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By Thomas Glucksmann-Smith

On October 15-18th 2011 during the latest Plenary Session of the 17th CPC Central Committee, China’s leaders discussed ways to make China a ‘culturally strong nation’ (文化强国) and defined strategies to enhance China’s international soft power. This meeting coincided with tax evasion charges laid against China’s world renowned artist Ai Weiwei—charges he now plans to challenge.

Ai Weiwei, recently described by Art Review as the ‘world’s most powerful artist’ would, in any other nation, be regarded as a perfect diplomat for his country’s cultural industries. But, for China’s CCP leaders Mr Ai’s political activism and provocative behaviour has gone too far. Despite being responsible for the design of the Beijing Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium he is now subject to surveillance and travel restrictions.

The heavy-handed treatment of such an influential artist hinders China’s global image as an aspiring leader in the arena of cultural and artistic production. It runs directly counter to the international agenda for the cultural initiatives proposed at the recent sixth plenary session.

Popular blogger Han Han (韩寒) exposed the contradiction in the Central Committee’s policy, writing at his blog on November 2nd 2011: “Even I, as a player in the world of culture, don’t know how to write about building a culturally strong nation. So how can the members of the Polit-bureau who block search results for Li Bai on google, devise a plan to build a culturally strong nation?” This blog post has subsequently been removed as part of the regular censorial sweep.

The plan was unveiled at the Plenary Session, which designated the cultural industries as a pillar of the national economy. China’s leaders are experimenting with various forms of ownership structure in order to advance technological and cultural innovation. They hope that market-produced cultural goods can be consumed domestically and exported abroad, while state organs will continue to have responsibility for providing essential public cultural goods and services.

To achieve their desired global cultural impact China’s leaders identified four key areas in the cultural industries sector that need to be improved: research in philosophy and social sciences, the reputation of Chinese news media, the quality of literary and artistic works, and the development of a ‘healthy’ online culture (发展健康向上的网络文化). Yet, the recent detentions of global cultural icons like Ai Weiwei and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo suggests that the CCP’s impulse will be to keep control over the content of these new, improved cultural products. Old socialist cultural work habits die hard.

And where does socialism fit in within the domestic and international soft power push?

In an opinion article in the People’s Daily, Ren Zhongping addresses the issue of promoting Chinese-style socialism in order to legitimise China’s claims to a society that endorses ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’. This point was heavily discussed at the meeting, with calls for a reintroduction of Marxist values in education and the need to disseminate Chinese socialism internationally. However, the banner of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ will certainly render China unsuccessful in its bid to exert soft power internationally and may well fall flat with domestic audiences too. Socialism as a political and cultural brand no longer carries the cache it once did to either audience.

Moreover, the notion of promoting an ideology with distinctly “Chinese characteristics” runs counter to the global operation of soft power as outlined by Joseph Nye (2004). According to Nye, success in exercising soft power involves the promotion of values and norms that have universal appeal and transcend cultural boundaries.

Yee-Kwang Heng (2010) uses this point to illustrate the disparity in soft power between China and Japan since the latter’s government has been capitalizing on the popularity of its cultural goods in the international arena. Heng explains that Japanese anime and manga appeal to many people around the world as they offer culturally neutral characters, locations and narratives. Recent widely distributed Chinese films such as Fearless (霍元甲, 2006) and Ip Man (叶问, 2008) only offer non-Chinese audiences the spectacle of kung fu, since the narratives and settings are too culturally specific, xenophobic, nationalistic and lack the requisite levels of creativity for universal appeal.

Heng also places Japan at the forefront of global environmental protection and climate change research—a sphere that has international appeal and has consequently boosted the nation’s soft power. So far China is infamous for its urban air pollution and rural environmental degradation as a result of local corruption, despite efforts by the state to promote conservation and alternative energy resources.

Regardless of these current deficiencies, Ren Zhongping celebrates the success of China’s cultural achievements, claiming that the country’s cultural sector has entered a “golden period of development” (黄金发展期). Ren cites the fact that China is the world’s third largest film producer, the number one TV producer and the largest publisher of books. But the reality is that very few Chinese movies make any significant box office gains, Chinese TV is succumbing to greater government controls on content, Chinese News Media are propaganda devices and books are frequently banned in China on political or moral grounds.

