Peking Tom

Watching China Watching (XVI)

In late April 1938, in a speech addressed to Communist Party journalists and propagandists studying at the Lu Xun Arts Academy in Yan’an, the Party leader Mao Zedong said: ‘You are young artists and the world in all of its complex variety belongs to you. This is the garden in which you work… .’ He continued,

For you the whole of China is like the Prospect Garden [大觀園 in the Qing-dynasty novel The Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢]. You must live in it and be as familiar with it as [the novel’s characters] Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu. You can’t just be journalists. That’s because such work is done by ‘passers-by’ [that is, superficially]. There’s a saying that goes:

Looking at the flowers from horseback is not as good as looking at the flowers while the horse is standing still. But it is even better to get off the horse and look at the flowers [up close]. 俗話說:走馬看花不如駐馬看花,駐馬看花不如下馬看花。

I hope you’ll all dismount and study the flowers yourselves.

毛澤東, 在魯迅藝術學院講話, 1948年4月28日

Only when they observe the flowers in the garden could they possibly understand the complex socio-political topography of the Prospect Garden that was China, Mao told them. Then they would appreciate the tortuous relationships that existed among the inhabitants of the place.

— adapted from G.R. Barmé, Beijing, a garden of violence,
Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 9:4 (2008): 612ff


‘Seek Truth from Facts’, seal carving

The Communists rose to power through military might combined with an understanding of Chinese society and its place in the world based on Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideas. In their first years in power the Communists championed Seeking Truth from Facts 實事求是 — an expression dating from the Han dynasty. After Mao’s death, this would be extolled as the living core of Mao Zedong Thought itself. During the first decades of the People’s Republic however, truth and facts were distorted to suit both ideology and sentiment.

From 1949, however, the journalists of New China did get to observe their society from close up. An elaborate nationwide system of internal reporting was established to give Party leaders access to what they discovered; the public media, however, generally reflected an alternate reality. For over seventy years, only a few journalists, and they for only for short periods of time or in specific ways, have been able to report effectively on what they have encountered in the Chinese garden.

Since February 2016, China’s journalists and the media more generally have been told unequivocally that they belong to a single clan that goes by the surname of The Party 姓黨 (or, as Xi Jinping put it: 黨和政府主辦的媒體是黨和政府的宣傳陣地,必須姓黨). The work of journalists, regardless of whether they involved in their society or not, is to serve a reality determined by the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus.

Editorial Aside: To watch China, one must also keep a gimlet eye trained on the United States. Readers will appreciate the irony of the fact that, although mainland Chinese media are heavily policed and guided, the party-state nonetheless supports fundamental science and rationality. As a result, tor the most part it pursues evidence-based public policy. With the rise of authoritarianism and the evolution of tribal epistemology in the United States, and elsewhere, however, faith-based policy has influential champions in other climes. The result is consequential in many areas of public life, not least of which is watching and understanding China.


Richard Baum uses Mao’s anecdote — don’t just observe flowers while passing by on horseback, or cast an eye around while the horse stands still, but dismount and delve into on-the-ground reality — in his introduction to China Watcher: Confessions of Peking Tom (2010). China Watcher is an autobiographical account of a life spent studying the People’s Republic of China by one of the most prominent students of Chinese politics in North America. It is part of a significant body of writings by American scholars on the study of China, as well as the particular history of Americans studying China (see Reference Material below). As Baum, a leading figure in the China field at UCLA until his death in 2012, makes clear, over the decades being able to get near the China Mao Zedong described as a garden was well nigh impossible for outsiders, and ever since Mao the garden has sprouted as many poisonous weeds as fragrant flowers. They are not always easy to distinguish.

Below we quote from the chapter of Baum’s book titled ‘China Watching, Then and Now’. In it the author touches on themes that have featured in Watching China Watching. Baum offers a taxonomy of China watching and China watchers, as well as giving a brief overview of the study of Mainland Chinese politics during his own era. Of particular relevance are his pointed comments on the plight of area studies and the disciplines, a concern shared by Kevin O’Brien, another noted China political scientist at UC Berkeley. Since 2005, we have advocated New Sinology and pursued its practice in various guises to demonstrate our approach and highlight the limitations of metrics driven, professionally beguiling and industrial-scale knowledge production.

