Few Western academics would aspire to teach political theory in an authoritarian setting. Surely the free, uninhibited flow of discussion is crucial to our enterprise. When I tell my Western friends that I gave up a tenured, high-paying job in relatively free Hong Kong for a contractual post at Tsinghua University in Beijing, they think I’ve gone off my rocker. I explain that it’s a unique opportunity for me: it’s the first time Tsinghua has hired a foreigner in the humanities since the revolution; Tsinghua trains much of China’s political elite, and I might be able to make a difference by teaching that elite; the students are talented, curious, hardworking, and it’s a pleasure to engage with them; the political future of China is wide open, and I’ll be well placed to observe the changes when they happen. Still, I do not deny that teaching political theory in China has been challenging. This has to do partly with political constraints. But it’s not all about politics. Even if China became a Western-style liberal democracy overnight, there would still be cultural obstacles to deal with. In this essay, I will discuss some of these political and cultural challenges.
The willingness to put up with political constraints depends partly upon one’s history. In my case, I had taught at the National University of Singapore in the early 1990s. There, the head of the department was a member of the ruling People’s Action Party. He was soon replaced by another head, who asked to see my reading lists and informed me that I should teach more communitarianism (the subject of my doctoral thesis) and less John Stuart Mill. Naturally, this made me want to do the opposite. Strange people would show up in my classroom when I spoke about “politically sensitive” topics, such as Karl Marx’s thought. Students would clam up when I used examples from local politics to illustrate arguments. It came as no surprise when my contract was not renewed.
In comparison, China is a paradise of academic freedom. Among colleagues, anything goes (in Singapore, most local colleagues were very guarded when dealing with foreigners). Academic publications are surprisingly free: there aren’t any personal attacks on leaders or open calls for multiparty rule, but particular policies, such as the household registry system, which limits internal mobility, are subject to severe criticism. In 2004, state television, for the first time in history, broadcast the U.S. presidential elections live, without any obvious political slant. (I suspect that the turmoil surrounding the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, along with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, discredited U.S.-style democracy among many Chinese, and the government has less to fear from the model.) More surprisingly, perhaps, I was not given any explicit (or implicit, as far as I could tell) guidance regarding what I could teach at ...
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