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Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Posted: August 21, 2010 04:34 PM

Not surprisingly, I've been paying a lot of attention lately to the general interest books on the PRC that have been coming out, in part due to my perennial desire to keep learning about the country and in part to see what sort of competition there is for my own China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. In the crowded field of recent publications, the hardest to categorize is probably Richard Baum's latest, China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom (University of Washington Press, 2010). This is because it is less one text than three rolled together.

It's a concise survey of recent Chinese political history. But it's also a potted history of the American China studies establishment -- or, rather, that establishment's social scientific wing of which Baum is part, since humanities fields such as history and literature get only glancing attention. And it's a memoir of one leader of that establishment's life in Chinese studies, a coming of age and career highlights tale that often showcases the author's puckish side. One choice anecdote, for example, involves a young Baum's ultimately unsuccessful effort to fast-talk his way into a visa for travel into mainland China, back in the 1960s when Americans could very rarely get them. His ploy was to make the most of a mislabeled photograph in a pro-Communist Hong Kong newspaper that referred to him as a "friend of China" enamored of Mao's writings, and also described him as a French merchant seaman rather than a graduate student from California.

Due to its hybrid nature, different sorts of readers are likely to move through the book in varying ways and at varying speeds. For it's hard to imagine any single individual who will find each of the three books-within-a-book equally interesting, and it's also hard to imagine any readers, even one intrigued with the book overall (as I was), failing to grow impatient with it at times. For example, as a fellow specialist (albeit one working in history rather than Baum's field of political science), I buzzed through his lucid recaps of famous events like the Cultural Revolution, but as I did so I was well aware that those were the very sections that many non-specialists would want to read most carefully and would find most valuable. Conversely, I tended to linger on Baum's opinionated commentaries on prominent figures in Asian studies--but readers who aren't in the field may well want to skim those sections, feeling that they have too much of an inside baseball quality. (I say "tended to linger" rather than "lingered," for by the end of the book I had wearied of the author's descriptions of his feud with Michel Oksenberg, another leading figure in political science; as a result, I would flip ahead when I got to the latest installment in this saga, which moves from camaraderie and joint pranks to rivalry and public sniping to reconciliation.)

One thing that makes the book valuable is that it shows how, over the course of Baum's career, not only has China itself changed profoundly but so have the methods scholars use to make sense of it. "China Watcher" begins in the 1960s, with graduate students of Baum's generation relying heavily on data gleaned from rare documents smuggled out the PRC and interviews in Hong Kong with refugees from a mainland that these young scholars longed to but for the most part could not enter. It ends in a present that finds American dissertations on Chinese politics being crafted by people who spend extended periods of time in mainland cities. And rely on the web and other electronic resources (including the useful and unique "Chinapol" listserv that Baum launched and continues to moderates) rather than exiles to keep up with developments in the PRC when they are based elsewhere.

Not quite everything about analyzing China has changed, though, as we are reminded whenever the National People's Congress meets or news breaks that succession issues are being sorted out in secrecy. When it comes to behind closed doors machinations within the top echelons of the elite, even the best informed academics and journalists can end up slipping back into the old Pekingological tea leaf reading mode, striving to wring meaning out of official photographs that reveal little other than who is standing next to whom. At such moments, Baum, the well connected and seasoned senior scholar, is not so far removed from his much greener graduate student self -- the one who looked wistfully westward from Hong Kong's New Territories, longing to know what was really happening in a realm hidden from view.