During his later years, Baum also contributed significantly to the ongoing debate, dialogue and contention among China specialists, journalists, diplomats, intelligence analysts, business people and others who grapple with the changing topographies of the Chinese world. He founded and managed Chinapol or C-Pol, an ecumenical, although carefully curated, online international forum focussed on Chinese society and politics that continues to flourish.

Studiously balanced and fair-minded, Baum was also a man of conscience. As the New York Times noted:

In 2008, Dr. Baum was among more than 160 prominent scholars and writers who asked President Hu Jintao to release Liu Xiaobo, a well-known intellectual and dissident detained that year. Dr. Baum circulated a petition on Chinapol.

‘While I have always tried to maintain Chinapol’s political neutrality,’ Dr. Baum told The New York Times in an e-mail at the time, ‘some violations are so egregious that I cannot, as a sentient being, remain neutral.’

— William Yardley, Richard Baum
obituary, 25 December 2012


China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom carries a Foreword by Sidney Rittenberg 李敦白, one of the most particular individuals involved with twentieth-century China. Rittenberg is something of an ‘all-weather China watcher’. His insider perspective on the Chinese revolution was hard-won; he fell victim to its crueler practices but championed also its virulent outbursts. After all the Sturm und Drang he extols Baum as a ‘China watcher of integrity’ a category he juxtaposes to ‘professional China bashers’. Regardless of the clichéd taxonomy of friend-versus-enemy Rittenberg observes wisely that ‘arrogant nationalism (often masquerading as patriotism) or simplistic China bashing based on political or ideological agendas can lead us into a swamp of misunderstanding and counterproductive behavior.’ It is a sentiment that holds just as true for the Sino-patriots whose red noise would now block out all other voices, be they Chinese or foreign.

‘A Portrait of the [Half-cadre Half-tiger] Creator of the Hall of the One True Voice’ 一言堂. Forbidden Zone (indicated by an arrow: the tiger’s ass 老虎屁股). In 1962, Mao Zedong declared: ‘People who won’t let others speak out, who pretend that the tiger’s arse can’t be touched, will always fail’ 不許人講話, 老虎屁股摸不得, 凡是採取這種態度的人, 十個就有十個要失敗. Only after his death would people dare take him at his word. Painting by Hua Junwu 華君武, August 1979
Below, Richard Baum recalls the unique role played by the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong during the Maoist era. Hong Kong has attracted the particular ire of Beijing in the Dark Age of Xi Jinping. The Best of China in China Heritage follows some of these developments, in particular chronicling through the essays of Hong Kong writers like Lee Yee 李怡 the rise of a new ‘Hall of the One True Voice’ 一言堂, or ‘Chamber of Solitary Opinion’ (see also the Cause Way Books disappearances). That particular ‘cone of silence’ flourished during the Mao era, its power waned for some time under Deng Xiaoping who recoiled from the disasters of one-man rule, and Party leaders supported collective leadership and the (circumscribed) airing of different opinions within their ranks. Today, under the regnant Chairman of Everything Xi Jinping, reverberations from China’s Hall of the One True Voice are heard around the globe.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
4 February 2018


Watching China Watching

Relevant Work by Richard Baum

Reference Material

Further Reading

China Watching, Then and Now

Richard Baum



Alongside the stunning transformation of China itself, the study of Chinese politics has changed profoundly over the past half century. The founding fathers who made up the first generation of academic China watchers had widely diverse backgrounds. Some of them, affectionately known as Old China Hands (Zhongguotong), were raised in pre-World War II china by missionary parents. Deeply immersed in the language, culture, and politics of China, they included among their ranks such pioneering figures as Doak Barrett, Lucian Pye, and John Lindbeck. A second group, among them historians George Taylor and John K. Fairbank, first visited China as exchange students in the early 1930s, quickly finding themselves caught up in the swirling sociopolitical currents of the prewar era. A third cluster, including my own University of California mentors Arthur Steiner and Bob Scalapino, had been accidental Sinologists, first exposed to China as a result of compulsory military service in World War II. Finally, a few eminent political scientists, including Tang Tsou and Allen Whiting, migrated into Chinese studies from other academic specialties in the early years of the Cold War. Though they weren’t always in agreement ideologically or politically, these pioneers collectively created the field of contemporary Chinese political studies. They lobbied for institutional funding (and professional autonomy) for graduate student research and training, they advised the U.S. government on policies toward the emerging People’s Republic of China, and they mentored the first cohort of American social science-trained Sinologists, including Chalmers Johnson, Ezra Vogel, John Lewis, Richard Solomon, and James Townsend, among others. Under their tutelage in the 1960s and 1970s, my second-generation peers and I served our China-watching apprenticeships standing on the shoulders of giants.