Concerning soft power, Ren draws attention to the spread of Chinese culture internationally using the example of the 350 Confucius Institutes overseas and calls this the dawn of a “Chinese Cultural renaissance” (复兴曙光). Nevertheless, these Confucius Institutes require close scrutiny since some have been accused of interfering in the academic activities of universities on Taiwan and Tibet related issues. The fact that these Confucius Institutes claim to promote traditional Chinese culture under the auspices of the Communist government is not without irony, considering the anti-Confucian legacy of Mao and the Cultural Revolution (Louie, 2011).

The PRC leaders’ claims to exclusive rights to ‘represent’ Chinese culture have also been long contested. Harvard academic Tu Wei-Ming argued in 1991 that the Chinese in Taiwan, Singapore and other diaspora communities have a greater claim to represent cultural China and to uphold the dignity of Chinese civilization than the brutal Marxist-totalitarian state. Tu’s later activities in China suggest that he may be rethinking this position—although his reconciliation with China may reflect the nation’s economic might rather than the effectiveness of its soft power.

With rampant consumerism and the relentless pursuit of material wealth apparent in China today it is hard to believe that promoting Marxist values or Chinese socialism will find broad traction among domestic audiences. Moreover, the success of Chinese culture abroad will need to be assessed across many dimensions that include the consumption of market produced cultural goods, the sources of Chinese cultural production and the way in which Chinese cultural discourse evolves beyond the control of ethnically Chinese communities. Examining the number of Confucius Institutes and the statistics for foreigners learning Chinese does not indicate the current success of Chinese soft power. Instead we could start by counting the number of people who visited Ai Weiwei’s exhibit at the Tate Modern.

Nye, Joseph. 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Public Affairs.

Heng, Yee-Kuang. 2010. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the softest of them all? Evaluating Japanese and Chinese strategies in the ‘soft’ power competition era. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific. Volume 10, pp. 275–304.

Louie, Kam.2011. Confucius the Chameleon: Dubious Envoy for “Brand China”. Boundary 2.Volume 38, No. 1, pp. 77-100.

Tu, Wei-Ming. 1991. Cultural China: The Periphery as the Center. Daedalus, Vol. 120, No. 2, The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today, pp. 1-32.

Thomas Glucksmann-Smith is a Hong Kong based writer and researcher. He has studied in Beijing, Hong Kong and Japan.

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

The first thing I do when I begin an academic book is read the acknowledgements. I follow this habit for a number of reasons: I like to know who the author’s teachers and influences have been; I want to see which archives and libraries he or she has visited; and I often enjoy the glimpse I get into someone else’s life and work, whether or not we’ve ever met. A book’s bibliography tells me which sources the author has drawn on, but the acknowledgements are where I truly get a sense of the personal and material factors that helped shape that scholar’s research.

Those material factors come across most clearly in a paragraph of the acknowledgements that I usually just skim through, where the author provides a laundry list of different types of funding that have supported the scholar’s research over the years. Despite my often hasty read of this section, however, I have noticed that some grant programs appear more frequently than others, and their recurrence signals to me that those might be good places to look when I need money to finance my own research. After all, they’ve awarded money to generations of scholars whose work falls into the same geographic region or field of study as mine, so there’s a better-than-even chance that they’ll like my project too, right?

The Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) grants have long been one of those important funding programs, providing resources to more people than I can count and enabling them to travel to locations around the world for extended periods of fieldwork. The program’s mission is explicitly outward-looking: its description on the U.S. Department of Education’s website explains that projects funded by the Fulbright-Hays “deepen research knowledge on and help the nation develop capability in areas of the world not generally included in U.S. curricula” (excluding, for example, Western Europe). A product of the Cold War, the DDRA program was founded by the U.S. government in the early 1960s as part of a push to increase Americans’ understanding of the world around them by supporting educators who would conduct research abroad and then return home to share their work with students and colleagues. Ever since I entered graduate school three years ago, the Fulbright-Hays (and separate but related Fulbright-IIE) has loomed large in my mind; while I certainly didn’t assume that I was sure to receive one of these prestigious grants, I knew that the program had a significant history of funding dissertation projects involving research in China (including that of China Beat consulting editor Jeff Wasserstrom, a DDRA recipient in 1986-87).

