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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Giving Authoritarianism Its Due: Teaching "Western Values" (Like Hobbes' Unlimited Executive Sovereignty) in Shanghai

I am spending the Spring Term teaching U.S. Constitutional Law at NYU's Shanghai campus, a product of a partnership between NYU, East China Normal University (ECNU), and the Shanghai municipal government. One common and completely natural reaction to this program is suspicion that, by dealing so closely with a government not famed for its protection of academic freedom, NYU is somehow selling out its values in order to get a foothold in the Chinese market for higher education.
This February, Yaxue Cao posted one such expression of suspicion on her "China Change" blog: Boiled down to its essentials, her post asked whether Chinese money and oversight caused faculty members to self-censor ourselves or otherwise change what we teach to suit Chinese authorities. In response, I shared my syllabus with Yaxue and, in our ensuing email exchange, I explained that, while I could not speak for anyone else at NYY-Shanghai, I myself am teaching exactly what I want with the usual lack of oversight enjoyed by any prof teaching at NYU in Washington Square. AS an example of my unhindered freedom, my course requires the students to compare U.S. and Chinese constitutional rules and concepts, and, as background for this comparison, I assign "sensitive" documents like the infamous "Document Number 9," an internal Chinese Communist Party document urging careful controls on the infiltration of "western" ideas like constitutionalism, freedom of speech, and civil society into universities and newspapers. Very 敏感, as CCP officials are prone to say.

I am not, however, taking my freedom as an opportunity to preach "western" ideas of constitutionalism (whatever they might be) to my students. Instead, I am inclined to take the CCP's principles about constitutional government seriously and remain agnostic about whether their authoritarian system is better or worse than the American system of speech libertarianism, competitive political parties, and separation of powers. As part of this agnosticism, I have divided my students into two teams, the "Maoist Leftists" (mascots: Mao and Lenin) and "Western Liberals" (mascots: Locke and Madison) who are assigned the job of trying to persuade the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the CCP either (depending on their team) to adopt or reject American-style judicial review, limits on executive power, and limits on subnational discrimination against non-residents (the so-called hukou system). The Maoist Leftists' task of making the case against "western" constitutionalism is just as important as the Western Liberals' job of defending this congeries of concepts. I take Hobbes, Filmer, Fisher Ames (telling Jefferson to mind his own business on the Alien & Sedition Acts), and Lincoln (suspending habeas corpus and telling Taney to go to hell) just as seriously as Locke or Madison in this course.

Why give authoritarianism its due in this way? After the jump, I give my reasons, which are, in brief, that the true experience of a liberal education is to be skeptical about liberalism.

More specifically, consider three reasons that even a dedicated "western liberal" might take anti-liberal authoritarian ideas about constitutionalism seriously:

1. Missionaries discredit the ideas that they preach: China has had horse doctors' doses of western missionaries, from the Christian ones of the 19th century to the Marxist ones like Michael Borodin of the twentieth. I am not inclined to join their ranks. Even if I were inclined to serve as a Fifth Column to spread some sort of American constitutional propaganda, the worst way to do so would be to play the role of a preacher. Nationalistic hostility to western ideas, especially among young people, runs deep in China. Disliking a practice for no better reason than its foreign origins is completely natural -- witness, for example, American conservatives' suspicion of soccer -- so getting preachy about the beauties of American system of government is a sure way to discredit that system in the eyes of Chinese. Better, I think, to model good behavior, by holding a completely open debate in which the prof does not play the role of Great Helmsman but instead lets everyone make up their own mind.

2. Authoritarianism is as "western" and American as Liberalism: There is an important anti-liberal tradition in the West. To understand Locke, one needs to appreciate Filmer and Hobbes. To take seriously Jefferson's case against the Alien & Sedition Act, one needs to take seriously Fisher Ames' and John Adams' argument that the marketplace of ideas is a failed marketplace in need of governmental correction. The idea that a strong executive should brush aside courts to get things done is as American as apple pie -- or as American as Abraham Lincoln, telling Taney where he can stuff his Ex Parte Merryman order. (Yes, I teach Merryman in my class). By giving authoritarianism its due in the American constitutional tradition, one upends the popular contrast between "western" liberalism and allegedly "eastern" (or "Asian" or "Chinese") notions of power and authority. We, too, have a political tradition based on filial piety and deference to authority (Filmer's Patriacha and, more generally, the western tradition of defining a political hierarchy based on the "Great Chain of Being" in which everyone has a "natural" place). Taking seriously western authoritarianism is not only a good way of putting liberal ideas into their proper context but also of exploding the the notion that authoritarianism is somehow indigenously or distinctively "Chinese" rather than -- quite ofte -- just another foreign import from some westerner like Lenin or Carl Schmitt.

3. It is hard to take liberalism seriously unless one takes authoritarianism seriously: The slogans of American constitutionalism -- the marketplace of ideas, ambition countering ambition, the least dangerous branch, etc. -- are often just a bunch of empty cliches to American students. Being part of our consensus, they cannot really be taken seriously as ideas worth discussing. In China, these platitudes can be seen for what they really are -- weird and even possibly dangerous notions that might not actually be true. Why believe, for instance, that the political nation will be able to distinguish truth from falsehood in publications about public figures? American students shrug and say, "because New York Times v. Sullivan (or Brandeis or Chaffee or Tom Emerson) said so." Chinese authoritarians -- yes, I've met a few now -- actually push back, such that one can have an interesting discussion. "You do not let consumers assess the merits of toothpaste on their own, without governmental guidance," one Left Maoist told me: "Why trust them to tease apart claims about economics and politics?" Good question, actually.

There is something refreshing about being forced to defend in China basic ideas that tend to be unquestioned orthodoxy back home. Such a defense actually treats those ideas with more respect than the unthinking -- one might even say, authoritarian -- acquiescence that they enjoy in the USA. Giving authoritarianism its due, in other words, might be the only way to give liberalism its due.

Posted by Rick Hills on February 22, 2015 at 04:02 AM | Permalink


Thanks Douglas, for that information. My impression, admittedly based on only a few weeks' teaching and some conversations with Old China Hands, is that language might be the key point: One can say and even publish whatever one wants in English, perhaps because academic English has little chance of going viral on Weibo or any other venue popular among ordinary Chinese.

As for "the Party," I always wonder whether it should ever be spoken of in the singular. The Party is a 'they,' not an 'it,' after all. My coffee house conversations with several CCP members, including some Shanghai officials, suggests that many Party members would like to promote rather than censor freer discussion, at least in academic venues where the danger of speech erupting into a "mass incident" seems low. (These party members themselves certainly let loose at fancy Xintiandi coffee joints about Party leaders' corruption, laziness, and sheer incompetence).

Maybe the English/Mandarian line provides an easy way for the CCP to have it both ways and accommodate both the Left Maoists and the Western Liberals in their own ranks.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Feb 24, 2015 5:44:35 AM

Prof. Hills,
Thanks for sharing your experiences. I and my colleagues at Peking University School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen have had the same experience - no restrictions of any kind on what we say or do in the classroom. The Party has apparently decided that letting the foreigners teach what they want in English does not pose a threat to Party rule.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Feb 23, 2015 12:38:12 PM

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