the market! how academic institutions swallow the koolade of constructive engagement with china

given the current love affair between capital and authoritarianism moving toward matrimonial alliance in china, it’s time not to be led astray by the notion that capitalism promotes press or academic freedom. nonetheless, many academic institutions in the united states have bought into the failed promises of “constructive engagement”

remember constructive engagement? right, it was an idea that somehow if we kept investing in south africa, economic impulses would lead the apartheid regime toward integration and civil rights for the black majority. didn’t work out so well, as it turned out. you would expect that knowledge of the failure of constructive engagement in south africa would lead policy makers in the 1990s not to make the same mistake with the chinese regime, which had long proved itself murderous, and in 1989 had spectacularly ended a popular movement for greater civil liberties. but no, economic interests in the united states clamored for “engagement! engagement!”

yes, engage, communicate, bridge the gap. recently academic institutions have employed these phrases to justify the welcome they have given to confucius institutes. at berklee, where i work, such noble sentiments–we need to engage, communicate, work together–have also appeared around events at which officials from the chinese consulate have been given a platform to promote representations of china as a haven for creative industries.

as i am sure that you are aware, the people’s republic of china is a surveillance state in which censorship, arbitrary detainment, and harassment of artists who fall afoul of the chinese communist party are commonplace. the state routinely coerces musicians into apologies for statements deemed hurtful to the party. all media companies must swear loyalty to the party and, to that end, many of these companies abet surveillance and censorship. in a perfect blending of neoliberalism and authoritarianism, the communist party has even outsourced much of its propaganda, surveillance, and censorship work to private companies. academic institutions and associations in the united states claim to support free inquiry and expression. how do they, then, justify their tacit acceptance of a regime based upon forced ideological conformity?

just last week, berklee held the second annual “china music summit.” a student organized event helped along with financial support from chinese media companies, the summit’s opening remarks were made by both berklee’s provost and the cultural officer from the new york consulate of the people’s republic of china. berklee’s president also attended.

before the summit, i expressed my grave reservations concerning an official from the people’s republic opening an event at berklee: quite apart from china’s record of censorship, ongoing human rights violations in xinjiang should make us careful. i worried that giving the official a platform at berklee would make us complicit with a regime whose values we cannot support. in response, the berklee administration gave a description of market trends and, of course, the number of chinese students now attending berklee. we should prepare our students to work in such a promising market. the market! the market!

in their response, berklee’s administration employed market rationality to externalize ethical questions. of course, they claimed that their constructive engagement was about bridging the gap between the u.s. and china, which somehow–i’m not sure how–could magically ameliorate the human rights situation in china without ever bringing discussion, or even awareness, of this situation into their purview. of course, we do not condone human rights violations in china, but we need to engage with the PRC: the market! the market!

market rationality allows academic institutions to push aside everything that might prick one’s conscience, the better to go about the practice of making relationships that will let graduating students build profitable careers, or so they think. but never fear. their engagement will have some effect. as long as they keep from embarrassing chinese officials with inconvenient questions, they can continue to engage and all will be well

but will it?

i decided to attend the summit, flyers in hand. rather than ejecting me from the event, which would have led to litigation, someone in charge of communications took the charge of handling me, in an attempt to isolate me and my group of friends. she repeated the script i’ve come to expect, adding that “we need more dialogue.” when my friend said, “well, if you need more dialogue, why didn’t you also invite a dissident? that would make dialogue,” she praised the idea. it’s what she’s paid to do. you must forgive me for finding such praise hollow. because the event was part of courting chinese money, there will be no place for other voices than those of market actors at the event. continue to dialogue, continue to engage. the market…

but we know that constructive engagement is a myth academic institutions would best reject

press freedom and civil liberties in china have actually deteriorated rather than improved over the past few years. academic institutions may employ the language of markets or engagement to rationalize their acceptance of seemingly generous offers to establish confucius centers, develop close relationships with chinese media companies, or fund programs with PRC money. after all, who can blame them given the costs of higher education and the lack of political will in the united states adequately to fund educational institutions? seemingly, money’s fungibility promises that it carries no values other than those to which the money is put. however, the ways that this money circulates, with official visits and rosy portraits of a modern land of opportunity, materially support the chinese surveillance state. the networks the money creates both normalize and legitimate a censorship regime that academic institutions claim to reject (while the other hand reaches out to take the money)

around the same time that berklee was planning to invite the official from the new york PRC consulate, taiwan was removed a separate heading on berklee’s website and placed underneath china. maybe it was a coincidence. but to me, disregard for a democracy–and, as it turns out, the real center of mandopop production–results from the kind of attention to everything but the market displayed by the berklee administration

that leads me to ask, if academic institutions do not value ethical or other goods, such as freedom of inquiry or expression, more highly that the bottom line of commerce, who will?




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