That history took a big hit last week, when the Department of Education announced that due to budgetary shortfalls, the 2011-2012 Fulbright-Hays competition had been cancelled. No word about the program’s future, but in my eyes suspending the grants even once is dire enough.

I heard this news on Friday, less than 24 hours after passing the qualifying examinations that transformed me from a graduate student into a PhD candidate whose primary concern is now how to fund and execute a dissertation project. I wasn’t in this year’s Fulbright-Hays competition; I already knew that my research would be conducted stateside for the 2011-2012 academic year, so I didn’t apply. Putting together my application for next year’s competition, however, was going to be a big part of my summer, and that now looks like it might not be on my to-do list after all.

Are there other funding sources out there? Yes, absolutely; the Fulbright-Hays was by no means the only fish in the sea. It was, however, quite a big fish, one that provided awardees with a certain peace of mind and ability to carry out their work without having to negotiate multiple funding agencies and their bureaucracies. Applying for grants takes time—both the applicant’s and his or her advisor’s, who often have to write letters of recommendation—and even after a grant is awarded, the recipient must be vigilant about filing paperwork, ensuring that funds enter one’s bank account in a timely manner, and sending in reports at the end of the project explaining how the money was used. It is entirely possible to find multiple small grants that are collectively sufficient to support overseas dissertation research, but graduate students must squeeze the time-consuming application process into their ordinary teaching and research schedules, to say nothing of time they normally spend with friends and family.

It’s also worth mentioning that some of those alternative funding streams have been similarly reduced or eliminated in recent years, particularly for students at public institutions. In the University of California system, for example, the Pacific Rim Research Program—which has funded dissertation research for many students in East Asian studies, including another China Beat consulting editor, Kate Merkel-Hess—has been steadily eroded over the past few years. Everywhere graduate students turn, it seems, we find another door marked “Not accepting applications at this time.”

What concerns me most about the cancellation of the Fulbright-Hays isn’t necessarily its immediate effects on my colleagues and myself, though those aren’t insignificant. Rather, it worries me—even frightens me—that with this action the U.S. government is signaling its lack of commitment to education and forging bonds with communities abroad. Programs like the Fulbright-Hays grants aren’t just about supporting individual scholars; they have a larger mission of promoting work that collectively helps all of us contextualize the world we live in and recognize how it has come to look the way it does. By not providing the funding necessary to support this year’s crop of applicants, the government is implying that such work isn’t important, that we can exist in a global community but don’t need to understand it.

I have a shelf full of books whose acknowledgements indicate that American leaders grasped the significance of this mission in the past. I am now concerned, however, that few are willing to continue it into the future, and this loss, surely, will be to the detriment of all—not just graduate students.

By Daniel Knorr

A few days after the Japan earthquake last month, the high school student I tutor asked if I had considered leaving Beijing with my wife. I had been keeping up with the news about the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and to the best of my knowledge there was no real threat to us in Beijing so I was a little surprised by his question. Even though I assumed the nuclear plant was the source of his concern, I asked what he was referring to. (Honestly, part of me was a little afraid that he knew something I didn’t.) When he confirmed that it was Fukushima that was on his mind, I tried to reassure him that there was little or no danger to Beijing, but he was still rather worried—understandable given the magnitude of the disaster that had just occurred not so very far away.

In the face of such a massive crisis and the subsequent frightening possibility of a nuclear meltdown, people understandably reacted in very different ways. Along with my student, a lot of people here in China were simply afraid and thus prone to believe all sorts of rumors, many spread online. Although not surprising, the role of internet communication in responses to the earthquake and tsunami is what has struck me most in the weeks since the earthquake. The internet has been talked about quite a bit recently in relation to stories such as Egypt’s internet shutdown after the outbreak of protests and the Chinese government’s increased censorship of the internet and telecommunications (as well as the apparent recent Gmail hack). Because the issues of social media and online communication in China have been attached to questions of censorship and political protest, though, I think it is worthwhile to think about them in another context that may shed some more (or at least different) light on how they relate to current events, the mainstream media, government controls, and the lives of ordinary people.

