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.
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.
 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.