Robert Lawrence Kuhn: How China Scholars Facilitate China’s Development

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This is a revised version authorised to publish online by Dr. Robert L. Kuhn, which may differ from the printed version handed-out on November 6 in various places.

The World Forum of China Studies plays a unique role in facilitating China’s integration into the global community of nations, which is one of humanity’s great goals of the early 21st century. We foreigners are pleased to participate in this historic process.

Scholars are essential for the flourishing of all influential or consequential civilizations, and scholars have been especially respected and honored throughout China’s long history (except for brief periods, such as during the Cultural Revolution). Scholars seek truth, and because truth is elusive and often disputed, it is incumbent on scholars to present their views without fear or favor. Scholars also have a corollary responsibility: they should not distort or mislead—but an absolute standard of what is, or is not, distortion or misdirection can be challenging to set.

What role do China scholars play in China’s development?

Although I have come to spend a good deal of my time in China, immersed in China-related activities, and communicating about China in the international media, I am not a China scholar. My doctorate is in brain science; I am a corporate strategist; I work in investment banking; I advise companies and countries; I write on diverse subjects; and I produce and present a television series in the United States on science and philosophy (Closer To Truth).

Whether through the benevolent vicissitudes of life, or the mysterious wisdom of fate, for over two decades I have been coming to China, now more than 100 times, visiting over 25 provinces and 50 cities. For fifteen years I have been writing books and articles about China, and producing television programs on China—all based on my first-hand interviews, intimate discussions and personal observations, especially with Chinese leaders (in all sectors). My scholarship has been experiential and phenomenological as well as analytical and scientific. (Professor Tong Shijun, Director of the Institute of Philosophy of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, uses critical theory to describe my work as “participatory scholarship.”)

I have been privileged to write the biography of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin (“The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin,” 2005), and my current book, How China’s Leaders Think, presents the philosophies and policies of President Hu Jintao and introduces some of China’s next generation of senior leaders by offering their initial ideas.

I have learned to appreciate the significance of Chinese political philosophy, including the semiotics of slogans, such as President Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” (San Ge Daibiao) and President Hu Jintao’s Scientific Perspective on Development (Kexue Fazhan Guan). Such slogans can be deep probes of social context, economic conditions, and political development—and occasionally also of political conflict. Such slogans can reveal the dominant thinking of preeminent leadership, direct real-world policies, and drive the practical behaviors of leaders and officials. (A few years ago, I found myself in a stiff, lackluster meeting with a provincial leader. I decided to loosen things up by asking how he was applying the Scientific Perspective on Development in his province—and I did so with a slight air of confidence such that the provincial leader could be forgiven for inferring that I might be reporting what I would hear back to Beijing. How quickly that meeting brightened! How energetic that leader became!)

Foreigners, especially those who set opinions or make decisions about China (in business or government), should understand the way of thinking of China’s leaders—how they think, not only what they say and what they do. For example, a senior leader was explaining a portion of leadership’s framework for the 5th Plenary of the 17th CPC Congress, and he did so by categorizing three kinds of “change”: things that have changed; things that have not changed; and things that will never change.

·Things that have Changed: Reform and opening up; the dramatic improvement in the standard of living of people’s lives; the increasing personal and social freedoms in society; China’s international stance of cooperation and engagement; and more.

·Things that have Not Changed: 1) China is still in the “primary stage of socialism” (still with a very low GDP per capita). 2) China still has conflicts and contradictions, such as those between the legitimate demands of the people and the underdeveloped productive capacity of the country, and those between different strata of society. 3) China still belongs to the developing world; even though China has experienced enormous development, China has a long way to go. 4) China still has great opportunities to grow; even with all the myriad crises in domestic and international affairs, China can continue to grow at high rates for ten to twenty more years (generated by the continuing urbanization of the country as hundreds of millions of rural people migrate to cities and suburbs).

· Things that will Never Change: 1) China will continue to follow its own model, walking the “Socialist Road with Chinese Characteristics” (China will learn from other countries but never copy other countries). 2) China will continue to promote new ways of thinking as expressed by the well-known slogans, “Seek truth from facts,” “Emancipate our minds,” and “Keep up with the times.” 3) Economic development will remain China’s primary goal, because economic development is the engine that drives the achievement of all other goals; even as vital, countervailing goals are added—particularly inclusive development that must rebalance an imbalanced society, sustainable development, and environmental protection—economic development will still predominate. 4) China’s continuing goals are national prosperity, social democracy, a civilized country, and a harmonious society.

