New Book Revisits a Forgotten Moment in U.S.-China Relations

Thursday, October 26, 2017

With the 1968 backdrop of Cold War politics and the Vietnam War, a group of politically engaged young academics established the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, or CCAS, promising to rethink the divide between East and West.                                                            

Criticizing the field of Asian studies as complicit with the United States' policies in Vietnam, the CCAS mounted a sweeping attack on the field's academic, political and financial structures, focusing on Maoist China as an alternative to the politics of the time. CCAS members worked to merge their politics and activism with their scholarship — an unusual move at the time, but one that enabled a CCAS delegation to visit China before official U.S. state visits began.

Fabio Lanza, a University of Arizona professor of history and East Asian studies, argues that the CCAS approach to studying China on its own terms, and not through the lens of the U.S., offers a valuable lesson for Asian studies and foreign relations today. The formation of the CCAS came at an unusual moment in time, one of a transition in Cold War politics with the escalation in Vietnam but also a shift in how Maoist China was viewed by the West.

In "The End of Concern," published by Duke University Press, Lanza traces the history of this unusual and overlooked moment in time. Here he answers questions about how the CCAS can inform a re-examination of U.S.-China relations today: 

Q: What was this group, and what role did the scholars play in framing and shaping the U.S. relationship with China in the 1960s and '70s?

A: The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars was an organization of graduate students and young professors, united by their complete opposition to the Vietnam War but also by a certain degree of sympathy toward Maoist China, and by the desire to radically reform the way the United States understood and related to Asian people — and China in particular — intellectually and politically. They were not Maoist, but they saw China as producing ideas and practices of potentially global relevance.

A delegation of CCAS members was the first U.S. scholarly delegation to be admitted to China, in the summer of 1971, before the reopening of the diplomatic relationships between the two countries. While the Concerned Scholars believed — not completely without reasons — that this access had been granted because of their political positions, their sojourn overlapped with the secret visit to Beijing by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, paving the way for President Richard Nixon's historic visit a year later.

The Concerned Asian Scholars had another crucial characteristic: They stubbornly refused to be just "scholars." Rather, they struggled to combine their academic purposes with political activism. This manifested itself in two ways: They strove to act outside academia but also to change academia itself, to remake both the contents and the forms of the production of knowledge.

Q: Why did this group emerge in this specific period, and what allowed for their critical stance?

A: The so-called "long '60s" was one of the few moments when China was taken seriously as a possible alternative for global politics and not, as it is today, in terms of a "rise of China," a geopolitical threat. China became a point of reference in the search for alternatives to existing developmental models, be they the Soviet Union or the United States. 

Up until the 1960s, in U.S. academia and popular opinion, the dominant view — expressed within something called "Modernization Theory" — was that there was only one good, healthy path toward development, one that would lead every country in the world to a system like the one triumphant in America. Countries were therefore judged on how close they followed that preordained path — and often prodded onto that path, as this vision informed U.S. foreign policy. Realizing that, in this perspective, Maoist China did not and could not make any sense at all, the CCAS tried to understand Maoism within its own logic of development and to ask different and more insightful questions about China. They argued that not only was China not a pathological place, outside the realm of normality, but that Maoism actually had a lot to teach to the world — and to the United States.

The changes in foreign relations in 1972 and the radical political reversal by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, when China embraced capitalist reforms, eclipsed these possibilities. China became, once again, a place whose best future was to become "like us."

Q: Why is the book titled "The End of Concern"?

A: It's a play on the name Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. I remember picking up the Bulletin — their major publication — when I was in college in the late 1980s and wondering what were these people concerned about. Reflecting back on that moment, it was clear that there had been a political and intellectual break with the collective concern that animated CCAS. In many ways, the book is an investigation of what made that concern possible and of what made it eventually end.

I also look at how it was precisely that attitude of concern that allowed these scholars to approach Maoist China in a different way. Maoist China seemed to offer to them an alternative to politics worldwide and a way out of the dualism of the Cold War. Because of lack of information and maybe a certain naiveté, they were sometimes wrong about Maoist China, but the questions they posed were indeed crucial. However, after the demise of Mao and Maoism in the late 1970s, those questions tended to disappear as well.  

Q: What can we learn from that experience?

A: I think we can learn much, in two ways. First, within academia, a new generation of scholars has begun to re-examine the Maoist period, with much greater access to archival sources and materials, and I believe the questions and insights that CCAS had decades ago can still be valuable today. There's a bit of an unfulfilled legacy of that group.

More in general, while East Asia is central to U.S. foreign policy today, particularly China and North Korea, we're still trapped by certain blinders about that part of the world. Despite CCAS' efforts, we never truly moved away from the old Orientalist, Modernization Theory approach to the People's Republic of China. We still see it as an incomplete experiment, endlessly failing and endlessly lacking. But that doesn't help us to understand China at all; they're not trying to become like us. We can learn from CCAS that we need to take the People's Republic of China seriously, which means according to its own structure and its own political logic.