Its hard out there for a party historian

Xie Chuntao, the chief historian at the Central Party School has recently expressed an opinion that some parts of China’s history are closed, and likely to remain so. “Some involve the state’s core interests and some are not convenient to be released,”

My comments on this are partially superseded, as it is coals to Anyuan to be snarky about Chinese history on the English-language internet as long as Jeremiah Jenne is still at large.

One thing I do find encouraging is that at the very end Xie says “From a historical research [viewpoint] it is to be hoped that it would be best if they are all opened. But I fear this cannot happen and may never happen.” (I wish SCMP would link to the Chinese version) So he regrets the situation. That is good. He wants to reveal this stuff, supposedly, but can’t. How does one balance one’s obligations to China and the Party-state against one’s duties to history and scholarship? Xie Chuntao may not be Fang Xiaoru, but this is an old topic in Chinese culture.

Is Xie (who I have never met) a hack? And if so, what sort of hack is he? Or is he just a scholar doing the best he can in a certain situation? Well, here is the blurb for his book. Why and How the CPC Works in China. 1 edition. New World Press, Beijing, China, 2011.

The international community now views China and the Communist Party of China (CPC) with increasing respect because of a series of important and symbolic events—from the truly exceptional Beijing Olympic Games and the 2010 Shanghai World Exposition that attracted world attention to the fast economic growth obtained even against the backdrop of the international financial crisis. The “China Model,” “China Road” and “China Experience” have become hot topics of discussion both at home and abroad. Insightful people are pondering how the CPC could score such brilliant achievements, and how such a party can still be full of vigor and vitality 90 years after it was founded and 60 years after it gained power.

O.k. so far he sounds like George Will. On the other hand, he works at Central Party School the which is the subject of this very revealing expose, which shows some of the constraints he is laboring under.

This is an older piece, so we get some pictures of the old head of the party school, some guy named Xi. What we also get is a nice picture of ideological control over scholars. Many American scholars are grumpy about the role of student evaluations in assessing teaching, but at the Party School we find a proper modern assessment system

According to the current appraisal system, the full mark for a lecture is 10 points. Any lecture scored under nine is deemed a major malfunction of the teacher. If such an event occurs, proper administrative departments in the school will hold a meeting with all the teachers to resolve the problem.

The appraisal system was introduced into the school not long ago. Currently the school publishes each teacher’s score at the end of each term. Xie Chuantao said in his department, if a teacher has a score lower than department’s average, he or she would be suspended from teaching for a while.

The Central Party School, where all the teachers are above average. Obviously this type of system will have US assessment gurus polishing up their C.V.s for a new job in China. It is not very surprising that students have so much power, however, given that the Central Party School is  the place where  cadres punch their tickets for the trip from promising local person to national figure. ( see  Liu, Alan P. L. “Rebirth and Secularization of the Central Party School in China.” The China Journal, 2009. )

Xie is highly aware that his students are quite different from ordinary school students. In past years, Xie Chuntao has seen many students promoted to higher positions or even to the Central Committee of the CPC, while at the same time, he is also sorry for a few that have been put into prison for discipline violations.

Obviously the elite have changed some. Instead of cadres with high school education many of them now have Master’s degrees.

 Great changes have taken place regarding the school’s curriculum. More than a decade ago, given the educational background of students, the school prepared classes on history and geography in addition to classics of Marxism and Leninism. Nowadays, such courses are replaced by opera appreciation and diplomatic etiquette.

The school is also a lot more liberal than in was in the old days

Openness and frankness are long-cherished traditions in the school. In the late 1970s, students at the school held a discussion covering the criterion for testing truth, which subsequently led to a nationwide liberation of thoughts. Hu Yaobang, the then vice president of the school, set up four rules to encourage free discussion among students. Here, no one would be discriminated against or punished for speaking out his real mind. When former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited the school the liberal classroom environment surprised him greatly.

If you have both Hu Yaobang and Donald Rumsfeld you have both the Chinese and the foreign spokesmen for liberalism and free thought on your side.

What I suspect is happening is that, yet again, the bounds of acceptable discourse are shifting, and a tiny set of issues are being defined as nei bu (internal circulation) They do talk about the Great Leap at CPS, but they also don’t publish  anything that contradicts the official line. While ruling things out of bounds is clearly not a progressive step, it may help at least a little in opening up sources on things which are not considered sensitive.  On the one hand the Xie quotes about “closed files” make it sound like Chinese historical study is slipping back towards the Maoist period. On the other, CPS article makes China sound a bit like any other normal country where scholarship has to contend with state power and the security state. Of course it is pretty different as well.

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