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Research Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen

Opinion: Oliver Moore about Branch Campus Yantai

01 February 2018

Abandoning plans for Groningen’s Chinese branch campus Groningen Yantai is an impoverishment

An abbreviated version of the following opinion piece is due to appear in the Groningen UK.

OLIVER MOORE, Chair, Chinese Language & Culture, RUG

The decision to abandon further efforts to found the branch campus Groningen Yantai, announced on 29 January 2018 is a catastrophe. It is a humiliating retreat from what a university engagement could be in realizing the potential for joint discourse and intellectual discovery. It is a descent from a terrain of respectable and respectful lines of intellectual, social and economic enquiry down to the high street where the gossipy currency of news is predictable and repetitive. Universities are democracies of the mind, in which ideas are tested to breaking point and beyond. Political discussion in Groningen has certainly reached a breaking point, but it is of a different category, with little if any relation to science.

The cancellation of opportunities betokens a lack of adventure that does not dignify humanistic and scientific enquiry. Others will carry on with the challenge. They include, on the one hand, the giants of corporate enterprise, and on the other the richest and most exceptional universities outside China, especially the United States’ biggest players whose loyal alumni endow their staff and students to do almost anything that has the potential to enrich knowledge and transcend the limits of transnational and -cultural understanding. I begrudge neither of these groups their future success and trust that they will behave honestly, but I regret that my university has been forced to throw away a chance to compete.

China is rising to heights of unprecedented power. That brings threats as well as opportunities. The pressures in China today are intense. I visit China regularly, and admire much in what I observe of her citizens’ lives, their ongoing achievements, their optimism and drive. I love the courtesy and civility that I so often meet. By contrast, I hate censorship; I hate the political control of knowledge; I hate the lack of an independent judiciary; I hate the Chinese state’s more brutal displays of power. I will never look back with fondness on a morning in 1997 when I went out into a small provincial city and came face to face with a public execution parade. I visit China; I do not live there. It would be presumptuous to claim that I share the pressures of life in China with its permanent residents. What antagonizes me for a few weeks in China is what her citizens must negotiate every day. They negotiate it generally very well, and I have learned not a few life lessons that work just as well outside the country as in it.

What pulls me back to this country? I am fascinated by its history and its cultural, commercial and economic achievements. I study these with all the usual scholarly kit, but I test what I study by going back to meet people to talk with: old friends and new introductions. No society that I have ever entered is more generous with its introductions. And, in all my experiences (since 1982) I have constantly noticed a degree of frankness concerning Chinese society’s failings no more or less honest than what I am familiar with in Europe. The more I visit, the more I am convinced that most of the famous differences between us are exaggerated.

Dealing with China requires nuance. And it requires sticking power: not dealing with China is not a sensible course of action. And, it is a long process whose importance will endure for many generations. I am not unaware of how Western democracies sometimes flounder in the face of a waking giant. I am not entranced by the spectacle of European politicians talking up trade deals with a government that they might more consistently yellow-card for its poor attention to basic legal assurances inscribed in its own constitution. But, I am also sufficiently realist to recognize that I make difficult demands from the vantage point of one whose profession privileges critiquing the world above engaging with it more directly. That, however, does not translate into disengaged.

For all that there are so many things to deplore in China, how exactly intolerant of her shortcomings should we be? Take the Humanities, the academic field that I know best. I agree with Martha Nussbaum that the Humanities in China lag far behind what different conditions might allow them to achieve (Not for Profit). My own tasks have recently steered me to increase my understanding of Humanities teaching in Dutch schools. I was appalled some weeks ago to read a Dutch school newsletter explaining to parents and pupils that the provision of Greek and Latin would soon be terminated in favour of a timetable for Chinese. If schools can abolish Greek and Latin, what can they not abolish from the fundament of European identity? But, ask another question: did the Chinese government arrange this?

I work in the Humanities. When translated into real engagements, these require academics’ responsibility for policies and politics, inflected not least by openness. Recent historical publications now narrate the rise of nationhood outside Europe as evolutions that are not always quite as nice as we would like them to be. Only the most juvenile history would deny that violent forces of change, revolution and confrontation have made our world what it is today. Pankaj Mishra’s provocative study of modern Asian history (From the Ruins of Empire) thrusts towards a new conscience of what forced China and other Asian states to arrive in their present conditions. Strikingly, his account draws its logic far from the Western centres that loomed large in the lives and thinking of its main protagonists. Groningen Yantai was intended to achieve more than writing history. But if the subject was to function as part of the Humanities in this enterprise—although there was little debate that got this far—then trying to pursue a re-imagination of China’s status in the modern world according to unexpected and conveniently overlooked priorities is still a scientific pursuit.  