The most well-known example of rumors going viral online, of course, is the one that caused a panicked buying of salt in many parts of China in mid-March, out of a belief that eating enough table salt could offset the effects of radiation poisoning, as well as a fear that radiation contamination would lead to a shortage of sea salt. One of the originators of this rumor has been detained and fined, but the effect was widespread and far outpaced the ability of news outlets and government offices to combat it. I heard another earthquake-related rumor second-hand, through a teacher of mine. She asked a classmate and me if we had heard that Yuko Yamaguchi, the designer of Hello Kitty, had died in the tsunami; I only found out several days later from a news report that this too was a fictitious rumor, as were others about the deaths of various Japanese celebrities. Fortunately, false reports about the spread of radiation into China did not cause a panicked exodus from coast cities, which certainly would have caused more harm than buying some extra bags of salt and wrongly believing a celebrity had died.

I don’t know why exactly people started these rumors, but their lightning-fast dissemination confirms the power of the internet to rapidly spread information regardless of whether it is true or false, as well as its capacity to prompt mass action or belief, a fact as true of China as of anywhere else.

To some degree, this could actually justify the government’s policy of censorship and desire to control the flow of information. I found it hard to disagree with the decision to arrest and fine the internet user who started the spread of the salt rumor. Of course, this is hardly unique to China: after all, free speech in the U.S. has its limits, such as the prohibition against shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. Maybe the enormous effect of a single rumor spreading to millions of people through the internet emphasizes the inherent interest of the government in protecting the stability of the crowded movie theater that is China (and the whole world wide web, for that matter). At the same time, though, it showed that censorship and official news outlets cannot match the speed at which this kind of rumor can spread, and that repairing the damage caused by false information disseminated online is no easy or simple task, particularly when the public has little faith in the official media. Once the cat is out of the bag, it’s very difficult to get it back in—and even government control is no match for a spontaneous uprising of salt-buyers.

It would be wrong to think that the only reactions to the disaster have come from the media, people who spread rumors online, and those who blindly listen to one and/or the other. A couple of days after the tsunami, one of my teachers started talking with my class about the safety of nuclear plants, how many there were in the U.S., where they were, how reliant the U.S. and China are on nuclear power, etc. Of course, this is a large and ongoing issue in the U.S., and I suspect that it is that way for a number of people in China as well. However, the reports I have seen about nuclear plants in China and about the possibility of radiation coming from Japan have been reassuring in tone, and the media doesn’t seem too ready to wade into this issue.

This is not to say that safety is not a concern for the Chinese government, or for the Chinese media. Everywhere you go in Beijing you see signs exhorting safety, especially when it comes to transportation and construction:

Pollution and environmental protection are big issues, too, so it seems natural that there would be official and public concern about the safety of China’s nuclear plants, especially when people hear about rural villages whose land and crops have suffered long-term contamination from nearby factories and numerous dairies being shut down because of quality concerns. While the role of Chinese media vis-à-vis holding the government, individual officials, and large state and private enterprises accountable is still developing, some journalists are undeniably interested in highlighting environmental issues and their impact on the Chinese people (as discussed in this report by The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts).

As one would expect in the response to a major catastrophe, reporting and public attention has ebbed as time has passed. While there is still uncertainty about the final, overall effects of the radiation leak, the real issue now, I think, is how this disaster will settle into the minds of people here. Will it be remembered as another tragic, yet unavoidable natural catastrophe? Or will it come to represent something more, as, for example, Hurricane Katrina symbolized social inequality and the aloofness of the federal government for U.S. citizens? It is possible that Japan could become a cautionary tale about the dangers of economic development and the need for public accountability. The final outcome, I think, will depend on the response of the Japanese people and the attention their actions receive from Chinese media and the discussion this may or may not prompt among China’s informed netizenry.

