Association for Asian Studies

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By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

As I noted in an article I wrote for the Dissent website earlier this week, one of the major China-related stories of 2011 has been the government’s ever-increasing crackdown on public expression. What started subtly back in January—a slowdown in internet service here and there, more websites (including this one) being blocked—became a full-blown international issue on April 3, when artist and activist Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing airport. Ai’s disappearance has sparked a flood of analysis and commentaries: Colin Jones discusses “The Purge of Ai Weiwei” at Dissent, Evan Osnos at the New Yorker has written a series of blog posts on the subject (here, here, here, here, and here), and the shows Bob Dylan played in Beijing and Shanghai last week became entangled in the issue as a number of pundits asked “Did Bob Dylan sell out?” for not calling on the Chinese government to release Ai (more links than I can list, but check our Twitter feed for a selection and also listen to friend of the blog Jon Wiener discuss the issue with Dylan-ologist Sean Wilentz during his latest “On the Radio” show).

Before Ai Weiwei’s arrest and Dylan’s performances, though, I had the chance to consider China’s tightening of the internet within a broader context, as I attended a lively conversation on the topic at the Association for Asian Studies’ annual meeting in Honolulu two weeks ago. I was at the conference to assist with three “Late-Breaking News” panels funded by the Luce Foundation, including one entitled “New Media and Old Dilemmas: Online Protest and Cyber Repression in Asia.” This panel brought together a range of journalists and academics: Orville Schell of the Asia Society served as moderator and Rob Gifford of NPR and Ananth Krishnan of The Hindu traveled from China to participate, joined by freelance journalist Angilee Shah and USC professor Andrew Lih, author of The Wikipedia Revolution. For China Beat readers unable to attend the meeting (start planning for Toronto 2012!), here’s a quick summary of the presentations each panelist gave during the session.

Panelists, L-R: Rob Gifford, Ananth Krishnan, Orville Schell, Angilee Shah, Andrew Lih

Schell noted in his remarks opening the panel that U.S.-China relations often seem to have shrunk to the internet issue, which now subsumes all other matters of concern to the two nations: free speech, religion, defense, business deals, and more—perhaps most strikingly clear in Hillary Clinton’s “China and the internet” speech last January. Yet China is certainly not the only country to monitor and control its citizens’ web use, as the ensuing discussion emphasized.

Taking the session’s title under consideration, Rob Gifford began by meditating on how new media has challenged the Chinese government’s “old dilemma”—namely, how to control its population. He pointed out that the source and direction of discourse in Chinese society have both undergone a fundamental change as a result of rising internet use in China. The government no longer stands as a single voice at the top, with a controlled message directed toward the country’s population; instead, everyone is talking to everyone else in a cacophony of sound that might obscure the fact that, as Gifford wryly stated, the majority of people are saying “nothing.” He views most users as primarily concerned with the internet’s potential to entertain and divert them, and only a small number of Chinese netizens as interested in using it as a tool to foment popular discontent. When the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa, Gifford argued, most Chinese people “were too busy shopping to stroll for revolution.” Yet he did not discount the tremendous impact that access to the web and the information available on it has had on people at all levels of Chinese society, and concluded by noting that in its ever-increasing control of the internet, the Chinese Communist Party is revealing a nervousness that hints at just how limited and uncertain its vision for the future really is.

Ananth Krishnan placed Chinese internet restrictions within a comparative context, drawing parallels between protests in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region in 2009 and the Indian-administered state of Kashmir in 2010. Both protests, Krishnan argued, showed that the internet had become a tool used by dissatisfied youth, but it was a tool that could only prove effective to a certain extent. While the Chinese government’s decision to “turn off” the internet in Xinjiang for several months caused consternation both within and, especially, beyond the country, India’s shutdown of websites related to the Kashmir protests resulted in little public discussion. Krishnan concluded with the observation that in both India and China, there is a lack of legal framework for dealing with online activism and the “crimes” related to it, so the governments of the two countries prosecute cyber activists under other statutes (Schell added that in China, Mao-era counterrevolutionary laws have been repackaged into state subversion laws and used to prosecute figures such as Liu Xiaobo, the currently imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner).

As Angilee Shah emphasized, however, in some countries the government does not need to intervene directly into the cyber world—citizens themselves restrict their own online outspokenness. She pointed to Singapore, where the culture of self-censorship has spread so pervasively that the government finds blacking out websites unnecessary. Despite this, however, some younger web users are increasingly using new media to subtly circumvent the government’s restrictions on what they can say; if and when that becomes a more widespread phenomenon, government leaders will find themselves in need of a new approach to online activism.