Richard Baum, Burying Mao, 1994

Because Americas could not travel to China in those pre-normalization Cold War years, the study of Chinese politics involved, for us, a great deal of tedious library research, augmented by a generous helping of interpolation and inference. Our methodology consisted mainly of sitting in our offices (or university libraries), hunched over desks (or microfilm readers), attempting to make sense of recent events by assembling scattered shards of information gleaned from official Chinese media sources — newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts. Having to read these in the original Chinese slowed me down considerably, and the Chinese dictionary on my desk was well worn, its spine cracked from constant use. Luckily for me, some PRC media reports were available in English translation, courtesy of the U.S. government. The official PRC media were supplemented by a growing stream of “internal” (neibu) CCP documents, such as the set of Four Cleanups directives I had purloined in Taiwan, along with a rather large number of propaganda-laced Taiwanese intelligence reports. These latter materials made a second Chinese dictionary necessary, since Taiwanese publications were always printed using fantizi, traditional full-form Chinese characters, whereas PRC media had switched to abbreviated jiantizi, or simplified characters. The entire mélange of polyglot source materials was then seasoned with a soupçon of refugee interviews and served up on a warm bed of speculation, conjecture, and just plain guesswork. It was certainly more art than science. The wonder of it is that although we Peking Toms operated at a distance from our subject matter, using dull, imprecise research instruments, sometimes screwing up pretty badly in the process, we actually got it right a lot of the time — at least in the big-picture sense. As the Harvard Sinologist Elizabeth Perry wrote many years later, “Under the circumstances, the quality of the work produced by this newly-trained generation of American social scientists — with no first-hand knowledge of China — was actually quite remarkable. Relying almost exclusively upon official documents from the PRC (subsequently supplemented by Hong Kong interviews and the Red Guard press), their analyses of bureaucratic behavior and political mobilization have withstood the test of time surprisingly well.”

Hong Kong

As Perry noted, the hub of the China-watching universe in the ‘60s and ‘70s was Hong Kong. More specifically, there were five key institutions in Hong Kong that performed vital services for China watchers. First was the University Services Center, which satisfied multiple needs of local researchers and visiting scholars alike — as library, copy center, office space, meeting place, and safe house. It was there that my career was launched in 1967-68.

Second was the U.S. Consulate-General on Garden Road, Hong Kong Central, where teams of researchers pored over key Mainland daily newspapers, magazines, and radio broadcasts, rendering them into English for publication in five major translation series: Foreign Broadcast Information Service—China (FBIS), Survey of the China Mainland Press (SCMP), Selections from China Mainland Magazines (SCMM), Current Background (CB), and Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS). Along with the BBC’s Summary of World Broadcasts, these five publications were our Holy Scriptures, eagerly perused by China watchers everywhere in the English-speaking world.

Hong Kong’s infamous rumor mill was the third vital source of information about Mainland China. Local Chinese-language tabloids such as Ming Bao, Zhengming, and the Xingdao Daily News provided a steady stream of fascinating, if frustratingly unsubstantiated “inside” information and gossip about key personalities, policies, and factional politics in Mainland China. One used such unverifiable sources at one’s own risk, of course, and with extreme caution, but their appealing combination of titillating revelation and at least minimal plausibility made them extremely hard for scholars to resist.

Fourth was the Union Research Institute, a Hong Kong think tank founded in 1955 by a group of non-Communist Chinese intellectuals, with financial backing from the U.S.-based Asia Foundation. Devoted to gathering and analyzing political and economic intelligence from Mainland China, the research institute, with its annual Communist China Yearbook, its biographical Who’s Who in Communist China, its hand-transcribed refugee interviews, and its up-to-date classified newspaper clipping files, played an important role in China-related research until its closure in the 1980s. Although never openly acknowledged, rumors of covert CIA funding followed the research institute throughout its existence.

Ssu-Ch’ing: The Socialist Education Movement of 1962-1966, book cover

(Full disclosure: The Union Research Institute published my first book, Biographic Guide to Kwangtung Communes, in 1968. The book is a two-thousand-page annotated guide to the thousands of newspaper articles I had used in preparing my Four Cleanups monograph with Fred Teiwes.)

