13 May 2006

Teaching Political Theory in Beijing

First spotted on AsiaPundit and then Dissent Magazine. Daniel seems to be arguing that Mainland China offers greater academic freedom than Singapore. I believe that Warwick University might agree.


By Daniel A. Bell
Spring 2006



Few Western academics would aspire to teach political theory in an authoritarian setting. Surely the free, uninhibited flow of discussion is crucial to our enterprise. When I tell my Western friends that I gave up a tenured, high-paying job in relatively free Hong Kong for a contractual post at Tsinghua University in Beijing, they think I’ve gone off my rocker. I explain that it’s a unique opportunity for me: it’s the first time Tsinghua has hired a foreigner in the humanities since the revolution; Tsinghua trains much of China’s political elite, and I might be able to make a difference by teaching that elite; the students are talented, curious, hardworking, and it’s a pleasure to engage with them; the political future of China is wide open, and I’ll be well placed to observe the changes when they happen. Still, I do not deny that teaching political theory in China has been challenging. This has to do partly with political constraints. But it’s not all about politics. Even if China became a Western-style liberal democracy overnight, there would still be cultural obstacles to deal with. In this essay, I will discuss some of these political and cultural challenges.


Political Constraints

The willingness to put up with political constraints depends partly upon one’s history. In my case, I had taught at the National University of Singapore in the early 1990s. There, the head of the department was a member of the ruling People’s Action Party. He was soon replaced by another head, who asked to see my reading lists and informed me that I should teach more communitarianism (the subject of my doctoral thesis) and less John Stuart Mill. Naturally, this made me want to do the opposite. Strange people would show up in my classroom when I spoke about “politically sensitive” topics, such as Karl Marx’s thought. Students would clam up when I used examples from local politics to illustrate arguments. It came as no surprise when my contract was not renewed.

In comparison, China is a paradise of academic freedom. Among colleagues, anything goes (in Singapore, most local colleagues were very guarded when dealing with foreigners). Academic publications are surprisingly free: there aren’t any personal attacks on leaders or open calls for multiparty rule, but particular policies, such as the household registry system, which limits internal mobility, are subject to severe criticism. In 2004, state television, for the first time in history, broadcast the U.S. presidential elections live, without any obvious political slant. (I suspect that the turmoil surrounding the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, along with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, discredited U.S.-style democracy among many Chinese, and the government has less to fear from the model.) More surprisingly, perhaps, I was not given any explicit (or implicit, as far as I could tell) guidance regarding what I could teach at Tsinghua. My course proposals have been approved as submitted.

To continue reading
Daniel A. Bell’s most recent book is Beyond Liberal Democracy: Political Thinking for an East Asian Context (forthcoming, Princeton University Press, 2006). He can be reached at daniel.a.bell@gmail.com.



6 comments:

Anonymous said...

there are academic books (politics and such) banned in singapore as well. which is a shame because NUS isn't as world class as it could be.

Alvin said...

How can you say NUS isn't as world-class as it could be? Everyone knows NUS is far superior to world-class universities like Princeton and Cornell.

Anonymous said...

what's the connection? would allowing the banned books make NUS worldclass?

too many chips on shoulder guys

Anonymous1 said...

What are some of the titles of banned books? Would you care to share a few before making this claim?

After reading the article, it is actually hard to believe that China is freer than Singapore as far as academic freedom is concerned (i.e. in political theory). But considering this is such an ancient civilisation who has just seen about anyone's fair share of different styles of regime even under an autocratic rule most of the time, they might be more open-minded after all.

Anonymous said...

What are some of the titles of banned books? Would you care to share a few before making this claim?

After reading the article, it is actually hard to believe that China is freer than Singapore as far as academic freedom is concerned (i.e. in political theory). But considering this is such an ancient civilisation who has just seen about anyone's fair share of different styles of regime even under an autocratic rule most of the time, they might be more open-minded after all.

Anonymous said...

i doubt so...
actually, China Communist Party are even more sophisticated and have many hidden agenda and schemes …It is hard to understand fully how its function. But for sure, their ultimate aim is ‘to maintain its political power’.

Though many think China has opened up, but actually the root of the EVIL China Communist are still there. Opening up… in the sense of only a portion of people getting rich (businesses related to the party etc). Many farmers are still poor, the gap between the rich and poor are wide. In China, they are still restricting freedom in religion etc. Recently, the news of China Communist Party harvesting FALUNGONG Members' ORGANS while they are still ALIVE is horrifying.

The fact that Singapore govt is investing intensively in China is worrying. One day, if China Communist Party is overthrown, many Singapore businesses related to the Party won't survive either. SG economy will collaspe too.

It is sad that the Singapore leaders are investing in Myanmar, China etc, putting funds to those repressive rulers. Looks like SG leaders care much about the $$$ made, than the consequences of supporting such repressive rulers…well…coz SG leaders are sort of one themselves.

You can download
'JiuPing' -
Writings about the China Communist Party and how it works: (its gangster behaviour and brainwashing of citizens to maintain its POLITICAL POWER.)


Many similarities between SG govt and China Communist Party.

to download ‘Jiu Ping' (IN MANY DIFFERENT LANGUAGES):

http://www.epochtimes.com/gb/4/12/13/n746020.htm