Andrew Lih returned to China in his presentation, discussing the tensions within the government’s attitude toward the internet and the technology world more generally: while China would like to move up the high-tech value chain and increase its presence in research and development, it also wants to control how people use that technology and what happens when they do. Continuing on this theme of balance, Lih pointed out the compromises the Chinese government has made in its treatment of internet use—permitting, for example, the existence of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that enable web users to access blocked websites. As long as the number of people using VPNs remains on a small scale, the government has seen little need to clamp down on their circumvention of its internet restrictions. In the aggregate, the Chinese government still accomplishes its goal of restricting widespread public discourse, proving, as Lih stated, that “you don’t need perfect censorship to have effective censorship.”

With their presentations concluded, the panelists embarked on a discussion with each other and with the audience that brought in considerations of other locales while focusing on internet issues in China. Rob Gifford argued that while in recent months the Western media has frequently debated the prospects for a Jasmine Revolution in China, the country’s “hopelessness rate” is quite low—reinforcing a comment he had made earlier in the session, that in China today a lot of people have the dream of a better life, or at least the ability to imagine that dream—and there is far less frustration among young urban Chinese than there was among the young urban Egyptians who filled Tahrir Square. One audience member proposed that in China, we might see a model for economic growth without internet freedom, contrary to the expectations of all who celebrated the world wide web as a worldwide force for democracy. Krishnan reminded attendees that China has defeated almost every prediction made (about the pace of its economic development, the stability of its political system, etc.) for the past decade or more, and the country shows no signs of slowing down. Though there are certainly people speaking out against the increasing restrictions that the Chinese government has been implementing out since January, it remains to be seen how the situation will play out. As befits a “Late-Breaking News” panel, the speakers had no definitive conclusions or solutions to offer, but simply ended with a logical piece of advice for the audience: stay tuned.


We recently got a message from past China Beat contributor Susan Jakes (who is now based at the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society) and friend of the blog Orville Schell (who directs that Center) about an exciting new initiative they are launching called ChinaFile. Since there’s a lot in the message that will be of interest to any reader of this blog, even though some details in it refer to things that will be especially relevant to anyone who has recently published a book and/or is going to the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting coming up in Hawaii at the end of this month, we wanted to post their message in its entirety here:

Later this year, the Center will launch ChinaFile, a new online magazine/multimedia site about China and U.S.-China relations. The site will include commentary and traditional reporting on a wide range of topics, as well as short videos, photo essays, and longer investigative pieces. We will commission and edit work ourselves, but also collaborate with a number of news organizations both in the U.S. and China.

We’d be more than happy to tell you more about the project in general if you’re interested.

But what’s relevant for China Beat readers attending AAS is that part of the site will be a virtual library of authors’ introductions to their own books on China in the form of very short videos.

Like many of you, we’re dismayed that there are fewer and fewer publications reviewing books on China and that scholarly books on China often fail to reach readers outside the academy. So we’re inviting authors who have published books on China in the past three years or who have books forthcoming to create brief introductions to their work based on a set list of questions. Our designers have created a beautiful interface to house the videos that will allow readers to browse the books by topic and link to written reviews, filmed book events at the Asia Society, or other materials related to the books.

We’ve already begun a small collection of these videos, but we’ll be at AAS to collect more. We will have a booth in the exhibition hall Booth # 314 where our cameraman (our Multimedia Producer, David Barreda) will be on hand to film authors talking about their books. The whole process shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes. We’ll ask you a series of questions about the subject of your book, why you feel it’s important, a particularly arresting or surprising detail of your research, etc.

We’ll then edit and produce the videos and you’ll have a chance to review and approve them before we post them online.

If you are NOT attending AAS, but are interested in contributing a video, we can send you (EXTREMELY EASY) instructions on how to film yourself.

We hope to make this part of ChinaFile both a serious resource and an inviting way to draw larger audiences to good writing on China.

We welcome your participation and hope you’ll help us spread the word.

Susan Jakes and Orville Schell

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1. On December 14-15, the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California will be holding a “Colloquium on China Media Studies” (RSVP required). For those not able to attend, the event will be live-streamed at the above link, beginning at noon PST on December 14.

2. Ken Pomeranz will be giving two talks in Japan next week:

December 16, 2009: Kyoto University. Participant in the “Changing Nature of ‘Nature’: New Perspectives in Transdisciplinary Field Science” conference sponsored by the Global Center of Excellence on a Sustainable Humanssphere.

December 18, 2009: Tokyo University. “Land rights and long-run Development patterns: the Lower Yangzi in comparative perspective.”

