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Foreign professors: “smile for the camera!”

The semester started yesterday, and Diane came back with a story about the new cameras that have been installed in her classroom. There is a little monitor by the teacher’s desk where she can see herself as she lectures. Why is this done and who is watching? Is this some way to help students revise or is it the authoritarian state which extends its control into the classroom? If the latter, pity the poor censors who have to listen through all those lectures! But perhaps it is rather a matter of self-censorship. A lecturer who knows that he/she is being watched is less likely to insist on the unpatriotic right to academic freedom.

In the afternoon I got an email from my office at the university. Apparently there is a company that wants to film all my lectures. I was promised several thousands of RMB in return. What is this “company” and what are they trying to do? Is this some scheme to make money selling university lectures to prospective students or is this too a way to exercise thought-control? Perhaps the government censors are the people in charge? Perhaps they realize that most professors never will accept a camera in their classroom unless they believe it gives them a shot at money or fame? Yes, I declined the offer.

One of the problems of life in China is that no one seems to be able to answer such questions and that no one trusts the answers even if they are given. It’s makes for a cynical and paranoid way of life.

Blue suede shoes

The stupid Chinese censors have limited my access to the internet. Much of it I can’t access at all, including many Chinese websites, and email is very erratic. I can’t read articles and books online, no Wikipedia, and I can’t do my research. For some reason I can occasionally get access to this web site and I can write posts like this.  Very foolishly the Chinese authorities have made an enemy out of me. I don’t care about living in a super-small apartment where everything is falling apart; I can survive the corruption and incompetence of Chinese university officials; but don’t mess with my internet access! This, as far as I’m concerned, are my blue suede shoes!

bloody nose

When I picked up Rima, my youngest, after school today she asked me why my nose was all bloody. I felt with my hand and there was indeed blood dripping from my nose. Blowing my nose made the napkin all red. This is what air pollution in Shanghai is doing do me. This is why I can’t go out doors and why my life is very difficult and depressing. I have to get out of here!!! 

getting thrown out of China


Surely I cannot just leave China. Surely I have to get myself thrown out. It’s a matter of self-respect really. After all, if I could get into trouble at the London School of Economics for advocating freedom of speech, how difficult could it be to get into trouble for the same thing here in China? And I know exactly how to do it!

I stage a demonstration, today on May 1st, in favor of Communism, workers’ rights and the right to vote. Preferably right there on Nanjing Road. Wave a few red flags, shout a few radical slogans, perhaps even a few quotes from Chairman Mao. Surely I’d be rounded up by the police in a matter of seconds. You can do many things in this country, but don’t advocate Communism, especially not on May 1st.

Or perhaps I would get a guitar and start playing a song down by the Bund. I’d make up some silly lyrics like “Chairman Mao, a good guy/ Chairman Mao, not a cow” (but in Chinese, obviously). Here too an arrest would be immediate. The authorities would surely suspect that I was making fun of them. Making fun of the authorities is the supreme crime in a one-party state. As Roger Caillois once pointed out in reference to the Nazis, the biggest problem with dictatorships is that they take themselves far too seriously. All their crimes follow from this fact.

“No,” says Diane, “lets just leave the country like normal people. Getting into trouble at LSE wasn’t fun, no matter how just the cause, and can you imagine what getting into trouble in China would be like?” “OK,” I say, “I won’t actually do anything, but let me at least think about it.”

the Chinese gov’t declared war on me

The Chinese government just made me into its personal enemy. Yesterday a spokesman for the Environment Minister, and then a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, insisted that the US government should stop disseminating data regarding the air quality in Shanghai. Apparently the data is too accurate and the information makes the government look bad.

I need this information. If the air pollution is high, I can’t go out or do physically exhausting activities. Last year I collapsed after a simple walk to the library. Denying me this information is a personal threat to my health.

Things like this is what give a totalitarian government a bad name. Really, I can’t live in a place like this.

Small step forward for human rights in China!













That’s right! The right not to be poised by horrible air has made a gain in the last week. The Chinese authorities have started publishing detailed information regarding the air pollution in Shanghai. The Americans have done this for a long time already, via a Twitter-feed at the US Consulate, and for a while they were threatened by the foreign ministry in Beijing who argued that “accurate pollution data are unnecessary in a developing country.” Now, however, they seem to have changed their mind, and the data is indeed very detailed and seems accurate (meaning that it’s close enough to the American data) Good for them! Now I know when to stay in-doors. All that remains is to actually do something about the pollution problem itself. Today, btw, is “unhealthy,” (as show by the sad-faced girl above).

Chinese universities and the invisible republic

daoist scholarUniversities all ultimately rely on the activities taking place among the invisible republic of scholars. The people who do the actual intellectual work — the hard-working researchers, the mad-cap thinkers, the people who approach all problems from a different angle. The actual institutional structure of the university is often in acute tension with the invisible republic. Its members are difficult to control, to confine, and often they don’t behave with the required decorum. Proper members of the invisible republic of scholars never take themselves very seriously. University administrators always do.

The problem with Chinese universities is that the form all too often is mistaken for the content. There is no acknowledgment of the invisible republic. What at first looks like intellectual pursuits turn out to be ridiculous attempts to maintain face. It looks like a conference, a seminar or a lecture but it is nothing of the sort. I wonder what the old-time scholars would make of it all, people like the Daoists? They drank more rice wine but they also did more actual intellectual work.

Back at Yale

It was weird to be back at Yale after two decades. I lived in New Haven for five years but coming back it was like I visited for the first time. The entire campus has been gentrified, spruced up, country-club-ified. OK, it needed it badly, but now the entire feel is different. More than anything the campus transformation tells the story of the last 20 years — how the American upper-class is looking after itself and its progeny. But I realize of course that these are first-impressions. If I actually stayed here longer, I’d learn to go beneath the surface and discover the real and abiding merits of the place. It was always thus.  Yale is mainly hot air, but not exclusively so. After all, I had Jim Scott and Charles Lindblom as my teachers.

And the greatest shock of all: Ashley’s Ice cream Parlor, on York Street, is a mere shadow of its former self. Now their products are way too icy and cheap tasting and they have even started selling frozen yoghurt. That place was such a perennial of my evenings, especially when I lived in the Hall of Graduate Studies next door. An increasingly ironic sign on the pavement outside still says “voted the best ice cream in Connecticut.”

book finished

Yay! The manuscript for Liberal Barbarism is now finally, and totally, completed, and packaged, sealed and mailed off. It took 8 years, involved research on three continents, going through cancer treatment and major relocations. Was it worth it? Of course. Is the book any good? You bet. It’s out next year.

CUP contract

I just signed a contract with Cambridge University Press for my next book. Pretty cool, no? My so called career is moving in mysterious ways. First I made a million, then I lost it all, now I’m clawing it back again little by little. It’s great fun actually. In a very exhausting kind of way.