Moving Forward with AAS-in-Asia 2020: Options and Considerations

Report prepared by AAS Secretariat staff

The Situation

The Association for Asian Studies thanks its members and all who proposed panels for the 2020 AAS-in-Asia conference in Hong Kong for their patience while our staff, Board of Directors, and representatives from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) have discussed the best steps forward. We very much appreciate the responsiveness of our colleagues at CUHK and express our support for the entire university community during this tumultuous time.

In early November, clashes between protesters and Hong Kong police broke out on the CUHK campus and continued for several days, causing damage to some facilities and interruptions to university activities. The CUHK administration subsequently decided to cancel the remainder of the Fall 2019 semester, and the AAS contacted CUHK to inquire about how these events might affect plans for the 2020 AAS-in-Asia conference scheduled for next June at the university. The CUHK side held internal deliberations and then responded that they would be unable to co-host the conference next summer, suggesting that we reschedule for December 2020.

At the same time, the AAS leadership began to consider options that would keep the conference in summer 2020 but relocate it elsewhere in Asia. We reached out to two past conference hosts and another that had expressed interested in hosting a future conference. All three institutions responded that while the timeline for organizing a conference the size of AAS-in-Asia (approximately 1,000 people) would be extremely tight, they would be willing to take it on. For a number of logistical and financial reasons, the most logical candidate appeared to be a university in Japan (since so much is still in flux at the moment, we will not identify the institution at this time).

The Survey

Knowing that the most important consideration was the input of potential conference participants, the AAS Board of Directors suggested a survey of all current AAS members plus all non-members on panel proposals submitted for the AAS-in-Asia 2020 conference. On Tuesday, November 26, we sent the survey to a mailing list of 7,420 recipients. Respondents were given until Wednesday, December 4 to complete the survey, and a reminder email was sent on Monday, December 2. During the one week the survey was open, 2,261 people completed it, for a response rate of about 30 percent.

In the survey, we offered respondents four scenarios for how we might handle the 2020 AAS-in-Asia conference: maintain the summer 2020 schedule but move to another location (such as Japan), postpone until December in Hong Kong, postpone until the summer of 2021 in Hong Kong, or postpone until summer 2021 and move to an alternative location. Survey-takers were first asked if they had or had not submitted a proposal for Hong Kong; depending on their answer to that question, they were then directed to two different sets of questions about those four scenarios. We wanted to ensure that the preferences of those who might be on panels would be clearly distinguished from those who were perhaps less likely to attend the conference.

Please click through the slideshow below to view summary survey results:

In reviewing the survey results, two things were apparent: (1) All four scenarios had nearly equal amounts of support among proposal participants, though there was a slight preference for moving the conference to Japan in summer 2020; and (2) Whichever option we chose, at least some people who had hoped to participate in Hong Kong next June would be left out. Of those who had not submitted a proposal for Hong Kong, all four scenarios yielded nearly the same results: somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of respondents would consider submitting a proposal if the call were re-opened, another 20 to 40 percent would not, and the remainder were not sure of how they’d proceed.

At the end of the survey, we invited respondents to share their comments, questions, and suggestions regarding AAS-in-Asia 2020, and nearly 750 people did so. We appreciate the time and thought that respondents put into their comments; reading and discussing those greatly helped the AAS staff and Board of Directors sort out which path forward made the most sense for the most people.

A few notes on the data gleaned from the comments:

  • Not many commenters—only 37—thought that we should postpone the conference, skipping 2020 altogether. A majority of our members and conference-goers want to see this event happen next year.
  • A good portion (over 150 respondents) of those leaving comments urged us to proceed as planned for June in Hong Kong, many of them stating that doing so would be an important expression of solidarity with the academic community in Hong Kong. We understand and support this sentiment, but CUHK is unable to offer a June conference as a possibility. Hong Kong itself also poses some potential issues, as discussed below.
  • While a December conference in Hong Kong didn’t seem completely out of the question for many (and a number of people even noted that the weather would likely be better than in June!), the higher cost of airfare at that time of year and the complex scheduling that would be required to navigate the end of term and holidays both seemed problematic.
  • Over a tenth of commenters (84) expressed a strong preference for keeping the conference as close to the original dates as possible, even if that means relocating elsewhere. Some had already set their summer schedules, while others had secured funding for conference travel that they can’t use at another time. Commenters also noted that they want to present when their research is still “fresh,” and holding onto it for six or twelve months would delay their larger projects and/or publication plans. Taking these comments in combination with the slight numerical edge that the “relocate in June/July” option had in the survey, there appeared to be an emphasis on time over location.

