An Insider’s Account of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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In a recent article, Zhang Boshu, political philosopher and constitutional scholar, shared his own experience at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s largest think tank.

‘Soft power’, or currencies of ideas, values, culture, policies and institution, is now a buzzword in Beijing’s foreign policy circle. Despite China’s growing weight in the world, the Communist Party is concerned about its soft power deficit. It is therefore, for example, injecting an estimated $4 to 6 billion into the global expansion of its state media.

Beijing is also zealously promoting the development its think tanks, cradles of social policies and political strategies. China organised the Global Think Tank Summit in July 2009, which included former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to discuss the future development of the world economy. According to a study conducted by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, China now boosts 428 think tanks, ranked number two in the world behind the US, which has 1,815.

In terms of the number of researchers, it is even more impressive. Mark Leonard, executive director of the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, was surprised to learn that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), China’s largest think tank, has 4,000 full-time researchers. He reckoned that Britain’s entire think tank community is numbered in the hundreds, Europe’s in the low thousands, and the US could not have more than 10,000.

But the workings of China’s think tank community is less well documented. One important aspect is that China is not an intellectually free society. There are certainly limits on what could be discussed, particularly about the political system. Zhang Boshu, a political philosopher and constitutional scholar, has recently written an article providing some valuable insights about his own experience at CASS.

Zhang joined CASS in 1991 as an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy. He was an outspoken critic of the authoritarian rule in China and a strong advocate for universal human values like democracy. In 1993, he published an article critical of the government’s 1989 crackdown. On 21 December 2009, he was asked to leave his post at CASS on grounds of his repeated ‘absence without leave’. However, he believed that the real reason is that his numerous articles advocating constitutional reform has exceeded the tolerance limit of the Communist Party committee at CASS.

The ‘Assistance Committee’

Reflecting on his history of conflicts with CASS, he recounted his experience of the ‘assistance committee’, organised shortly after the publication of his dissident article in 1993:

My first conflict with CASS happened in 1993, two years after I joined. The direct reason was my publication of a short academic article in the Hong Kong magazine Twenty-first Century. The article is an unremarkable piece entitled ‘My Opinion on Critical Thinking and Building Awareness’. It is an intellectual debate with Taiwan scholar Lao Siguang, and was published in the ‘Criticisms and Responses’ section of the magazine. A few sentences talking about the June Forth event brought me big troubles.

The institute responded rapidly after my article’s publication. I remember it was a Tuesday, a ‘day of visiting the institute’ (researchers at CASS do not sit in offices; they only visit their institute once or twice a week). The institute has specifically organized an ‘assistance committee’, offering ‘assistance’ to me. Everyone, including all researchers and leaders, was present.

The committee was conducted in a peaceful manner, and the speeches by Director Chen and [Deputy Director] Li were moderate. Except one person, my teacher Xu…… In the committee, he was very hostile and critical towards me, and disapproved of me loudly. His speech contrasted sharply with those made by the others. I, of course, know well clear that his ‘just’ criticisms towards me was not out of ‘assisting’ his student, but rather to protect himself and prevent his student’s mistake from affecting his political future. Therefore, he put on this political show.

After the ‘assistance committee’, the institute’s Communist Party secretary Fu approached me, and said that the Academy viewed the matter seriously. ‘This is a matter of principles.’ Nevertheless, the Academy prompted the institute to organize this committee, with the aim to ‘cure the disease’, and hoped that I acknowledged it.

What kind of institution is the CASS?

Zhang also provided some helpful accounts of the CASS:

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was established in 1977. Its predecessor was the Philosophy and Social Sciences Department of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This model was copied from Soviet Union, which also established a Philosophy and Social Sciences Department under the Russian Academy of Sciences. North Korea and Romania once used this system as well. Till now, older people in the Academy still use the word ‘Department’ when talking about CASS.

Since CASS engages in social sciences, it should of course be a professional academic institution. However, under the present political system, CASS also functions as an ideological institution, propagating party’s policies and principles, and serving the party’s purposes. CASS, directly under the State Council, is a ministerial-level unit. Each research institute of CASS is a bureau-level unit. Every province and municipality directly under the central government also has its own social sciences academy, albeit with a lower administrative rank. At present, CASS has several dozens research institutes, over a hundred journals, various ‘research centres’, and several thousand researchers and administrative staff. Each year it spends several hundred millions of government funding.

Since CASS is first and foremost an ideological institution, it being led by ‘leftist’ or party officials should not come as a surprise. But this is after all a place where talents gather. At CASS, He Lin, Jin Yuelin, Zheng Zhenduo, Qian Zhongshu and Lu Shuxiang were all leading scholars in their respective field. CASS has also produced dissidents like Gu Zhun and Li Shenzhi. During the 1989 democratic movement, CASS was known as a ‘crisis area’. Many researchers and ordinary staff were participants of the demonstrations. Over ten bureau-level cadres at CASS were punished. But overall, CASS is the Communist Party’s ‘imperial academy’. It must listen to the party; as a result it has produced numerous party mouthpieces.

