2018-2019: A Year in Review of China Studies at Harvard

Researching China in a challenging year

Read our 2018-2019 annual report

The 2018–19 academic year was a challenging time for all of us at the Fairbank Center who devote ourselves to the study of China. The U.S.-China bilateral relationship continues to deteriorate and there are few signs that the trend will be reversed. As scholars and observers of China, we have been asking ourselves, as we must, how best to respond to a range of unsettling developments, including the ongoing human rights crisis in Xinjiang, and, as I write these notes, the tense situation in Hong Kong.

At the same time that we have concerns about developments inside China and in U.S.-China relations, we must also acknowledge the worrying tendencies in U.S. domestic and foreign policies. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University, and indeed the United States, remains a welcoming place for students, scholars, and other visitors from the PRC to pursue academic exchanges.

Professor Ya-wen Lei speaks at an event at the Harvard Center Shanghai, hosted by the Fairbank Center

In contemporary China, years that end in the number “nine” are freighted with heavy significance. A number of important events were held in 2018-19 to commemorate anniversaries: a major conference, organized by David Wang, on the centenary of the May Fourth movement; a panel on the hopes and tragedies that are forever linked with June 4, 1989; an event marking the fortieth anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act; and a large conference, organized with China’s Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing, on forty years of “Reform and Opening Up.”

Although the year raised challenging questions, the day-to-day operations of one of the world’s leading centers for the study of China continue. It is not only the quality of our speakers but also the diversity of our programs that give us this reputation. Among the highlights were Stephen Owen’s presentation of the Reischauer Lectures, and former Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton’s Neuhauser Lecture, with the timely title, “Can We Live with China? A Roadmap for Co-evolution.” We also hosted Adrian Zenz, who delivered an important presentation about the current situation in Xinjiang. While many of our visitors are the “rock stars” of China Studies, this year we also hosted literal “rock stars,” welcoming four leading songwriters and musicians in a celebration of “Mandopop: 40 Years of Chinese Popular Music and Culture.”

Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow speaks at Peking University

In terms of Harvard’s broader relationship with China, the most dramatic event of the year was Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s March visit to Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai. Executive Director Dan Murphy and I were honored to accompany President and Mrs. Bacow and other university leaders on the visit. That President Bacow’s first formal foreign trip as Harvard President was to China is an important symbol of the University’s commitment to engagement with China. In addition to meetings with local alumni and academics, the delegation met in the Great Hall of the People with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders.

At Peking University, President Bacow delivered a powerful speech on the importance of academic freedom. The speech was widely read in China, and several Chinese colleagues have been in touch to thank him, and Harvard, for his public statement. As President Bacow told a rapt public audience, and repeated in private meetings with Chinese academic and political leaders, on occasion universities are able to accomplish results that governments cannot.

The past year was sadly marked by the passing of our former director, and long-time supporter and friend of the Center, Professor Roderick MacFarquhar. There have already been many occasions, and I am sure there will be more, when I wish that I had the guidance of Rod’s wise counsel.

The late Professor Roderick MacFarquhar with Minxin Pei. Photo Courtesy of Ellen Wallop for the Asia Society

Even in these challenging times, my colleagues and I strive, through our research, teaching, and public activities, to do our very best to promote scholarship and understanding, and to ensure that the American public and American policymakers are as well-informed as possible about China. We share these goals with the broader scholarly community as well as with our counterparts in China.