Academic Exchanges in a Time of Conflictual Geopolitics

In my September President’s Column I wrote about the impact of geopolitics on international scholarly exchanges and on conditions of higher education, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, from the perspective of AAS this problem has intensified. I am referring of course to the protests and shutdown of universities in Hong Kong, where AAS was planning to hold AAS-in-Asia in June 2020. By early November it was becoming evident that the prospect of holding the conference there at that time was dubious. As Maura Elizabeth Cunningham has outlined in her analysis of the membership and conference participant survey that AAS undertook about the Hong Kong event, the overwhelming majority of the respondents did want to continue to hold the event either later in Hong Kong or in another venue, most likely in Japan. 72% declared their intent to attend elsewhere in the summer of 2020 (including Japan), whereas 20% were not sure. About 55% intended to attend Hong Kong in December 2020, while 35% were not sure. It appears that those who had already submitted their proposals were keen on holding it around the same time as originally scheduled in June. Accordingly, we are in the process of exploring a new venue in Japan and expect to provide a more definitive update in early January.

Transferring the location at this late stage will, of course, put considerable pressure on the AAS Secretariat, since there will only be about three months between the Annual Conference in Boston and one in East Asia, so we are particularly thankful for their cooperation. We are also grateful to our Senior Advisor for Development and Strategic Initiatives, Krisna Uk, for exploring the possibilities of an alternative venue. Needless to say, we are particularly appreciative of our colleagues at Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), who have already put so much work in organizing AAS-in-Asia in Hong Kong; we will continue to work together towards holding the conference in Hong Kong in the future.

To return to the theme of the difficulties and impediments to academic exchange in today’s world, we may note that, in many parts of Asia as well as in the West, it is the youth in educational institutions, including high schools and universities, that are leading the struggle to open up or resist the closing of democratic participation by authoritarian leaders backed by nationalist supporters. Such is the case not only in Hong Kong but also in India with regard to the Citizenship Amendment Bill. It is thus not surprising that, as teachers and educators, AAS members have also expressed their solidarity with these democratizing forces, though they may be relatively weak politically.

As I suggested in my previous blog, the strengthening of participatory and inclusive forces in a period of intensifying nationalism lies as much in their global connectivity as in any other factor. In this context, I am pleased to mention that AAS has also initiated an agreement with the Latin American Association for the Study of Asia and Africa, Asociación Latinoamericana de Estudios de Asia y África (ALADAA) to conduct exchanges with their members at the annual conference or at AAS-in-Asia. Past President Anne Feldhaus and I attended a rare event when the Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies (WCAAS), a regional conference of the AAS, was held in Mexico City last October. The two of us observed the significant interest in Asian Studies not only among Mexican scholars but those from across Latin America and the Caribbean. Our conversations with these scholars led to this initiative. ALADAA is a rapidly growing association, and research about Asia and Asian presence in Latin America is also developing fast. In recent years, relations between Latin American and Asian countries, expressed through formations such as the BRICS and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, have accelerated unprecedentedly. There is also considerable interest in the study of the Asian diaspora in Latin America, a theme which matches Vice President Christine Yano’s initiative to explore and develop a stronger relationship between AAS and Asian American Studies, resulting in a newly configured “Global Asias.”

We urge our members to explore the exciting new avenues that our relationship with ALADAA will open. Such new international linkages provide exciting possibilities for strengthening academic exchanges and collaboration, despite the continuing challenges posed by conflictual geopolitics.