2020-2021: A Year in Review from our Acting Director

2020-2021 will most certainly go down in history as a pivotal year. The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally altered how we interact with the world, both individually and as a society.

For those of us who study health, key questions in our field are now at the forefront of public debates. The pandemic has starkly revealed numerous fractures within our societies—most notably structural inequalities and questions of justice in terms—but it has also highlighted the triumph of human innovation and collective action when people work together to combat a common issue.

In late 2019, I was reading a Hong Kong newspaper that described cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause in China. By the time I arrived in Hong Kong in January 2020, part of a trip to visit professional collaborators as well as family, COVID-19 was front page news. Having experienced SARS in the early 2000s, many people in Hong Kong remember what it is like to live through a pandemic. By Chinese New Year at the end of the month, Wuhan had gone into lockdown; the airport in Hong Kong was virtually empty when I left to return to Boston a few days later.

What I saw happening in China during the lockdown for me epitomized the community spirit that I thought had been lost. Younger people volunteered to go shopping for the elderly and vulnerable so they would not have to put themselves at risk of contracting the virus. With so much talk about China having lost its sense of community to market forces and the race to make money, this unexpected crisis showed how a sense of community still exists in people’s hearts.

That sense of community is also what makes the Fairbank Center such a special place. During lockdown, the Center’s staff have seamlessly transitioned to a remote environment, our scholars have continued to connect with each other and conduct world-class research, and our public outreach efforts have reached wider audiences than ever before.

In the field of China Studies, the challenges of operating remotely have also coincided with a moment of acute elite-level tension between the United States and China. It is against this backdrop of national-level politics and the pandemic that we see the Fairbank Center’s mission to engage colleagues across both sides of the Pacific, and indeed around the world, as more important than ever. We remain firm in our belief that engagement with our colleagues in China in the exchange of ideas is a benefit, rather than a hindrance, to scholarship.

In the case of my own research on China’s health system, collaboration with colleagues in China and around the world will continue to play an important role, and even more so given the potential for continued travel disruption due to the uneven global impact of the pandemic. Our recent work on rapidly ageing populations as an urgent challenge facing Chinese society necessarily requires input from scholars of multiple disciplines and expertise—from labor supply, savings, economic growth, and social and family relationships—in a way that will require a reimagining of how we consider what makes a healthy society. While this is but one example of the kinds of research supported by the Fairbank Center, inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches are increasingly required to answer the big questions facing China Studies. Finding answers to these questions will require collaboration and engagement, and I am proud that the Fairbank Center is able to continue to support the pursuit of such scholarly endeavors.

The end of this academic year has been marked by a sense of optimism that the darkest days of the pandemic are behind us. I hope that as we transition into a post-COVID world and we manage to reduce our concerns about its impact on our daily lives that we will be able to come together to reflect on this past year, to reflect and learn from our collective mistakes, and see how we build a better future for our field and our community, rather than simply return to our pre-pandemic state