The fifth of Hong Kong’s indispensable China-watching institutions was Father Laszlo LaDany [sic], a Hungarian-born Jesuit priest who, until his death in 1990, was a one-man think tank. An indefatigable researcher, Father LaDany enjoyed extraordinary guanxi with the charitable groups that ran refugee camps on the Hong Kong side of the Chinese border, giving him unparalleled access to the very latest information from the Mainland, which he summarized and published in a biweekly digest, China News Analysis. According to Jim Lilley, who had a long and distinguished career in the CIA before becoming ambassador to China in 1989, Father LaDany’s daily monitoring of Chinese radio broadcasts, his network of cross-border contacts, and his interviews with recent émigrés yielded the very best intelligence available to the United States in the decade prior to the normalization of U.S.-China relations. [Ed.: for more on László Ladány in Watching China Watching, see The China Expert and the Ten Commandments.]

On one occasion in the spring of 1968, Father LaDany invited me to his offices at Hong Kong University’s Matteo Ricci Hall. Over tea, he introduced me to his small cadre of devoted translators and catalogers, who spent most of their waking hours monitoring and transcribing Chinese radio-traffic and compiling a newspaper clipping file that was second to none in quality. When I asked him if I could have access to his files for my research, I was rewarded with a polite smile (of questionable warmth) and a firm, non-negotiable “I’m afraid not.”

Because China’s borders were tightly controlled in the pre-normalization era, few Chinese could legally travel to Hong Kong — or anywhere else. Illegal immigrants were more numerous, however, especially in the aftermath of the Great Famine of the early 1960s and again during the height of Red Guard violence in the Cultural Revolution, but since these illegals, some of whom had risked their lives to get across the border, faced mandatory deportation if apprehended by the British authorities, they usually kept a very low profile once they arrived in Hong Kong. Apart from Father LaDany and his local guanxi network, only a tiny handful of Westerners enjoyed ready access to these illegal immigrants.

Periodically, Chinese refugees would find their way  to the University Services Center, attracted by the hourly rate of HK$20 (about US$4) for an interview with resident scholars, a rather generous sum by Chinese standards. Inevitably, the lure of easy pocket money in exchange for a bit of conversation attracted a number of imposters, who sometimes cooked up ingenious tales for the benefit of their credulous interviewers. On those rather infrequent occasions when an émigré proved both authentic and knowledgeable, the center’s scholars would compete among themselves to hire him as a research assistant.  … …

After 1989

In their efforts to comprehend the political and social consequences of China’s rapidly changing developmental landscape, the post-Tiananmen generation of U.S. China scholars armed themselves with a broad array of new research techniques and methodologies. Game theory, rational-choice analysis, econometrics, statistical and formal modeling — most of them borrowed from the “dismal science” of economics — became the China watcher’s essential tools of the trade. With field research opportunities in China expanding once again in the aftermath of Deng Xiaoping’s globalization-embracing southern tour of 1992, U.S. graduate students gained ready access to mountains of Chinese statistical data and to a wide variety of field research sites inside China, where they could test their theories, conduct in-depth interviews, and refine their analytical models in a relatively rigorous manner. Unlike the Peking Toms of my generation, who relied on library research, a handful of refugee informants of dubious reliability, and improvised, seat-of-the-pants research methods, China watchers of the current generation have at their fingertips a full and sophisticated arsenal of methodological weaponry. And the rapid development of the Internet has brought with it instant access to an extraordinary array of searchable information, including digitized links to the full texts of thousands of Chinese newspapers and journals.

The parallel revolutions in social science methodology and data storage and retrieval technology have undoubtedly served to raise both the quality and the empirical rigor of research on contemporary China. Graduate students today are far more capable of applying complex mathematical and game-theory models, and performing complex statistical analysis of large-N data sets, than I ever was. They are also more sensitively attended to the need to study China within a comparative, cross-national institutional and political-economy framework. These are all important developments, representing significant progress in the field. But they have come at a cost.

