Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Wednesday, June 28, 2006 at 12:31 PM
Chinapol is an invitation-only email discussion group that is popular among Sinologists and East Asian studies types. The invitation policy is not clearly stated, but the objective seems to be to keep riff raff like yours truly out of the discussions of political and academic issues.
Why would anybody want to fill their inbox with threaded discussions when it is so easy to set up a Internet forum? What is the point of a closed forum? Shouldn't academics believe in education and information exchange? Or are we poor lumpen Net users outside the ivory towers of Asian Studies departments too uncouth to participate in elevated debate?
The answers to these questions are not clear, but here is a different critical take on Chinapol and its problems, from journalist Philip J. Cunningham, who was unceremoniously booted off the Chinapol list. This is his story about his excommunication.
Since your correspondent has never been graced with an invitation to the exclusive list, he has no way of evaluating Cunningham's charges against Chinapol, but there is a comments section if any readers feel that this opinion piece is unfair.
UPDATE from Philip J. Cunningham:
I don't think most readers are getting the fact that the post I offered for publication [below] was word for word the post that got me booted, not rudeness or other alleged things. It seems it's being read as something I wrote later.
Chinapol has an America problemby Philip J. Cunningham
Some of the best minds in the China field are stuck in an outdated paradigm of America-good, China-bad. The annual State Department report on human rights is an example of this. You have basically competent researchers and scholars missing the forest for the trees, failing to take into account the incendiary and distorting influence of the US on China and everything else we talk about. We live in an age of US hegemony, we live in an age when some of the things we like least about China, such as heavy policing and military buildup, are directly related to US provocations and attempts to contain China.
For better or worse, Chinapol is anchored in the US, which gives it the unhappy distinction of being associated with the war machine of the world's most awesome military power, indeed America is more guilty than any other nation on earth of dropping bombs and expending bullets by the billions.
But Chinapol is about China you protest! It's not about the US!
Presumably, German Tibetologists exchanging arcane data about their field in the 1930's would have insisted the politics of Germany had nothing to do with them either.
While such a harsh comparison is not fully warranted, you get the point. A Martian trained to recognize meta-narrative frame would quickly note that many Chinapol conversations about China are really more about America than China, by omission or commission.
Recently I tried to raise, in what was perhaps an overly casual but nonetheless serious way, the point that the "China-bad, America-good" mindset (of certain self-styled human rights organization and their undiscerning cheerleaders) is anachronistic in today's world where the US military is doing most of the killing and where some NGO's deliberately or inadvertently work hand in glove with darker forces. One only has to consider the political influence of the anti-Castro Cuban lobby or the Iraqi exiles to see how a so-called China dissidents funded and focused on the overthrow or ruination of a US competitor country can be problematic fellow travelers in the China field.
If the neo-cons ever got their way and took on China, mano a mano, the usual suspects --holier-than-thou-human-rightists would be trotted out to frame the impending attack in terms of democracy/freedom, (presumably not weapons of mass destruction which China possesses in abundance), and American groomed, house-trained Chinese freedom fighters would be cheerleaders leading the attack like Chalabi and his gang.
Thus I thought the Howard French commentary in the NY Times, pointing out how US complaints about human rights, illegal detention, etc ring increasingly hollow due to US violations was a good turn for a good newspaper which at times seems irremediably stuck in the America-good, China-bad paradigm.
Speaking of human rights and hypocrisy, what right is more precious than life itself, yet the right to live that has been unceremoniously denied to perhaps 100,000 Iraqi civilians by a Pentagon that can't even be bothered to count the "enemy" dead who include no small number of women and children and decent men minding their business.
I'm not saying Chinapol should become Iraqpol, and I'm not even saying that the US is completely mistaken in its foreign policy, though I believe the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld have inflicted serious damage on America and the world. And before any further misunderstanding accrues, I am not criticizing those members of Chinapol who happen to work for the US State Department or other agencies; quite the contrary --some of the most professional and seasoned postings come from the government sector. One can find really good people in the most unexpected places, which as those of us who live in China well know, it's outstanding individuals who make so-called authoritarian China much more of a delight than it otherwise might be.
But however you cut the cake, the American government, or in the very least a bellicose cabal within it, has been making the US the hypocritical joker of the world, doing the opposite of what it preaches to others, what with its trumped up wars, its killing for peace, its Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamos, its defense of torture and its attacks on civil liberties, and its intrusive spying.
While some neo-cons clearly have China in their sights, one hopes it will never come to that, and not just for China's sake.
Indeed one of the joys of studying and observing China at this particular historic juncture is that despite serious problems, there is a bright side to the picture as the world's most populous nation, enjoying a separate peace of sorts, enjoys an economic boom probably without parallel in the history of planet. China, given its capacities and confidence provides a much-needed counterweight to runaway US influence, or to put it another way, China's rise is not unrelated to America's self-inflicted fall.
Each time I have tried to raise, usually in response to an implicit America-good, China-bad C-pol posting, I find myself being accused by people I have never met (who clearly don't know what they are talking about) as not caring about human rights. To the anti-China crowd, anything less than constant condemnation makes one some kind of apologist for China.
Well, I do care about human rights and I stand by my China work record. I also believe human rights starts at home and for those of us China-watchers who are American citizens or non-citizen residents, I think the role of the US in all of this needs be addressed from time to time with the same candor and verve as Chinapol's critiques of China.
China doesn't exist in a vacuum, international relations are part of a complex dialectic, and China and the US react to one another. The US role in all of this is part of the forest that gets obscured when we focus too much on certain trees.
To say human rights starts at home doesn't mean it ends at home though home is certainly a good and important place to start. That a posting suggesting Americans should look at human rights with some humility brought on a torrent of abuse from distant interlocutors with vested interests in the America-good, China-bad paradigm, and therein lies the problem.
What could have been a conversation about how the political winds blowing across the US might in some way influence how America-centric Chinapol is a necessary conversation unfortunately and ironically brought to a halt by a handful of red-baiters worthy of McCarthy era.
If Chinapol is not the place to address institutional and structural blinders in the view of China as presented on Chinapol, then where is?
I'm only half-joking when I say I enjoy greater freedom of speech on Chinese national television than I do on Chinapol. I appreciate the many off-line comments and words of support I have gotten but I am surprised that so many smart people are reluctant to stand up and state what they believe more openly.
As the Bush administration forces its interventionist Pax Americana upon the unwilling and recalcitrant around the globe, words that many Americans were brought up to treasure and identify with such as human rights, freedom and democracy are increasingly robbed of meaning, so often they are used to fuel US government propaganda.
Chinapol, despite its inherent diversity, the important links it fosters and its impressive collective wisdom runs the risk of being reduced to a mere caricature of itself, a forum of forced binary choices, in which one must choose between panda-hugging and dragon slaying, then its utility as a forum for free thinkers is sadly limited.
I was there on Tiananmen Square on the 4th in 89 and I have not minced words about what I saw or why I thought the China government was in the wrong. And I owe as much to my country of origin.
Human rights abuses in China can and ought to be discussed seriously but given serious US abuses of the same, a touch of humility would help. The holier-than-thou America-good, China-bad paradigm offers no solutions, only more problems.
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