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Sunday, March 22, 2015

NYU's Fight Against Isolationism in Shanghai: The Analogy to Iran

Recently, I engaged in a (I hope) good-natured fight with Steve Diamond over whether NYU’s presence in Shanghai is beneficial or harmful to the cause of Chinese civil liberties. You can read the points and counterpoints in the comments on my blog post. There is, however, one question that I did not ask Steve and the rest of the critics of “NYU-Shanghai,” NYU’s partnership with East China Normal University to provide a NYU-style education to Chinese students in China. Does it worry them just a little bit that their most vociferous allies in China are the Left Maoist enemies of “western values”?

Although Steve and others claim to speak on behalf of workers, feminists, farmers, and others abused by the Chinese Communist Party, they have yet (to my knowledge) been able to cite a single Chinese victim of the CCP who wants NYU to leave China. My own conversations with Beida academics who are also civil rights advocates in China suggest, indeed, that the people in China standing up for liberty are happy that NYU is in China. By contrast, Chinese nationalists denounce the presence of western academics in China, treating even on-line college courses from western sources as a dangerous virus. Like Steve, they seem to want us to leave. I would think that this neo-Maoist endorsement of the idea that westerners should get out of the business of educating Chinese would make people like Steve a bit uneasy. If NYU’s program here in Shanghai makes no contribution to liberty, as Steve asserted, then why do the enemies of liberty dislike it so much? They want to throw us out, Steve want us to leave: Should he not feel just a bit uncomfortable at having such strange bedfellows?

That last question can also be directed against my fellow Republicans who want to scuttle the Obama Administration's negotiations with Iran. When the result you hope to obtain is fervently desired by the people you claim to oppose, then does not this coincidence of aims suggest reason to doubt the goal?

Republican objections to negotiations with Iran follow roughly the same script as Steve's objections to NYU-Shanghai's educating kids in China. In both cases, the the attack on American engagement with repressive regimes is rooted in the general notion that such engagement does not do enough to stop the repression. I do not share these reservations, perhaps because I start from a different baseline of expectations: I do not see how the victims of repression be made worse off by American engagement. But, if I did shared such suspicions of engagement, I surely would start second-guessing them when they were endorsed by the most reactionary mullahs at Friday prayers. If the enemy of your enemy is your friend, then should not Republicans be a bit more friendly towards the current negotiations with the incumbent government of Iran, negotiations which are plainly reviled by the most repressive factions in Iran?

It seems to me that American academics’ opposition to ties with China resemble Republican opposition to negotiations with Iran in two respects. First, both try to punish a repressive regime by adopting a stance of isolationism that wins support from the most repressive factions within that regime, without any support from the victims of such repression. Second, neither have a plain answer to the question, “how does cutting off ties between the USA and the repressive regime help make the latter less repressive?” Opponents of NYU-Shanghai cite the Chinese government’s human rights abuses as as a reason for U.S. universities to withdraw from China without any explanation for how such withdrawal is supposed to reduce such abuses. Republicans denounce the Obama Administration’s engagement with Iran without any argument about how lack of engagement is supposed to help the victims of mullahs and purity police. Given that the Revolutionary Guards and Left Maoists alike hate engagement with the West, one might imagine that American opponents of such engagement would, at the very least, offer some sort of argument about why the advocates of repression and illiberalism somehow do not know their own self-interest.

The truth, I think, is that advocates of repression are very rationally also advocates of isolation. Unlike NYU’s American opponents, they understand the link between isolationism and repression. From the Middle East to China, those who are suspicious of liberty are also suspicious of Americans’ investment of educational resources in their countries. The American University in Beirut has never been a hit with reactionary Islam. The Maoists don’t like NYU-Shanghai. Putin is trying to chase foreign-funded NGOs out of Russia. Reactionaries just do not like competition, and, within its very limited province, NYU-Shanghai provides a different and competing model of education than that espoused by the heirs of the Cultural Revolution – a model based on debate and free inquiry, not on indoctrination and obedience.

Of course, there are limits to what we can do in China, but it is completely mystifying to me why those limits constitute reasons to do even less. We cannot sponsor a strike at a factory or file a lawsuit in Chinese court on behalf of an aggrieved farmer. But … so what? Why are these limits on our mission reasons not to teach what we know? The only response I ever hear is (to my ears) the obviously self-refuting dogmatism that any freedom less than total freedom is no freedom at all. When such an apparently weak argument is made on behalf of a result that advocates of repression applaud, then I am inclined to feel for my wallet and count my change: Surely, isolationism should win a bit of skepticism from the friends of liberalism as a consequence of its illiberal friends.

Posted by Rick Hills on March 22, 2015 at 10:14 AM | Permalink


I understand Rick's concern about the heat (v. light?) and hope to continue the debate off line. Perhaps we will find a way to revisit these important issues here in the future since American universities are playing a larger role internationally. In closing let me recommend to readers here the recent essay by David Shambaugh in the Wall Street Journal on the coming China crackup. His description of the faultlines in Chinese society is well worth considering.

Posted by: Steve Diamond | Mar 24, 2015 8:00:56 PM

Mike writes:

"ideas need to be judged on their own merits, not by your personal opinion of the moral virtues or failings of those who happen proponents of those ideas."