3. Looking ahead to the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, to be held in San Diego January 7-10, 2010, we’ve gone through the meeting program and identified sessions that would be of particular interest to China-focused conference-goers:

Thursday, January 7:
“The Mandate of Heaven at the Local Level in Imperial China.”
“China’s Influence in Southeast Asia during the Cold War and Its Reflections in Today’s History Education”

Friday, January 8:
“Inventing China’s ‘Inseparable Parts’: Borderland Incorporation from Tibet to Taiwan in the Twentieth Century”
“Hidden Treasure: Literature as Historical Source”
“Globalizing the Middle Ages”
“Drugs in Chains: The Illicit Commodity in World History”
“Rethinking World History: A Roundtable”
“Domestic and Foreign Policy during the Cultural Revolution”

Saturday, January 9:
“Gender, Sex, and Slavery in East Asia”
“Carnal Encounters at the Edge of Sinophone Culture”
“‘Crossing the Beach’ in Southeast and East Asia: Redefining Sovereignty, Social Mobility, Vassalage, and Resistance, 1513-1777”
“Berlin, Taiwan, and Guantánamo: Cold War Islands of the ‘New’ New Cold War History”
“New Histories of Rice”
“The Political Economy of Chinese Development and Western Relations, 1940-80”
“Reconstruction beyond Black and White”
“Dissemination of Western Knowledge and Ideology in Late Imperial and Modern China”
“Construction and Reconstruction of Chinese Concepts of Self-Identity and Others at Four Historical Moments”

Sunday, January 10:
“Teaching U.S. History Abroad: Australia, China, Germany, Tunisia, Russia”
“Control, Discipline, and Order in Modern China”
“Mexico’s Chinese: Disputed Identities and Claims of Belonging”
“Bringing Peace and Life out of Chaos and Death: Christians in Republican China”
“Whither China: Intellectual Discourses on the Problems of the Urban and the Rural in 1910-40s China”

4. We’re hoping to see lots of China Beatniks at the 2010 annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, to be held March 25-28 in Philadelphia.

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Elizabeth Perry of Harvard University is the outgoing president of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) and the author of many books. She has also edited and co-edited nine books (one with China Beat’s Jeff Wasserstrom) which address issues of workers’ rights, popular protest, revolution, and reform. Last April, she delivered the presidential address at the Annual Meeting of the AAS in Atlanta, Georgia. In this address, which will appear in print in the November issue of the Journal of Asian Studies, she focused on the non-violent worker strike at the Anyuan coal mines in the early 1920s, and called for a more positive re-assessment of China’s twentieth-century revolutions. Nicole Barnes of The China Beat interviewed Dr. Perry about the content of her address and her current research.

Nicole Barnes: After serving your term as President of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), what direction do you see or would you like to see the Association moving in? What future challenges do you see the AAS having to overcome?

Elizabeth Perry: The AAS is a wonderful organization, the largest area studies association in existence and one that – unlike many scholarly associations these days – is continuing to grow and change. My hope is for still greater internationalization and diversification of the AAS membership. In particular, I would like to see more Asian-based members, younger members, and more members drawn from the social science disciplines and professions. As the terms of “intellectual trade” between America and Asia shift, with more influential scholarship being produced by our colleagues in Asia, it will be increasingly important for the AAS to identify, introduce and incorporate that work into our annual meeting program and our journal. The recent economic growth of China and India has generated considerable public interest in the prospect of an “Asian twenty-first century.” While we can never sacrifice the high academic standards for which our association is known, it is also important for us to find ways to make our knowledge of Asia more publicly accessible.

NB: Would you like to let our readers know about your upcoming book, and in what journal issue they may find a tantalizing piece of that work?

EP: The book I am currently writing is entitled, Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Traditions. The book will explore the early history of the labor movement at the Anyuan coal mine as well as the political uses of that history over the years by politicians, artists, writers, and ordinary Chinese citizens. In addition to the paper in the November 2008 JAS, I have published an article in Twentieth-Century China, which focuses on the Communists’ early efforts at mass education at Anyuan.

NB: Can you describe the intellectual and professional trajectory that led you to your topic for the presidential address?

EP: Most of my work has been concerned in one way or another with the Chinese revolution. My first book (Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China) focused on the countryside, looking at the relationship between “traditional” peasant rebellion and the Communist revolution. Subsequent books (Shanghai on Strike; Patrolling the Revolution; Proletarian Power) focused on the city of Shanghai, from the 1920s through the Cultural Revolution. The Communist mobilizing effort at the Anyuan coal mine had major implications for both the rural and urban wings of the Chinese revolution. Moreover, its history became highly contested during the Cultural Revolution. A study of Anyuan serves, I believe, as a revealing prism through which to understand the unfolding of the Chinese revolution.

NB: In your address, you mention several China scholars whose assessment of worker and peasant revolutions in China have changed drastically over the years. You include yourself among this list. What would you say you have learned about the successes and failures of revolutions in your scholarly career? How has your assessment of popular revolutions changed?

EP: Like many in my generation, I was initially drawn into the field of Asian studies because of a fascination with Asian revolutionary change – in both China and Vietnam. But after living in China as a visiting scholar for a year in 1979-80, I arrived at a more sober assessment of the Chinese revolution, especially as it developed under the PRC. My latest book, Patrolling the Revolution: Worker Militias, Citizenship and the Modern Chinese State, reflects that perspective. The current study of Anyuan has renewed some of my youthful admiration for the initial ideals of the Chinese revolution, while providing a vehicle for studying what went so wrong in its subsequent development.

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