Some people may already know that I have accepted a position at Renmin University of China, in Beijing. For those interested in fancy titles, I will be the Xin Ao Professor of Literature there. It entails one semester a year in China. But why? Why would I take up a position in China?
To begin with, Renmin (the ‘People’s’) University itself has excellent revolutionary credentials. It was founded in 1937 in the Yan’an soviet (northern Shaanxi province), after the Long March. People were originally taught in the open, in huts, in village houses typically cut into the mountain sides there. Whoever had some experience in a topic would teach it – from literacy through drama to military theory. After the success of the revolution in 1949, Renmin moved to Beijing.
Further, there seems to be still a genuine interest in intellectual life, an immense desire for knowledge. I don’t mean this in some idealistic sense, but rather that knowledge is not seen as part of the ‘innovation industry’, as it has been called elsewhere. The universities aren’t being corporatized, academics are not expected to run around like little businessmen and businesswomen, and your worth is not measured by the latest pay deal you’ve managed to wrangle from the bean-counters.Appropriately, pay for professors is quite modest.
Third, their main desire is for me to be there as a scholar. That’s a teaching load of 3 hours per week, with no administration (that’s only if you head up some big unit). This also is a result of that tradition in which the scholar is one of the highest callings.
Fourth, Marxism is a discipline in its own right. Whole university programs and research centres are devoted to teaching and researching in all aspects of Marxism – as it should be everywhere in the world. Even in everyday conversations, it is still refreshing for me to find that people know what Marxism means, that it’s normal to talk about it. That alone should be enough to recommend the place.
The reason is of course that China is a communist country. I’ve always been immensely interested and somewhat jealous of those places in the world that have had communist revolutions. And in China the government is the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, there are plenty of those outside China – on the left as well as the right – who suggest that China is a communist country only in name. It’s really capitalist, they say, and conveniently dismiss the revolution and the government. I have written enough on that elsewhere and will probably return to it again at some point. But from what I have seen – and that’s a fair bit – it’s far more communist than many realise.
To follow on from that point: China is also at a unique and rare time for any country. Most people I talk to say that the way things are going cannot continue. They feel that the government has taken on too many elements of capitalist economics in order to gain economic strength, and therefore appropriated the problems as well. But these people certainly don’t want a bourgeois democracy, since they can see that it is largely a joke. So there is immense energy in exploring a new way forward, with deep searches in the Chinese classics, in contemporary global thought, and so on. I’ve found that political debate there is far wider and freer than in any place with a bourgeois democracy, where nearly everyone agrees on the general path. They are, as Yermakov once said concerning the Russian Revolution, searching for the correct path to the unknown. I want to be there during this time.
Seventh, Chinese people tend to be a critical bunch. If you mention that whatever university you are at is a great university, they are quick to say it isn’t so. If you say that China is now a world power, they’ll say it’s not. They are not afraid to point out the government’s failings. And they are very good at making sure you don’t get too misty-eyed about the place.
Finally, they have the best rail network in the world (a big plus for me) and some truly great food. Again and again I meet people who say I should travel to such and such a place, since the local food is worth the trip. So far I’ve found that is indeed the case.