Age of Anxiety: More Dispatches from the Chinese Conference Circuit

If it is July in China, it must be conference season. While American academic meeting are spread throughout the year, ones in China seem to be packed into the summer months. If an conference organizer wants the event to be “international”—and many do—it is easier to secure the participation of foreigners, particularly from the United States, in the summer and not, say, February.

The rhythms, formalities and language of a Chinese academic conference are quite distinct from American ones. First, lets look at style. A Chinese conference will have an opening and closing ceremony with various leaders thanking each other for helping put together the conference and discuss the significance of the topic. These speeches are more about statistics than real substance: so many people from so many countries participated, there were so panels on such and such topics. An opening and closing ceremony implies formality—suits and ties—but in fact some people wear T-shirts and shorts. The same goes for the conference itself, no one wears a tie. Though the sartorial freedom for American academics, especially younger ones, generally ends when a conference begins (no one looking for a job wants to come across as a ruffian), in China the freedom to wear what you want extends through the conference. After the opening ceremony comes most important part of the conference: the group picture. If there is not a group picture, it is as though the conference did not actually happen. There needs to be photographic evidence that a certain group of people gathered in a certain place at the same time to discuss a certain topic. The conference program does not cut it.

Next, especially from the graduate student perspective, the financial arrangements for Chinese conferences come as pleasant surprise. Unlike American conferences where travel, lodging and food are generally self-financed or partially covered through a small institutional grant, some Chinese conferences cover the costs of hotels and meals and perhaps provide a travel subsidy or reimbursement. Of course, these arrangements involve a sacrifice of some freedom. Instead of being on your own in a new city to explore various restaurant options, you end up eating at the same hotel restaurant nine times over three days. These arrangements get at perhaps the biggest difference between American and Chinese conferences: the former provides more freedom while the later more stability.

Moving from style to substance, the July conference circuit revealed some abstract but important worries within the Chinese academic community. Though the new book by Evan Osnos, the former New Yorker correspondent in Beijing, is titled Age of Ambition, listening to the opinions of political scientists, international relations scholars and professors in media and communication studies, a more appropriate title for the book might have been Age of Anxiety.

As one professor of media studies at Peoples University of China (人民大学) nicely summarized, one of the biggest worries in China, from the point of view of the government as well as intellectuals, is that China has no values to offer the world. It can’t talk about freedom or democracy. It can’t really talk about free trade. It can’t really talk about human rights.  At the moment, the only real concepts floating about are the Chinese Dream (中国梦), ideas about a peaceful rise (和平崛起) and Xi Jinping’s nascent and evolving rhetoric about an international relations security architecture “Asia for Asians.” The China Dream suffers from two important drawbacks: no one knows what it is and, by its nature, it is meant for domestic consumption and not for export. The peaceful rise of China is not a value with universal appeal but a reassurance to the rest of the world that looks increasingly hollow. Xi’s nascent talk about the evolving nature of Asian security architecture can easily be interpreted as simply another version of Japanese rhetoric in the period before and during World War II. None of these ideas have much crossover appeal.

At an academic level, this anxiety manifests itself in terms of creating Chinese theories of international relations, of communication of media studies, of sociology and in any of the other social sciences. Think if it in this way: the United States maintains a negative balance of trade with China, with more imports than exports. In intellectual exchange, however, the terms of trade are just the opposite. The U.S. exported theories in the major academic disciplines to China but Chinese intellectuals did not have much to offer in order to balance the trade in intellectual discourse. American faces a trade deficit but China faces an idea deficit.

The key dynamic at play here is whether Chinese intellectuals focus on critiquing theories produced in Western countries, in certain times and places, or whether they set out to create specifically home-made Chinese theories of international relations, communication or a host of other disciplines. At first glance, not much appears to separate these two positions, but in fact they are quite different. Several prominent American academics at July conferences noted that major theories entrenched in academic discourse were created by Caucasian from the Untied States and Europe and emerged and solidified in the years after World War II. These theories deserve to be critiqued. Doing so from different points of view enhances academic discourse. Creating Chinese-centered theories, however, risk the same shortcomings that plague current theories.

Historians, first personally inclined and later professional trained to, as Hu Shi advocates, talk less about –isms and more about problems, are not burdened by creating theories. Their task is already great enough—trying to explain how China has changed over time. At the 6th annual conference on Late Qing history sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, there was no mention of theories but plenty of talk about politics, personalities, reforms and missed chances.

No matter at the level of theory or fact, there is still a lot to talk about at next summer’s conference circuit.

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