Daniel Knorr is currently a student at the Inter-University Program in Beijing and will be attending graduate school at UC Irvine in the fall.

By James A. Millward

“Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others,” Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, told the [Wall Street] Journal. “We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we’re allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven’t experienced it before,” he said.

“Right now we’re studying and learning about China but have made no decisions about if, or how, we will approach it,” said Debbie Frost, Facebook’s director of international communications.”

So this is what Facebook’s lobbyists and international communications folks are saying openly about how they are planning to enter the Chinese market. This article has been much cross-linked, and the sentiments of the lobbyist may be publicly decried. But then there will be the inevitable responses: “why should FB care about democracy? They’re a business, after all, and responsible only to their shareholders (as yet not public, though FB has made private offerings to select investors). Why should Facebook be any different than Bob Dylan? You gotta serve somebody, you must accept censorship to get into the Chinese market. It’s the cost of doing business; we respect their local ways.”

But what about racism, or at least chauvinistic culturalism? Should we care if FB embraces that? Whether it’s “Asian Values” advocates, hard-nosed business “realists,” or gradual evolutionists within or outside of China, the argument that certain people, in certain places, aren’t quite ready to speak or think for themselves based on unfiltered information is a tyranny of low expectations. If an American food critic said Chinese people aren’t ready to appreciate, say, good wine, or a foreign film critic said Chinese have lousy cinematic taste, or a Western academic said Chinese don’t really understand what real scholarship or good writing is—they would be pilloried on-line, and Chinese students would track them down and stake out their house. Yet it’s become increasingly routine to hear, both in China and abroad, that Chinese people are okay with a dumbed-down internet since China is strong, China’s economic rise has been remarkable, and in any case you can still play games, shop and read about celebrities on the Chinese intranet. In other words, the Global Times (China’s hyper-nationalistic, pro-government tabloid) is good enough for China, and it’s fine for international media companies to adhere to the standards of the Global Times to get access behind the great firewall.

Lu Xun (in 呐喊 Call to Arms) cared about the people in the iron house:

“Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?”

“But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.”

Lu Xun lived in different times, and these lines are admittedly too dramatic for the present. But the issue is the same. Does one let them sleep? Is “friending” China a plus, better than nothing, even if the proposed FB-PRC is monitoring the “friend”ship? Would Lu Xun care, today, if he lived outside China or were among the few who have a passport and a VPN connection that allows the savvy and affluent in China to span the firewall? Do I want to keep wasting time on Facebook, or link up with my friends in China using Facebook, when I know that they would not be able to read all my FB posts? Would units at our universities (for example the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown, where I teach) which increasingly use FB as an announcement board, still want to do so knowing that FB itself would censor our announcements of talks that Chinese censors disapproved of?

The WSJ piece mentions that some members of Congress are critical of Facebook for not signing the Global Network Initiative or participating in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s panel on “global Internet freedom.” But it will not be helpful for any branch of the US government to bludgeon or shame Facebook into compliance. Facebook shouldn’t be lockstep with US policy any more than it should be handmaiden to PRC censors. And I wouldn’t even say that Facebook should be fighting for human rights in China or anywhere, since it won’t be FB but domestic Chinese internet and other media that gradually erodes or overwhelms the controls. Rather, Facebook should simply remember its stated principles: in Mark Zuckerberg’s words, that Facebook was intended “to help people understand the world around them” (David Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect, p. 143), or that “our main goal at Facebook is to help make the world more open and transparent.” By “blocking content in some countries, but not in others,” does Facebook now want to add a caveat that unlike everyone else, Chinese people should only be vouchsafed translucent understanding of part of the world around them?

Sun Yat-sen wrote a century ago that the Chinese people would need a period of “political tutelage” before they would be ready for democracy. It’s not Facebook’s job to fight for Chinese internet freedoms or human rights. But it’s not Facebook’s job to help the PRC government further extend that “tutelage,” either. Let’s not patronize the Chinese people by accepting the argument that some kind of stripped-down, partially-gated, government-monitored Facebook (or any other media) is good enough for them. I (and, I hope, the other 499,999,999 global FB users) want to be friends with Chinese, not just “friend” them.

