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.

From the Cross-hairs of Contemporary Global Politics

Recently I was jolted by a piece of bad news that I probably should have anticipated. Reflecting on how I might have done so led me to the train of thought in this blog post, concerning new challenges in the era of contemporary global politics

I invited Professor Wen Tiejun from Beijing’s Renmin University to participate in the President’s Panel at the AAS annual conference to be held in Boston next March. Professor Wen is a prominent agricultural economist and the leader of the New Rural Reconstruction movement, a grass-roots initiative promoting the renewal of agricultural ecology, society and economy. He has fostered a generation of youth committed to organic agriculture, co-ops, and attention to the three “left-behinds” (children, elderly, and women) in an agrarian landscape hollowed out by the migration of large numbers of male workers. His stature in China is a delicate one—honored on the one hand, but always under government suspicion of fostering rural discontent.

Professor Wen responded to my invitation almost immediately, only to say that he would have been delighted to present at the AAS but has not been able to go to the U.S. for the last year or so. As Wen understands it, this is because he is on a list of 13 Chinese State Bank high officials who are under American sanctions and unable to get visas. Wen is on the advisory board of the Agricultural Bank of China, but he is the only one among the 13 who is not a CEO or president of a bank, or even in an executive position. He recommended a junior academic colleague of his to serve on the conference panel, but for whatever reasons, our exchange subsequently became spotty and interrupted and I have been unable to get a response from the colleague.[1]  

This sequence of events has led me to consider three related aspects of the condition of international higher education in our time. First is the rise of visa denials and constriction of international exchanges, with which the AAS is all too familiar and which reflects the impact of global politics on educational institutions. The second is the narrowing of international educational opportunities within universities and the nationalization of pedagogy, whether by the state or nationalists/exclusionists not only in universities but across the educational system. This too seems to be a major trend in the world, not only in the U.S. and China, but also in Turkey, India, Singapore, and many other countries. Finally, and somewhat less directly related, is the decline of the importance of humanities and interpretive social sciences across the world, intensified by the marketization of higher education. Yet this decline also has to do with the critical functions of these disciplines to the extent that they have shaken free of statist ideologies.

As a historian, I tend not to see these as entirely unprecedented phenomena. Ever since the strengthening of nation-states since the late 19th century, there have been shorter or longer cycles of nationalist tightening responding often to capitalist cycles of boom and bust. The most dramatic, of course, was the period preceding and during World War Two and the Pacific War in Asia. Of course, we never step into the same waters again and it behooves us to attend to the differences, if only to generate some hope that we will not fall into another vortex.  

Today, there is much greater interdependence economically and organizationally, with weak but still functional global institutions. This interdependence is most evident in the lobbying by U.S. farmers and businesses against tariffs and the hardening position of the U.S. President towards the China trade. Global civil society is also much stronger, although its principal medium—social media—appears to be highly compromised. Still the global media glare on Hong Kong may well be what has prevented its “pacification” so far. 

Under these conditions, it seems right that AAS, as an international civic association as much as it is a scholarly organization, defends the value of our scholars, our forms of knowledge, and our autonomy.  In the last year, since I have been an officer, AAS has signed a handful of statements and petitions defending our rights and protesting any violations of them. To some members of the association—and sometimes to me as well—we seem to be behaving more like a political organization than a scholarly one. But while I agree that sometimes the line is not always easy to draw, I now feel more certain this is a time to hold our ground.

[1] In my email exchange with Prof Wen from Aug 10-15, 2019, he has permitted me to bring up his case in this blog. Indeed, he will no longer be on the Board of the Agricultural Bank from this year and hopes that someone can remove him from the sanctions list.

Thoughts on the Future of AAS-in-Asia

With this first blog of my Presidential tenure, I would like to express my gratitude for your support and confidence in electing me to this position. Coming into the Presidency of the Association in these deeply troubled geo-political times has been very challenging, and I will need your support and participation more than ever. What seemed relatively remote in the personal lives of scholars has touched us more directly in this last year. I refer not only to the controversy raised by the Indian government’s denial of visas to Pakistani citizens and people of Pakistani descent prior to our 2018 conference in Delhi, but also the upcoming AAS-in-Asia conferences in Bangkok (2019) and Hong Kong (2020), places where concerns about academic freedom are regular topics of conversation. To gauge the sentiment of the AAS membership in regard to these conferences, the officers of the association decided to hold a first town hall meeting at the 2019 annual conference in Denver, and then follow it up with a survey sent to the entire membership. My personal views regarding the future of AAS-in-Asia reflect some of the opinions expressed at the town hall meeting, as well as on the survey.

You can read a summary of the survey results in this #AsiaNow post.

My enthusiasm for AAS-in-Asia precedes my election to the Vice Presidency and Presidency of AAS by a number of years. It began when I was Director of the Asia Research Institute (ARI) in Singapore and attended the 2011 AAS conference in Hawaii, held jointly with the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS). I noted the large numbers of scholars from Asia at the conference and realized that AAS was becoming increasingly global in its membership. There appeared to be an unrecognized reservoir of interest in the AAS meetings, and I wondered if they could be made more regularly available to scholars based outside North America. I approached the AAS officers during the Presidency of Gail Hershatter (2011-2012) and suggested having periodic AAS meetings in Asia. After much deliberation by the board of directors, the first AAS-in-Asia conference was rolled out in Singapore in 2014. This was followed by meetings co-hosted by universities in Taipei, Kyoto, Seoul, Delhi, and now Bangkok in 2019. Attendance at these conferences, especially by scholars in Asia, has increased significantly, confirming the demand for such meetings in Asia.