We also received a large number of questions and suggestions via the survey comments, and want to take the opportunity now to address a few of those:

Could the AAS wait and monitor the situation in Hong Kong a bit longer before making a decision? Planning a conference like AAS-in-Asia is a significant undertaking, from both logistical and financial perspectives. The AAS and our local partner sign contracts—with each other, with the conference venue, with a Professional Conference Organizer (PCO) that carries out much of the work on the ground—up to a year in advance, and there are financial penalties for cancelling those contracts. Staff members at the Secretariat in Ann Arbor, the local partner institution, and the PCO all devote many hours of their work weeks to conference matters, with the workload increasing as the conference grows closer. If cancelling or postponing a conference is necessary, it’s best to do it sooner rather than later.

And, as many survey respondents indicated, it’s equally as important for our attendees to get notice of a change in plans as early as possible. Some would need to rework their summer research schedules, or get permission to re-allocate travel funding from their institution. If the conference were to be postponed, they might be able to participate in a project or take advantage of an opportunity that they’d otherwise have to pass up. Our conference attendees are not just academics—they are also partners, parents, caregivers, colleagues, and community members—and we are committed to respecting those many roles. We know that a change in location and/or schedule has the potential to upend delicately balanced plans in all spheres of one’s life, and making a decision now rather than waiting is the best action we can take on behalf of our conference participants.

What about moving the conference to another venue in Hong Kong? The issue isn’t that the damage to CUHK’s campus would prevent us from holding the conference there in June; indeed, we expect that all facilities will be fully repaired long before then. However, the ongoing protests in Hong Kong mean that scheduling a huge conference anywhere in the city would be problematic. On the most basic level, the AAS is uncertain about our ability to secure adequate event cancellation insurance—an absolute requirement for any large-scale gathering—given the protests. We also don’t know the extent to which the protests might still be occurring in June, which will mark the one-year anniversary since their launch. Planning for a Hong Kong conference at the current time carries the risk of a last-minute cancellation, which can be quite costly for all involved.

Could the conference move to a location in China very close to Hong Kong, such as Guangzhou or Shenzhen? It is not possible for the AAS to hold a conference in mainland China, where academic freedoms are restricted and scholars can be barred from entry. We would insist on open discussion of any and all scholarly topics, and it is unlikely that any mainland Chinese partner university would be able to guarantee such a condition could be met.

What about ______ as a new conference location? Many survey respondents wrote that we should hold the conference somewhere other than Hong Kong or Japan, and we received over a dozen suggestions, as well as several offers to connect us with leaders at potential host institutions. We very much appreciate those offers of assistance and hope that some of these sites can be explored in the future. Again, the key consideration here is time: with a summer conference only 6-7 months away, we would be initiating discussions with a completely new host institution well behind schedule (we generally start preliminary talks with a potential partner two or more years in advance). The advantage of our potential partner university in Japan is that it had previously expressed interest in co-hosting the 2021 or ’22 AAS-in-Asia conference, so we had already completed some of the initial groundwork. To relocate and reorganize the conference at this point means doing so on a highly compressed timeline, and this limits us to considering local hosts already familiar with the basic details of how AAS-in-Asia operates.

The Decision

We are engaged in active discussions to move AAS-in-Asia 2020 to a university in Japan, on dates to be determined—either late June or early July. We will make a more specific announcement as soon as an agreement between AAS and the new host institution is finalized, and we ask again for your patience and understanding as we work to confirm details and next steps.

We hope to hold a future AAS-in-Asia conference in partnership with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. We are extremely sorry that the 2020 conference has not worked out as planned and thank our counterparts at CUHK for their time and efforts.

Thank you to everyone who completed the survey, wrote to our office with comments and suggestions, and showed their support for AAS-in-Asia amid great uncertainty.

If you submitted a proposal for AAS-in-Asia 2020 in Hong Kong …

If an agreeable venue and timeline for the conference can be decided upon, we will re-open the call for proposals soon. We will ask that those who have submitted proposals for Hong Kong 2020 and who wish to present at the conference in an alternative venue resubmit their proposals at that time. We appreciate your patience and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.