Much has been written in recent years about the decline of area studies in American universities. Due in large measure to the increasing influence of deductive, rational-choice, and statistical-econometric models, graduate students interested in pursuing Chinese studies today appear to be investing less time and energy gaining deep cultural, social, and historical knowledge of their country or region of interest and proportionally more time studying formal modeling and quantitative techniques. Most leading political science departments, for example, now require all first-year students to undergo a rigorous sequence of statistics courses, and many departments (including my own) offer students the option of an additional year of advanced mathematics courses in lieu of a foreign-language requirement. When I completed my doctoral studies at Berkeley in the ‘60s, Ph.D. candidates in comparative politics and area studies were required to pass two foreign-language examinations at a high level of proficiency (at least one of which had to be French, German, or Russian). By contrast, today’s Ph.D. candidates in international and comparative politics at many universities, including UCLA, need attain only moderate proficiency in a single foreign language, while students in other subfields need not demonstrate any language skills at all. I find this very troubling. Without the ability to communicate effectively with people from other cultures, one’s worldview tends to be narrow and parochial.

Many graduate programs now offer “methodology” as a distinct subfield of political science, permitting students to substitute it for traditional fields such as international relations, political behavior, U.S. politics, or comparative politics. Increasingly, if almost imperceptibly, methodology has been elevated in importance from a useful set of research tools, or means used to study politics, to a self-contained object of study, that is an end in itself. Broadly indicative of this trend, between 1968 and 1998, the proportion of articles in the American Political Science Review employing statistical and formal-deductive models of politics rose from 16 percent to 68 percent, while the proportion of articles principally using country-specific, qualitative analytical methods declined from 53 percent to 21 percent. Further reflecting this trend, most leading political science departments have de-emphasized area specialization in their recruitment of new faculty members, stressing instead the hiring of comparative generalists with substantial training in mathematics, econometrics, and/or formal modeling.

Lamenting the decline of area studies in U.S. universities, Chalmers Johnson famously called the growing academic infatuation with deductive methods and rational-choice assumptions in political science “a disaster in the making.” Speaking of the declining field of Japanese area studies, for example, Johnson bemoaned the “arrogant disregard” of area-specific expertise that increasingly characterized U.S. scholarship on Japanese politics, which, he claimed, “borders on malpractice.”

Although Johnson is notoriously prone to indulge in dramatic hyperbole when driving home a point, there is more than a kernel of truth in his critique. In recent years several of my graduate students have displayed significant shifts in their primary research interests, moving away from qualitative research problems (guided by a relatively deep and intuitive understanding of China’s history, institutions, culture, and language) toward a concentration on research problems that lend themselves more readily either to deductive modeling or to statistical analysis. In some cases, the problems selected for analysis appear to be chosen more for their modeling possibilities, or for the ready availability of complete sets of statistical data, than for their intrinsic importance or “puzzle power.” Such research is reminiscent of the classic anecdote about the drunk who looked for his lost care keys under a street lamp. When asked why he was concentrating his search under the lamp, he answered, “Because that’s where the light is.”

The problem lies not with the techniques and methods of statistical and formal analysis themselves but rather with their tendency, when used in isolation from other, more traditional research methods and concepts, to facilitate the displacement of context-sensitive area knowledge by mere technical virtuosity. … …

Richard Baum’s lecture series, The Fall and Rise of China, a monument to his achievement

[S]tastical methods, game theory, and rational-choice analysis have proved extremely valuable, for example, in exposing the operation of hidden institutional constraints on human behavior and in laying bare the underlying logic of apparently irrational and counterintuitive policy outcomes. But such methods are best used in conjunction with other analytical tools and techniques — including case studies, documentary research, personal interviews, and direct observation. And they must be applied to real-world problems by analysts sensitive to the historical, sociocultural, and institutional characteristics and contexts of their empirical universe.

Notwithstanding my nagging concerns about recent methodological trends, there is reason for cautious optimism about the future of China watching. For one thing, the methodological pendulum may be starting to swing back in the direction of better balance between qualitative-inductive research techniques and quantitative-deductive ones. Such pendulum-like motions are not infrequent in academia, where popular new intellectual fads and fashions are subject to long-term modification and renormalization through trial and error. For another thing, the talent pool and academic preparedness of applicants for graduate schools appear to be improving over time, with Graduate Record Exam scores rising steadily. Finally, China’s dramatic economic success has greatly increased the demand for Chinese area studies expertise in society at large. There are now far more employment opportunities than ever before for China specialists in nonacademic careers, professions, and economic sectors.

Richard Baum, China Watcher
Confessions of a Peking Tom
pp.232-236 & 248-253 respectively 

Ed.: The style of the original has been retained and subheadings added.