Well, not quite, Mike. I believe that you might be confusing invalid "ad hominem" inferences with valid inferences from what Raz calls "preemptive authority." If X has information that you lack on a topic, then X's statements about that topic might give you additional information that you previously lacked. If, for instance, Hitler has inside information about how the Zentrum Political Party is affecting the vote for the Nazis and you oppose the Nazis, then his attacks on the Zentrum might be good reason for you to support the Zentrum, even if you know nothing about the Zentrum.

Mutatis mutandi if the Revolutionary Guard has inside information about what will liberalize Iran and denounces the incumbent government of Iran for such liberalization, then such denunciation might be good reason to support that incumbent government, even if one knew nothing whatsoever about that government. (Of course, all such inferences are weakened to the extent that one suspects the preemptive authority of insincere or strategic speech).

Steve writes a lot of stuff, but I think that this particular exchange has gotten overheated, so I am taking it up offline with Steve to see if we can patch up any misunderstandings. Rough but friendly banter is one thing; insults are another, and, without assigning blame, maybe some lines have been crossed regarding tone that should not have been crossed.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Mar 22, 2015 8:45:35 PM

Well, Rick, it would seem you have picked up a thing or two on your visits to the PRC. It's a common tool in stalinist school of falsification to ignore what your opponent actually said and then attempt - in a forum that you control without any attempt to elicit a response in a balanced fashion - to twist it into something else entirely.

Thus, not content with calling me dogmatic you now try to associate me with what you think is "Maoism" - a topic I take it you know very little about. And despite my clear statement in the comments that I do NOT necessarily oppose the NYU program (any more than I oppose my own law school's program) you appear here to claim that I said the opposite.

You also, speciously, suggest I claim to speak for Chinese students, workers, etc. Oddly it is you who started that gambit by posting a blog where you claim that those students are engaged in free speech. I wonder how you know that? By the way they behave in your class? Really? These are the sons and daughters of disciplined Communist Party members - by definition those families have survived and prospered in a rigidly authoritarian and bureaucratic culture for decades and yet you think they are engaged in free speech. How quaint.

Now as for the "Maoist" charge you hurl at me - well, relax Rick NYU is not keeping the "maoists" (whoever you think they are) up at night. Of course there are elements within the regime who view westernization and formal property rights as a threat. The regime right now is engaged in a titanic struggle over this question. The oil bloc around Zhou Youngkang is under attack from Xi Xiping. If you think NYU can wade into that battle - well, go right ahead.

But then we are back to the major point I made in our earlier discussion: there is a very severe limit on what you can do at your campus (so sensitive that even you don't know what the limits are, apparently as you never answered my question about internet access to study the Occupy Hong Kong movement). One of the most significant limits is that your student body is of and by the elite. That means in my view that it is a stretch to call what you are doing "education" much less "free speech."

You are kidding yourself if you think such a program contributes much of anything to what must and will happen to create a genuinely democratic China. There is a long line of westerners who have pedaled illusions about China - the Jesuits, Anna Strong, our own 60's maoists. It is distressing to see some of our universities joining this tradition.

Those of us who care about the future of China all engage in our own way. I joined the defense team of the refugees from China on the Golden Venture when it washed ashore in Far Rockaway to help prevent the USG sending hundreds fleeing repressive religious and abortion policies from being sent back to China. I helped advise the PetroChina Coalition in its efforts to block western investors from supporting an IPO of a Chinese oil company that would have led to the mass firing of hundreds of thousands of oil workers, expanded oil exploration in Tibet and supported China's brutal expansion into the souther Sudan oil regions. I also have written a fair amount on labor rights in China and on the role of the US labor movement's policy towards China.

I think genuine democratic change in China will come from below not from the top. I think the elements within the regime interested in what you and NYU have to offer are far more interested in managing change from the top. The minute anything you do threatens to change that you will be on your way to the airport accompanied by a phalanx of security guards. I hope you keep a "go-bag" handy.

Posted by: Steve Diamond | Mar 22, 2015 3:04:42 PM

I don't disagree with you about engagement with China. I do disagree about Iran. China is not an enemy of the US; it's a competitor, a rising power butting heads with the established power. Iran is different; it's an enemy with a lot of American blood on its hands over the past 10 years. China isn't calling for the destruction of any of its neighbors, and Chinese troops and special agents aren't fighting wars in any other country. Iranian troops and special forces are all over the middle east. China has shed its revolutionary ambitions and is no longer trying to export revolution around the world. Iran has not and is.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Mar 22, 2015 2:25:35 PM

hitler was proponent of grand public works, vegetarianism, and ethical treatment of animals.

"When the result you hope to obtain is fervently desired by the people you claim to oppose, then does not this coincidence of aims suggest reason to doubt the goal?"

of course not. ideas need to be judged on their own merits, not by your personal opinion of the moral virtues or failings of those who happen proponents of those ideas. I guess it's hard to divorce yourself from this notion when you are steeped in identity politics from the president to dick durbin every day of the week.

Posted by: mike | Mar 22, 2015 1:37:19 PM

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