James A. Millward is Professor of Intersocietal History at the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University and author of, most recently, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (Columbia University Press, 2007).

By Lionel M. Jensen

Just over four days after Ai Weiwei’s sudden apprehension by China’s Public Security Bureau, the government has initiated, as is its tireless and terrifying custom, the public process of building a case against the disappeared by alluding to the subject’s “crimes.”

In comments made on Wednesday and Thursday in three of the Chinese Communist Party’s growing number of online and print “news” sources, China and the world have now learned that Ai’s actions were, according to Renmin ribao and the Global Times, legally “ambiguous” and too near “the red line of Chinese law.” The Global Times also reported that the departure papers for his flight to Hong Kong were “incomplete.”

Under China’s “stability maintenance” program, with which many are familiar following the 2009 treatment of Liu Xiabo, when he vanished for many months without acknowledgment, as allusion, innuendo, and vague, groundless assertion made the case for the subsequent necessity of his “trial” and imprisonment, these are serious charges. On Thursday morning the character assassination phase became more ominous, when Xinhua News Agency reported that Ai was being “investigated for suspected economic crimes in accord with the law.”

Imagine living in a real world—not an imaginary one from the work of Franz Kafka—where ambiguity or fear or insecurity or suspicion is cause for arrest. Actually, Ai Weiwei has not been “arrested.” Nor has he been “taken into custody,” or “detained” or “disappeared,” because these are merely the words of those attempting to describe what is self-evident but not acknowledged. The government has not admitted that Ai is in their grasp, although the Global Times did comment that he “was said to have been detained recently.” This is why Gao Ying, his mother, filed a missing persons report on Tuesday. “We have no idea where he is at the moment,” she said. More telling was her rhetorical query: “How can a country with laws allow this to happen?”

China’s constitution states that, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration; the freedom of person of citizens of the People’s Republic of China is inviolable.” A 2004 amendment, highly touted by Premier Wen Jiabao, confirms additional guarantees more succinctly: “the state respects and protects human rights.”

Gao Ying’s plaintive cry is most astute because it is law, or more importantly the summary lack of respect for it as the guarantor of basic civil liberty and a documentary force independent of political manipulation, that is of concern. China is indeed a land of many laws and the Communist Party has in this very instance violated some of them—with extreme prejudice—by not informing his family of his whereabouts or permitting his attorney to speak with him. These actions are in contravention of Chinese law.

In a newspaper interview (his last) conducted on March 29 and published this week in Munich’s Süeddeutsche Zeitung, Ai Weiwei reflected on his work in the wake of the disappearance of many of his friends and acquaintances, whose “offenses” were those of questioning, speaking or writing.

When asked his own wellbeing, he expressed concern about the latest campaign against free expression. He spoke with anguish about recurring nightmares of incarceration and torture by police in which tourists blankly walked around the spectacle as though it was an exhibit. “They saw everything but didn’t care…they simply acted as though this was quite normal…we live in a world of madness.”

With friends like Tan Zuoren (who assisted him in collecting the names of the nearly 5,000 children killed by the Party corruption responsible for the collapse of schools in the 2008 earthquake) and others already apprehended or incarcerated, he worried that he might be next, saying that in a recent interrogation, police suggested that he “go abroad” to continue his career.

It is said that when Ai Qing (Jiang Zhenghan), Ai’s celebrated poet father, was jailed and tortured by the National People’s Party (KMT) in the 1930s for his left-wing literary views, that he continued to write but found so execrable the fact that he and the leader of the KMT, Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek) had the same surname that he created in protest an alternative pronounced “Ai.”

Ai Weiwei bears this name and the history of artistic passion and defiance that is its legacy. This alone may ensure that the astonishing record of his diverse creation and the power of his imagination will prevail: a triumph for the Chinese people.

Lionel M. Jensen is Associate Professor of History and East Asian Languages at the University of Notre Dame.

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