What the Denver town hall and the subsequent survey revealed was that there is strong support among the AAS membership for AAS-in-Asia. Even in response to the question, “Recognizing that political problems such as visa denials and censorship will likely remain, do you want AAS-in-Asia to continue beyond the Bangkok and Hong Kong conferences in 2019 and 2020, respectively?” the majority (81%) of the 517 survey respondents answered affirmatively. In written comments, some also expressed the view that there were double standards being applied to conference participation norms in Asia and the U.S./Canada, where visas are frequently denied, often based on nationality.

At the same time, many members disagreed with how the AAS Board handled the Delhi controversy and called on the association to be more transparent and prompt in informing members about denial of visas or other infringements of free academic expression. On this last matter, the officers have determined that, if such a situation were to arise, we would announce the matter to the membership so they can take a responsible decision about their participation. Additionally, AAS will also post information about the climate of academic freedom in the pertinent Asian societies on the website so members can remain informed.

For me, the most heartening part of the survey was the thoughtfulness with which members responded. While a majority felt that AAS-in-Asia should not be held every year but every two or three years, they also had suggestions about the conditions and procedures by which the venue of the conference be selected. One point of view held that it be co-hosted only in places where freedom of academic expression could be expected to be more securely upheld, such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore.  Others believed that in this climate of growing nationalism, such academic freedoms can no longer be assured anywhere.

Yet others agreed that AAS take a kind of “round-robin” approach, through which scholars denied access in one country be encouraged to express their views in another. Indeed, AAS-in-Asia will bring the eight visa-denied Pakistan scholars to Bangkok this summer to present their papers and views. A few survey respondents suggested that Pakistan should become a future venue for AAS-in-Asia. One scholar expressed their rationale for such a view: “It might give partner institutions leverage to say to their governments that if you deny this small number of people a voice now, then the entire conference will be in that location in a few years.” However one feels about this rationale, such views demonstrate to me that the controversy has strengthened our organization and encouraged a forum for open debate and discussion that needs to be continued.

Meet Prasenjit Duara, Incoming AAS Vice President

Prasenjit Duara is the Oscar Tang Chair of East Asian Studies at Duke University and will become Vice President of the AAS after the 2018 conference in Washington, D.C.

I developed my interest in China during the heady days of the Cultural Revolution’s ideological impact in Delhi. As college students in the early 1970s we engaged in heated debates about the path for development and equity in India. The long and short of it was that I determined to study the Chinese revolution in order to show that a peasant revolution of the Chinese sort could not happen in India.

I came to the U.S. to do my Ph.D., first at the University of Chicago and then moved with my advisor Philip Kuhn to Harvard, where I got my degree in Chinese history. While my thesis and first book did not directly address the issue of revolution comparatively, I did gain some insight into the nature of Chinese rural society under the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 40s. The translation of Culture Power and the State: Rural North China 1900-1942 (Stanford, 1988) has just had its fourth reprinting in China this January. More recently, I did return to the instigating comparative question in a brief piece in the Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay) in 2011, where I suggested that rural revolutions were incubated in places with weak military-political, and more importantly, weak social hierarchies and dependencies. It is little wonder that Maoist movements today thrive in tribal and relatively inaccessible peripheral regions. 

During the course of my research career, I also discovered that nationalism was a deep force underlying and gradually replacing socialism in China from the 1980s. I became interested in the conceptual framework that meshed nationalism with understandings of history and destiny, a theme that gained traction in academia increasingly through the post-Cold War ‘90s. My critique of nationalism has been focused on how to think history outside the national tunnels, especially since nationalist modernization strategies have generated our present environmental crisis.

In the process of trying to see beyond the national optic, I have become very interested in practices, networks, and knowledge circulating across Asia. After a most rewarding teaching experience at the University of Chicago, I spent over seven years directing research in Singapore, where I discovered that Southeast Asia was the cross-roads for circulatory forces across Asia and beyond. In keeping with this new, though not exclusive, interest in Southeast Asia and the environmental crisis, together with a Thai colleague, we hosted an untypical conference in Cambodia last year.

Buddhist monks, educated across various countries in Asia, were leading and supporting a sophisticated protest movement of forest dwellers in Prey Lang region of Cambodia which had been devastated by logging and hydropower interests. The core movement—who call themselves Avatars—has attracted the support and participation of large numbers of youth and student groups within Cambodia as well as NGO groups across Asia and the West through a savvy use of social media and their own version of ritual theater. The event brought together many of the themes that have interested me recently: the re-purposing of religions towards environmental goals, the civic and political awakening among the “precariat” in Asia, their complex relationship with environmental civil society organizations at multiple scales, and not least, the role of Asian corporate investments in extracting or “developing” frontier resources.

The journey into the multifarious and often deeply buried historical connections (and tensions) among Asian societies that are renascent today is not only an exciting discovery for me but also good to think with.

Prasenjit Duara will serve as the discussant for the AAS 2018 panel, “New Approaches in Chinese Environmental History: Transregional and Frontier Perspectives.”