Harvard University, Fairbank Center 60th Anniversary, October 7, 2017.

2017-2018: A Year in Review

Michael A. Szonyi comments on the past academic year

Read our 2017-2018 annual report

In my last “Director’s Word” I wrote about the recent celebration of the Fairbank Center’s 60th anniversary. The occasion prompted a series of conversations about the Center’s future direction. The anniversary drew our attention to the enormous diversity of China-related activities across Harvard.

No longer is the Fairbank Center the only place at Harvard where talented scholars and students work on and with China. We have been working hard since the 60th-anniversary celebrations to build the Fairbank Center into a hub for the various China-related activities across Harvard, building connections among schools, departments, and disciplines.

Building new communities of China scholars

We have also tried to expand the Center’s long tradition of contributing to public discourse on China. Whether by inviting scholars from beyond the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to join in our activities and co-hosting events with other China- and Asia-related centers, or by our extensive outreach and social media efforts, the Center is helping to build new communities of China scholars at Harvard and to bring their expertise to a public audience.

Our most visible accomplishment this year is directly tied to our 60th anniversary celebration. The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power, a collection of 36 essays by leading scholars associated with the Center and co-edited by myself and our former Executive Director Jennifer Rudolph, was published by Harvard University Press earlier this year. Each contributor was asked to come up with a question that they thought Americans should be asking about China, and then to sum up their lifetimes of research, reflections, and scholarship in a short, accessible essay in an attempt to provide an answer to the question.

The China Questions exemplifies what we do best at the Fairbank Center. It draws together a range of experts, each of them working in their own disciplines, to advance new and useful knowledge about this rising power.

Asia Center 20th Anniversary Celebration, & 13th Annual Tsai Lecture with The Honorable Kevin Rudd, April 13, 2018. Left to right: Ezra Vogel, Michael Szonyi, Kevin Rudd, and Karen Thornber

Another way in which we advance scholarship on China is through exhibitions of art, film, photography, and other visual media. A highlight of the year was our exhibition of dazibao—or “big character posters”—from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). We believe this was the first-ever exhibition of big-character posters in the United States, and it is certainly the first time that these posters have been displayed outside of China. A standing-room-only panel discussion, featuring faculty, alumni, and associates marked the opening event of the exhibition. I was particularly struck by the many visitors who came to the exhibition; some of them were familiar faces, but many were involved for the first time in the activities of the Fairbank Center.

Onlookers at our Dazibao Exhibition

We receive many impressive visitors to the Fairbank Center each year, including scholars, practitioners, and public figures from Greater China, East Asia, and North America. These visitors represent a wide range of well-informed views and experiences. For example, during the last year we welcomed a prominent film studies scholar who has faced significant political pressure for holding a commemoration of the events of June 4th 1989 as well as a scholar from a college of Marxism and other China Studies scholars from across the globe. It is precisely the range of views and experiences represented here that makes the Fairbank Center a world-leading place to study China.

A world-leading place to study China

As always, our events calendar continues to be full. We hosted or co-sponsored a total of 180 events during the past academic year, working with more than thirty other centers and departments across the Harvard campus and beyond. Our nine faculty-led lecture series continue to draw leading scholars to present their work to a Harvard audience and our conferences and panel discussions filled our lecture halls. Some of the highlights of this year’s events included a public forum featuring the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the United States, Cui Tiankai; an “instant analysis” panel on the 19th Party Congress; and special events featuring Harvard Kennedy School colleagues Nicholas Burns and Graham Allison.

China ambassador to US, Cui Tiankai, discusses US China relations with Michael Szonyi, Director of the Fairbank Center and Professor of Chinese History at Austin Hall, HLS. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer.

Although 2017-2018 was a banner year for the Fairbank Center and for China Studies at Harvard, the same cannot be said for U.S.-China relations. Mistrust and misunderstanding seem to be growing on both sides of our shared Pacific Ocean, and there are already many in the U.S. who wonder about the possibilities for continued constructive engagement. Meanwhile, developments within China are also raising concerns among many scholars. Issues of academic and intellectual freedom do not exhaust the list of such concerns, but as scholars we are obviously especially concerned that these freedoms, and the relative openness that have served China so well during the last forty years, be maintained.

At the Fairbank Center, we will continue to pursue world-class, objective, and important research on all aspects of China—past, present, and future. We will continue to inform the public and elevate the national conversation about China. Where appropriate, we will also attempt to share our expertise to support the work of policy makers. While in general terms our course is clear, I welcome your thoughts about how the Fairbank Center should adjust to our changing environment.