To be fair, the Chinese intelligentsia is becoming increasingly open, particularly in the economic fields where policies are debated and the government is constantly experimenting with new ideas. However, certain topics in the political arena remain firmly out of the boundary. In the name of ‘harmony’, independent voices are constrained and silenced. When soft power is about having a persuasive set of ideas and values to the world, it does not sound very persuasive when China is suppressing its own people’s voices. Perhaps the answer to China’s soft power deficit lies closer at home than abroad.

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16 thoughts on “An Insider’s Account of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences”

  1. Another insider’s account, including the viewpoints and the system deficiencies:

    I hope the readers focus more on the valid points, less on the tone. Ridiculing the opponents are the easiest things to do (e.g., 50 cents training manual or characterization of the Chinese patriots), but not quite helpful.

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  2. I respect Zhang Boshu. I have no reason to doubt his story and he makes some good points.

    But I have to say that in my experience (and it is limited experience, I should emphasize) CASS scholars have been extremely open, as has the overall atmosphere of the place. My guess is that there are many more in-depth discussions of human rights at the academy than at most universities in China. We should be careful before we pile on the institution as some sort of rigid enforcer of orthodoxy.

    Besides, I’m tired of the term “leftist” being used to describe anyone authoritarian. The “left” in China is pretty broad, including everyone from nasty, essentially right-wing nationalists to passionate advocates for the interests of workers and farmers. Wang Hui and others are extremely nuanced.

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  3. Thanks. It would be nice to have the reference to the article with Chinese title and a URL. I too have met many serious dedicated researchers at Chinese think tanks. They are often franker in private then when someone is sitting in on your visit to their office and busily taking notes on the conversation.
    I was impressed by Zhang Boshu’s article “The Way to Resolve the Tibet Issue” that appeared on the Internet in April 2008. http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2008/05/zhang-boshu-the-way-to-resolve-the-tibet-issue/
    That article must not have helped him at CASS!

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  4. The title is somehow misleading, and should really be “An Insider’s Account of the Philosophy and Social Sciences Department of the Chinese Academy of Sciences”, since the PSSD, that Zhang was affiliated with and a government backed policy research unit, is quite different from the rest of CAS which are more academic. Thus it’s understandable that there are certain limits in the department on what can be published, and questioning inside the system is encouraged but challenging the basis is not. Zhang knows the bottom line well (he said that in his announcement) but he has yet violated the department’s policy several times. It’s already a miracle that PSSD could tolerate him for more than 10 years. Zhang should be clear from day one that PSSD’s rules don’t fit him and leaving it is a much more comfortable choice for both sides. After all, PSSD is a loosely organized “honor institute” and most researcher positions are not tenure there, so If he doesn’t care about the honor, he should find somewhere else that are more friendly to him.

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  5. To be more appropriate, “Philosophy and Social Sciences Department” should be “Institute of Philosophy” (哲学所’s translation) in my last comment.

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  6. Uh… it’s dishonorable for Zhang to challenge “the basis”? This isn’t some sort of don’t steal laptops from the library or don’t cheat on tests college-style “honor code”! This is a restriction on basic academic freedom. And it’s “understandable” that there are “certain limits in the department on what can be published”? Ridiculous.

    I stand by my earlier point that CASS is a relatively open place with room for a lot of opinions, but there’s no need to stick up for what backward policies exist with elaborate excuses. Praise what’s good, criticize what’s bad.

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  7. “strong advocate for universal human values like democracy.”

    Are you kidding me? What next? Christianity? Oh wait…

    The article definitely has an extremely condescending tone, presumably ideologically grounded, judging by the liberal usage of the word “authoritarian” and the previously noted point. But I’ll ignore that.

    In any case, the reason for the existence of these think tanks has one reason – to help the government improve its rule over the country. If there’s a fundamental ideological incompatibility between one researcher and his employer, the government, what can the government be expected to do except to fire him?

    It’s like having a doctor tell his patients that he’s ill because of who he is, and he should be someone else instead if he wants to be cured: not particularly helpful, and rather irritating.

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  8. Chaji,

    Actually, I doubt the central government is well served by NEVER having anyone on its payroll say that it has fundamental problems. That’s why CASS and even the Central Party School are pretty open-minded, on the whole. In this case, they (the government) messed up.

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  9. @ Old Rales Retold,

    I’m not sure what you mean by “they screwed up”. The way I see it, the “fundamental” problem you’re implying seems to be a lack of individual freedom and human rights. As much as I like those concepts on a personal level, they’re _not_ universally applicable, and are only best applied when developed indigenously as part of the local cultural evolutionary process.

    Thus, the dude’s criticisms are essentially ideology-based, with the implication of the Western individualistic philosophical system being inherently better than the current Chinese system, which is far closer to traditional Chinese philosophies than anything he has to offer.

    So if he could have gotten off his ‘freedom’ high horse and offered some more realistic alternatives to the government, he probably wouldn’t have lost his job.

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  10. Oh Chaji, what nonsense you speak. Human dignity and honesty _are_ indeed universally applicable, because they rest on a basic foundation of logic, and the axioms which underpin them are necessary for any properly functioning association of people. Don’t even pretend that China under the CCP is _anything_ at all like pre-modern China!

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