Carla Freeman's Response
Two Freemans and a Changing China
Remarks at the Center for China-US Cooperation, University of Denver
May 4, 2016
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
I am delighted to be here in Denver to join my father, Ambassador Chas. Freeman, at tonight’s discussion. This is a first ever father daughter duet on China and heartfelt thanks for this special opportunity go to Dean Hill, Professor Zhao, and the Center for China-US Cooperation here at the Korbel School for the occasion.
Like my father, I like to think that my fascination with China may be in part genetic – or more accurately epigenetic—at its source. I am almost certain that John R. Freeman and Robert E. Park have been watching China’s extraordinary development with awe from whatever cloud engineers and sociologists float around on when they leave this world. But my own efforts to learn something about China and international relations of the past decades owe everything to the experiences to which my father’s service as a diplomat led me and the rest of my family. I have long admired my father’s fluency in Chinese, which he learned with a rambunctious young family in tow at an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented pace—going from not a nihao of Chinese at all to interpreter level in less than two years. He did this, not just through aptitude, but through total immersion. This included making our home an entirely Chinese-speaking household during the period of his study in Taichung, a dedication that went so far as to involve his translating the books he read out loud after family dinner to me and my brothers—Ruizhen, Ruiwei, and Ruixiang – into Chinese. All books were fair game—even those full of Elvish poetry: The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Trilogy—huobiteren and the mojie shou, er, san buqu were among the story books he spontaneously translated to us into Chinese (I can’t remember if we enjoyed this or not).
In addition to Dad’s language abilities, which have enabled him to add other languages beside Chinese to his repertoire as well, I also admire the many contributions he has made as a diplomat. These go beyond the work that he has done involving China. My admiration also extends to his determined and sometimes controversial efforts in more recent years on behalf of using diplomacy as an instrument of state power in the service of national interests, even when I personally disagree with his views on some areas of policy.
As my father mentioned, I am trained as a scholar of contemporary China and China’s interaction with the world. In recent years, since joining the wonderful China program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies as a member of its China Studies faculty — where I did my own graduate work and where we now teach 16-18 different classes a year on contemporary China—I have come to study China as a scholar in a more focused and disciplined way. I found my path to the study of China in pursuit of what has emerged as a personal mission, shaped by my life as a child and student, first in Taiwan and then, later, in Beijing, at a time when the US-PRC relationship was just quickening and there was an efflorescence of interchange between the two societies. Living in Beijing in the very early 1980s, I began to understand the costs to both countries of the decades of US-China estrangement; as I learned more, I came to understand its costs to global prosperity as well. And, coming of age as the two societies enjoyed their honeymoon of reengagement later in the decade, I could see the early fruits of a healthy, normal relationship between Washington and Beijing—including in the many life shaping personal relationships I forged with Chinese friends. As Beijing came alive with new commercial and intellectual activity, I could imagine even greater mutual benefits. Working to promote a healthy US-China relationship through mutual understanding seemed to me a worthy endeavor, one that I might be able to contribute to in my own small way.
As a scholar now working within a research university, I see my job as observing developments in China and then interpreting what I observe as accurately and objectively as possible. This is a purpose or function very different from that of a diplomat. As Ambassador Freeman commented, a diplomat seeks to exercise influence over other countries’ policies on behalf of their own. From my academic perch, I can only hope that through the processes I engage in—research, writing and teaching—I am contributing at least a little bit to fostering greater mutual understanding that may somehow feed into mutually beneficial policies. As an area studies specialist focused on China—and specifically focused on the domestic factors shaping Chinese foreign policy, unlike some of my colleagues who think about international relations with greater abstraction, models and theories offer me valuable heuristics by which to make the best possible sense out of my observations. But, my favorite approach to research on China is observing (or in fact listening) to the way that Chinese themselves interpret their world. I try to use insights drawn from what I learn from my efforts to try to explain China’s behavior—ideally by talking to people involved in or affected by policy at all levels of Chinese governance.
There are some challenges to doing this kind of research in China as an American scholar, particularly these days and, perhaps, particularly as a scholar based in an institution that is located in the US capital on so-called “think tank row.” My father spoke about empathy as a key tool in diplomacy and how that can be a source of confusion to non-diplomats—even those in government—who may misinterpret diplomats’ communications about what may be distasteful policies on the part of China, for example, as an endorsement of those positions. As an academic focused on aspects of contemporary Chinese policy, the presentation of Chinese perspectives unadulterated by normative interpretation also runs the risk of rebuke—in Washington especially, those seen as too empathetic to China can be dismissed or even decried as “panda huggers,” among other appellations. These days, China, with its global influence and increasingly assertive insistence on a world view and an approach to managing policy that reflect “Chinese characteristics,” is an object of rising suspicion in widening policy circles. I hope that US-based China experts will continue to present what they see happening in China and China policy, even those involving unpalatable policies by Beijing, in an objective way. This is vital to the kind of understanding that, at the most, has the potential to contribute to an atmosphere for cooperative rather than hostile behavior from both our leaders and our societies and, at the least, can help mitigate the misjudgment that is too often the context for conflict.
At the same time, Beijing itself is making it harder for foreign scholars to provide nuanced and granular views of Chinese perspectives. I have only anecdotal evidence for this, but there appear to be more subject areas in the so-called sensitive zone that foreign scholars—and American scholars in particular— may have trouble investigating in China. The zone includes familiar contemporary issues like policies toward Tibet and Xinjiang that intersect with contested views of human rights. It also extends to historical research as well, largely through more restricted access by scholars to archives, for example. These constraints are being imposed alongside more Chinese oversight of foreign journalists as well as greater controls by Beijing on the activities of foreign non-governmental organizations, reinforced by a new law granting China’s Ministry of Public Security oversight of foreign NGOS, effective next year.
China’s leaders may be persuaded that these new policies are the correct ones, but subjecting information and discourse within China to greater government control and making foreign ideas less welcome can have a chilling effect on constructive, cooperative interactions between the two countries. One of my colleagues recently described to me how in the 1990s the World Bank had over 10,000 people working with it on World Bank-led projects across China, with most of these partners Chinese local-level administrators. Today, one recalls this extraordinary partnership between China and an organization founded outside China and based in Washington DC with nostalgia. It’s worth noting that China’s World Bank partnership had enormous benefits for China’s development and also that Beijing today plays an important role in leading the World Bank, with the Bank’s number two position, the chief administrative officer and managing director, held by an official from the Chinese Ministry of Finance.
I am conscious that today is the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Then, the failure of the Western Allies to restore Chinese sovereignty in the Treaty of Versailles dashed the hopes and dreams of Chinese youth, catalyzing the intellectual and social ferment out of which China’s Communist Party emerged. The restoration of China’s international power and prestige against the betrayal of the West became a rallying cry that inspired the construction of a new Chinese political and social order. Today, the same rallying cry, now sounded out across a globally powerful and still rising China, a China that is beginning to flex its muscles beyond its borders, is also inspiring international insecurity.
As my father observed in bringing his remarks to a close, China is now transforming itself in ways that make all of us who “watch” it far less certain about where its future may take it. What I can predict with confidence is that I’ve made at least a few remarks with which my father will disagree, and that he will set me straight. Thanks again for the chance to share my thoughts with you and I look forward to a discussion with all of you in the Q & A.