happens when a group of people wants to demonstrate against the torture of a person in police custody? (Art. 35 "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.")

    Obviously, that's not as easy as copying the official, published, or even neibu documents on "government" and "Party" structure and outlining the obvious interlinkages. It would probably require piecing together a real-world picture based on very fragmentary evidence. And don't sterilize by saying "X is denied the right to…" but spell out the consequences for that person's life when s/he is denied the right to… . We would have to pay much more attention to what is actually happening on the ground, and would have to deal with sources, such as various human rights organizations, that we usually don't deal with. Are we in the textbooks, because we cannot get systematic / reliable / "scientific" (say, official documentary) evidence, not ignoring the real world in favor of the clean "CCP" picture?

    These issues could lead on, in the classroom, to a discussion of legitimacy: to what extent do we accept some people having more brute force (military power) than others 60 years ago [and fake promises?] as justification of the current status quo? To what extent do we accept "success" as defined by a dictator (-> economic growth) to be a tool of legitimacy ([dictator's] "end justifies the means"). And should all legitimacy vanish, then how come this system survives, through what means does it survive (or do Chinese citizens view things differently from us)? Which would probably bring us back to the mafia view.

Critique 2:

>I think Carsten Holz's one-size-fits-all critique of China scholars and scholarship, while it touches on some relevant hot-button issues concerning self censorship and "pulling punches", paints our little fraternity with  far too broad a negative brush. A great deal of critical scholarship (some  of it brutally frank) has been produced by laowai academics --including  many members of this list--who nonetheless continue to visit China  regularly and maintain good working relations with their Chinese colleagues. Holz uses the editorial "we" to castigate his colleagues far too promiscuously and far too inclusively. For example, I'm not sure who the "we" is in the paragraph I have excerpted below. Personally, I have  not, as Holz alleges, ignored these facts; rather, I confess to being ignorant of them. Where do they come from? 

    "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." <

Similarly, by another person: > I disagree with Mr. Holz's blanket allegation that all scholarly research and teaching about China lacks integrity. <

    Yes, every social science abstraction is a generalization. I made the judgment that "we," in general, fits the picture. If it does not for some persons in some circumstances, that would seem great to me.

    The "we" in the quoted two sentences, from a paragraph on inequality, is myself (in a publication related to inequality) and every single study of inequality in China that I have read (probably about 20).

    For the source of the cited para see the bottom of this page.

Critique 3:

>When we do surveys with Chinese colleagues, particularly government offices, they do not want us to ask "party affiliation." But we push, until we hit a brick wall, and then we back off because we would rather do the survey than not. But often we can include "are you a member of any political party?"--which in 95% of the cases means the CCP. …

    [omitted] new book tries to explain how the CCP coopted the new entrepreneurial class to maintain itself in power.

    And just to make the point stronger, [omitted] all look at how party affiliation enhances upward mobility, income, etc. <

    Yes, we back off (and often we don't even push). The problem is that, after having backed off, when we report our research, we tend to forget to consider what we may be missing by having backed off.

    I acknowledge that researchers in surveys often include a question such as "are you a member of the CCP" but I wonder how much this can do when 70mio(?) people are members of the "CCP". For example, wouldn't we need to know more about the exact position in the "CCP" in order to be able to conduct meaningful inferences?

    What does it mean if the "Party" membership variable in a regression is insignificant (as it often seems to be)? It could mean that variation in "Party" membership does not come with corresponding variation in the dependent variable, or it could mean that in many observations where "Party" membership comes with a particular outcome of the dependent variable (say, success), "Party" membership was intentionally not reported by the surveyed person. If my success is largely due to underground channels of the "Party", would I want to make my "Party" membership public knowledge? If those observations with a clear pattern are not included, the result in a regression is insignificance.

    The other way round, Tung Chee-Wah, to my knowledge, is not a member of the "CCP," but that does not mean that he did not derive all his power as chief executive of Hong Kong from the "CCP."

    The "CCP" coopting the new entrepreneurial class to maintain itself in power: the issue that would, in addition, be of interest to me is to systematically lay out the role that the "CCP" in all its forms (from membership to communication and facilitation) plays for private entrepreneurs in China. Again, this may not be feasible data-wise, but that doesn't mean we can just forget it.

Critique(?) 4:

>…scholars are also motivated by incentives—driven by what would help them climb the academic ladder, namely the number of published articles. Hence, the solution to the problem that Mr. Holz has described is to correct the existing incentive[s] in the academic industry—the editors and readers of journals need to discern those who ask good questions and provide genuine evidence from those who pay lip service to the Party. 

    … [recommendation for cross-fertilization among China scholars across disciplines] <

    I didn't think about "solutions" when I wrote the article, but was trying to put into clear arguments what I felt is wrong in (much of) our research and teaching.

    In response to the suggestion above re changes in the academic industry: in the end, it still boils down to the position of the individual scholar who writes, or referees, or co-creates the scholarly community.

    What fascinated me at the time of writing the article, and continuing through today, is the extent to which the questions we ask [OK: I ask] and the way we [I] seek to answer them depend on time and place (the research community at a given time, and beyond that society in general). The China case that I deal with is just one case, but probably one that is more severe than others because of the severity of the constraints.

    This obviously links to the "philosophy of science literature" and epistemology issues. One person pointed out to me Karl Mannheim's (1936) Ideology and Utopia, which in the last pages elaborates on how our thinking is formed by social and historical settings.

Sources that I have been asked about

The gaogan zinu passage --- of 3,220 Chinese citizens with a personal wealth of 100 million yuan or more, 2, 932 are children of  high-level cadres --- is based on an article in Xinbao (the Chinese language newspaper "Hong Kong Economic Journal") of 4 Jan. 07, p. 21 (here).

The Shaanxi province explicit "Party"/"government" requirement on "Party" cell participation in state-owned enterprise/company major decisions etc. is from Shaanxi sheng renmin zhengfu gongbao no. 19, 2006, pp. 17f. (here in 2 files: 1, 2).

The University of Hong Kong e-mail hacking incident is from an article in in Xinbao (the Chinese language newspaper "Hong Kong Economic Journal") of 22 June 2005, p. 16 (here).

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