U.S. Universities Must Invest in China Studies

China's international ambitions and foreign policy activism are growing, and we must enrich American understanding of these developments.

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Chinese to English text translation

Joshua Eisenman is senior fellow in China Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C., and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at UCLA. Richard Baum was his Ph.D. adviser between 2006-2012.

On December 14, Richard Baum, distinguished professor of political science at UCLA, renowned expert on Chinese politics, and adviser to presidents, died in Los Angeles. He was among the foremost in an unparalleled generation of Sinologists that was trained during the Mao Era and went on to inform countless Americans about China and its strategic intentions. Ironically, however, even as his contribution to the study of Chinese politics is eulogized around the world, the emphasis on area studies at the American universities that created Professor Baum and his cohort has withered. Today, many of America's best young Sinologists are forgoing academia and instead choosing more lucrative careers in government or the private sector—working for select audiences on specific topics.

During the Mao era, only the most dedicated researcher could decipher the discrepancies and opacities of Chinese politics. There were no Western news bureaus in China at the time and few scholars could gain entry. Years of rigorous language study and long hours in libraries were required to translate and decode official documents and press reports to reveal their true meaning.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Interfere with China's Currency Policies?]

Back then, before the decline of area studies, American universities sought out and generously funded innovative field research on China. To shed light on the machinations of Chinese elite politics, scholars steeped themselves in its language, history, and political culture from afar. Professor Baum, like many researchers of his day, spent countless hours conducting interviews and collecting materials (at times illicitly) in Taiwan and Hong Kong. “Chinese politics,” he liked to say, “was like two bulldogs fighting under a rug. You'd never know who won until the bones of one dog flew out.”

During the 1970s and 1980s Americans were again able to visit China and Sinologists used their painstakingly acquired skills to great effect. Once given the opportunity to apply their extensive linguistic and research abilities in China, American Sinologists turned U.S. universities into world leaders in China studies. Research from this period called into question the excessive Sinophilia of more leftist scholarship and contributed substantially to American leaders and students' understanding of China. These publications are distinguished by their quality writing and surprisingly extensive in-country research—especially given China's limitations on foreigners at the time.

Today, by contrast, China's newfound economic and geopolitical clout has drawn the attention of countless government agencies, think tanks, NGOs, and consulting firms that compete with each other for the best Sinologists. This growing market-driven demand for China expertise comes just as many U.S. academic institutions, long sustained by the aforementioned generation of greying China hands, now seek to inject new vitality into their contemporary Chinese politics research.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

This might come as a surprise. China studies is thriving at the undergraduate and Masters levels where more students than ever are studying the country's language, history, politics, and international relations. But if they are to remain on top, American universities will need to train a new crop of China scholars and attract them away from more lucrative and plentiful opportunities in the government and consulting sectors.

Professor Baum's contribution, and that of his generation of Sinologists, was the product of American universities' sustained investment in China studies research at the Ph.D. level—one that engendered a comprehensive applied understanding of Chinese politics. Today, China's international ambitions and foreign policy activism are growing, and the country is undergoing profound social changes. To expand and enrich American understanding of these developments, and what they mean for the United States, our academic institutions must again invest in China specialists like Richard Baum. There's no time to waste.

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