China quite simply is. How will you make her not? Does China’s social reality so disgust us that, as Bertolt Brecht would quip, we need to re-elect it? Or, is there a different China out there, one still eluding Voltairian perfection as the best of all possible Chinas? Ironically, Voltaire glorified China in order to condemn the repressive autocracy that reigned in the country he had fled. Have we gone through the looking glass? Do we now decry China as the straw man onto which to fling torches of outrage over conditions everywhere else?

There is institutionalized censorship in China. Yet it hardly bars all visitors from entering China; it fails almost universally to close down private conversation; if you listen carefully, it seldom outpaces the hope and imagination for reform and change. I wish it were not there, but it meanwhile hardly stands in the way of what anyone wishes to talk about—no more in China than in most other places. (Or are individuals in China ineloquent, incompetent and stupid?) It does not have to damage the opportunities for a member of the European mob such as I to get to know China better. Yes, some foreign observers may write opinions and factual truths that so vex the political authorities that they are consequently barred from receiving a travel visa. It happens. And, while it is a heavy burden for a few to carry, it represents for many more both in- and outside China a barometer of awaited change.

Recent Groningen reporting of censorship has not risen above manipulative partiality. On 26 August 2017 NOS Nieuwsuur broadcast an interview in which a member of the University Council rightly noted that, Cambridge University Press, pressured by Chinese government demands, took an ill-informed decision to strip a number of critical articles off the Chinese web edition of the journal China Quarterly. What was not said is that five days earlier, following an international outcry, the Press had retracted its poorly thought-out decision and issued instructions to restore the articles (The Guardian, 21 August, 2017). By conveniently ignoring this, members of the Council dishonour the efforts that collegial allies are willing to make in order to stand up for press freedom and to kick back. Mangling of an important story betrays a parochial lack of awareness towards RUG’s potential standing within an international union of institutions willing to contribute to an adventure’s safety and to share its risks. Cambridge University Press acted, because it heard the outcry from academic stakeholders as far afield as Paris, Washington, Canberra, Hong Kong.

Opinions aired in Groningen concerning the Yantai adventure have referred even to the dangers of self-censorship. This is risible. Why does anyone have to travel to China to impose censorship upon her- or himself? Or, have they been asked to apply for Chinese citizenship and to reside in China permanently? Besides, how does this charge of self-censorship—whose real author of commission is presumably the Chinese state—make any judicial sense ahead of the moment that we turn up in China and begin gloriously self-censoring ourselves?

The steadily diminishing Groningen debate on its future involvement in China has tumbled to a rapid and depressing conclusion. The indignity is shaming. In the last few months, discussion has sunk to the level of a mad music. As a UK citizen (who has lived in the Netherlands for twenty years), I feel as though I am swimming in a maelstrom like that of Brexit, but this time recycled up to coordinates far larger than the ranting British Isles whose hapless people, Salman Rushdie’s creation S.S. Sisodia stutters, hardly know their own history, because it all happened overseas. Both debates are defined by dangerously misplaced anger, the sort that Nick Clegg (formerly MP for Sheffield Hallam and the UK’s Deputy PM during the recent coalition government) recalls of Sheffield constituents who in 2016 voted against UK membership of the EU to spite not Brussels but London. We are wallowing in a similarly fireless kiln of political opinion, in which anger has long since combusted any sense of agenda, and a fearful coyness precludes any attempt to reignite a discourse of empowered imagination.

I mention Brexit, because I deplore political fallacies that destroy opportunities. Abandoning Groningen Yantai may keep us safe from the risks of failure, but it will squander opportunities for Chinese aspirants to new experiences of education, thinking and criticism, not least to the ways in which they are practiced in Groningen, The Netherlands and Europe. Education progresses via reform and unprejudiced access, and sometimes via daring decisions that aim to enhance the educational opportunities and life chances for whatever numbers of students practical constraints will allow. This has long been so. Should that controversial 19th-century heretic Benjamin Jowett, master of Balliol College in Oxford, not have insisted that his college become the first to admit students from outside Europe and the white Americas? Alexander Lindsay, a later college master and a socialist, believed in spreading aristocratic values through the whole of the British people. In absolute terms, futile; and, in measurable ones, impossible to report; but, a worthy try.

Progess is a risk venture. The two halves in a now broken deal risked. We will not find out—or find out too late—if the Yantai government and the Chinese leadership saw Groningen as a chance to turn towards a European institution and its values. Did they prefer Dutch society and politics to those of say the more illiberal extremists now in Hungary or Poland? Was it our international Dutch hotbed of tolerants, dissenters, scientists, humanists, journalists and lawyers—who even put up with Voltaire briefly—that drove some in China’s communist leadership to take a risk on the possible outcomes? Maybe dialectical materialism includes extra room for the vagaries of chance, unpredictable destinations and unknowable opportunities? Such suppositions must now remain untested.

Last modified:21 February 2020 4.11 p.m.

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