In this World Forum’s collegial atmosphere of Chinese and foreign scholars, let’s clear the air for honest, candid discussions by articulating “common assumptions” that, perhaps, may not sound so polite.

The common assumption in the West is that domestic China scholars are not free. This is not correct, in that such a simplistic and anachronistic charge does not recognize the great progress that has been made. Although there are indeed still pockets of unpleasant restrictions, the off-limits areas have shrunk significantly, and over time continue to shrink (although they do not shrink continuously). What is without controversy is that scholars in today’s China have vastly more freedoms today than their predecessors had four and five decades ago, including freedoms to criticize aspects of government. We should appreciate the great progress.

The common assumption in China is that many Western China scholars, just like much of the Western media, are biased against China and conspire against China. This is not correct. Scholars, like the media, often focus more on what’s wrong than on what’s right, deriving intellectual satisfaction from finding faults and digging out problems. This is the nature of scholars and critics, and society can benefit from it. It is not easy or fun to learn from those who criticize you, but this is precisely what great societies do (or learn to do).

The problem with many foreign critics of China is often not so much that what they state is wrong—the problems they pound are usually real and present—but rather that they may give the impression that these problems compose the whole of the picture of China, when in reality these problems, the real and present problems, compose just part of the picture.

Constructive critics of China, those who root for China’s success but are concerned enough to point out China’s problems, are China’s best friends and closest allies. Constructive critics of China, both domestic and foreign, should be praised not scorned.

China scholars have multiple functions. Here are five:

1) Pure scholarship: the discovery or creation of truth, whether historical or contemporary, exemplifies the pinnacle of the human spirit and enriches China.

2) Generating intellectual energy and expressing scholarly passion: the special intensity of scholarly heat can focus broad attention on critical issues and thus can enable China to address such critical issues.

3) Articulating critical issues (irrespective of opinions about those issues): this is scholarly analysis and it functions by breaking down critical issues into their constituent elements and thus facilitates the formulation of targeted sets of solutions.

4) Creating a market place of ideas: even if fractious and competitive, ideas astir in the bright light of public scrutiny bring out the best minds, thinkers who can address complex issues and solve multifaceted problems.

5) Distinguishing between fact and opinion: this is the scholarly ideal that we prize (but scholars often conflate fact and opinion, taking their personal opinions so seriously that they come to believe that these opinions are truly independent facts).

I am often in the Western media, and because I describe the ideas and policies of China’s leaders, I am asked whether I try to be “balanced” about China. I say, “No. I do not try to be balanced about China. I try to tell the truth about China.” Now, maybe I differ with some over what is truth about China, maybe I do not have all the facts about China, but I really try to tell the truth. If I were commentating during the Cultural Revolution, I would not want to be “balanced.”

Scholars ideally should be individuals, more loyal to their own intellectual integrity than to this or that group of which they may happen to be members. So I ask all of us here to use the important platform of this World Forum of China Studies, and indeed I call upon all China scholars everywhere, to reach for this high ideal. In the classic phrase with which Deng Xiaoping, one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders, turned China around—“Seek truth from facts.”

I conclude by offering my congratulations to Shanghai on the success of its magnificent Expo, which focused world attention on two historic themes: 1) the urgent needs of cities to develop new, green technologies, because the world, especially the developing world, continues to urbanize; and 2) the emergence of China as a distinguished and responsible nation—indeed facilitating “China’s integration into a diverse world,” the theme of this Forum.

I was proud to participate in Expo by creating, writing and presenting China Central Television’s (CCTV) series on Expo and the future of Shanghai, called “Expo’s Meaning, Shanghai’s Mission.” I would like to report publicly that in producing this six-part CCTV series I had total editorial freedom, and I can almost affirm that this was the case—CCTV and I had only two points of minor disagreement (i.e., two small segments were cut in the final edit). Such is the nature of creative collaboration and all were very pleased with the production. Last week, an abridged version of our Expo series was broadcast by Euronews, the largest television and new media news network in Europe, Russia, Africa and the Middle East, reaching 330 million households worldwide. Featured were my interviews of Shanghai Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng and former senior Chinese diplomat Wu Jianmin.

There was great international interest in our CCTV Expo series because there is great hunger in the world for information about China. Globally, people want to understand China. This heightens our responsibility. As China scholars (into whose camp I now squeeze myself—I hope they won’t mind), it is our responsibility to make sure our information is accurate, even if our understandings differ. Much depends on our work.

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