2019-2020 Director’s Word

Reflections on a Somber Year

Few years in history can be said to be transformational, but 2020 will surely be counted among them.

Usually, my Director’s Word for the Fairbank Center Annual Report is a chance to talk about our successes of the past twelve months, our achievements as a world-class research center, and our plans for the coming academic year. While we have certainly achieved a lot this year, a maelstrom of events has fundamentally altered our activities. Plans for the future remain uncertain and will continue to be shaped by factors beyond our control.

The tragic spread of COVID-19 across the globe continues to bring unforeseen challenges. The performance of the Fairbank Center team this past semester was remarkable. They creatively reimagined how to operate the Center in a remote environment by rapidly shifting our activities to online platforms, and in the process attracted new and larger audiences than ever before. I am also immensely proud of our efforts to channel resources to those most affected by the pandemic: students whose research and in some cases, whose very lives have been upended. At a time of immense personal and professional hardship for many, we have redoubled efforts to support our community of scholars.

The past several months have served as a stark reminder that our work does not take place in a vacuum. Trying to make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its implications spanning health, politics, history, technology, the environment, economics, and the arts and humanities, reminds us of the limitations of traditional disciplinary boundaries. The global scale of the pandemic has revealed how interconnected are our respective areas of study, and how much we are bound up in the contemporary moment.

As a U.S.-based center for the study of China, the shifting tides of U.S.-China relations have long influenced both our purpose and our research capabilities. Unfortunately, the state of the bilateral relationship is worsening. But rather than succumb to negativity, perhaps we can take from the current point of crisis a renewed sense of purpose in our work. At a time when anti-China sentiment is provoked by the most senior leadership in the U.S. government, and Beijing continues to stoke tensions with any whom it deems oppositional, we stand by our mission of pursuing teaching and research on Greater China. What is increasingly clear, moreover, is that our research cannot be separated from our own moral commitments.

Current circumstances are leading us to confront fundamental questions about the future of China Studies in the United States. Even setting aside the limitations imposed by the pandemic, many of us face new restrictions and new concerns about our ability to travel to and conduct research in mainland China or even in Hong Kong, where academic freedom has not previously been a major concern. Furthermore, the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, where measures such as the euphemistically-named “re-education centers” appear aimed at nothing less than the erasure of Uyghur identity, demand our attention as responsible commentators on China.

Closer to home, the heightened politicization of China studies in the U.S. (and the West generally), which has led some to question the legitimacy and value of academic engagement with China, poses a fundamental challenge to the Fairbank Center and our peer institutions. U.S. government policies that are inimical to the free movement of students and scholars from China make our work that much harder, and that much more important. In circumstances like these, it is ethically impossible for us to pretend that scholarship on China, in whatever discipline, can be separated from politics.

The present moment, in which all of us are engaged in so much online activity, raises other issues of special but not unique concern to everyone in China studies. As colleagues such as Prof. Meg Rithmire have thoughtfully commented, online classes bring additional challenges to how we teach and how we approach questions of digital security, especially the security of our students studying online in China.

Although the situations in China and the U.S. are not equivalent, both require our attention. Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. and around the world necessitate a grappling with questions of how to dismantle systemic racism and inequality, and the need for greater diversity within our own fields of study and more broadly. As Dean Claudine Gay wrote after the death of George Floyd, we still have a long way to go to change ingrained prejudices, but “the fight for change requires our resilience.” At the Fairbank Center, we are making efforts to not merely pay lip service to this fight but to think about how we can restructure our activities so that, at the very least, we can play a supportive role in addressing these issues.

Solutions to all these questions must begin locally. In the case of our engagement with China, relations between those in the White House and those in Zhongnanhai may grow increasingly tense by the day, but I stand by my previous assessment that the U.S.-China relationship cannot be “fixed” by our respective political leaders. Instead, as I said at the Harvard College China Forum last year, we would do well to consider our bilateral relations not as a single, abstract relationship, but as multiple real relationships embodied in personal connections.

As scholars, researchers, teachers, and students, we participate in our own personal version of this relationship every day, as we engage with the complex and rich range of experiences that texture the connections bridging our shared Pacific. It is this model of engagement – an active willingness to better understand – that makes possible our effective analysis, nuanced understanding and sometimes criticism of China. And it is this understanding that both imbues our work with renewed resolution and assigns a personal responsibility to each one of us in the broad church of China Studies.

This August, normally a period of calm before the semester, the Fairbank Center made international news. Having learned of the firing of Tsinghua University Professor Xu Zhangrun, we decided after consultation with faculty to offer him an affiliation as Fairbank Center Associate-in-Research. Although it was not our intention for this to become a public gesture, Xu’s powerful letter of thanks (available in translation here) attracted considerable media attention. Our offer of affiliation was largely symbolic, but symbols matter. Our commitment to intellectual freedom is unwavering, and we will continue – as we have done often before in our more than sixty-year history – to support, as best as we can, colleagues whose work runs afoul of political authority.

I will be taking a long-delayed sabbatical for the 2020-21 academic year, and will therefore be handing over leadership of Center to Professor Winnie (Chi-Man) Yip. Professor Yip is Professor of the Practice of Global Health Policy and Economics in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and also Director of the China Health Partnership. As a scholar of health, and as the Center’s first director from Asia, she brings an important perspective to the Center’s leadership. I know the Fairbank Center will be in capable hands during my absence. At a time when global health is on everyone’s mind, I look forward to Professor Yip’s initiatives to bring together scholars from across Harvard, in collaboration with colleagues in China, to contribute to new research that will help address those problems that affect us all.

I offer you my best wishes for good health, and a happy and productive academic year.