Ethical Dilemmas — notes for academics who deal with Xi Jinping’s China

Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium

Chapter XXXIV, Part VI



Chapter Thirty-four of Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, the penultimate chapter in the collection, consists of a series of essays related to China’s intellectual life and its stillborn public sphere. Four of the five sections in this chapter were published over the years leading up to the Xi Jinping era. Given that most of this material was not previously available in digital form, I decided to digitise and publish them as background to the final chapter in Tedium, the title of which is ‘An Irrealis Mood’. A version of that concluding chapter was drafted for ‘Knowledge, Ideology and Public Discourse in Contemporary China’, a conference organised by Sebastian Veg and held at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHEES) in Paris on 13-14 June 2024.

This chapter consists of the following sections:

The first three of these works, written between 1998 and 2001, were a continuation of a series of commentaries, academic analyses, translations and books that I published from 1978 that include: records of my encounters with Ai Qing and Ding Ling in 1978 and 1979 respectively, The Wounded (1979), my contributions to Trees on the Mountain (1983), an overview of the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign (1984), Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience (1986, rev. ed. 1988), the Chinese-language essays on culture and politics published in The Nineties Monthly (1986-1991), extended studies of Liu Xiaobo (1990) and Dai Qing (1991), New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (1992), my contribution as lead academic adviser and writer to the documentary film The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995), as well as the books Shades of Mao: the Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader (1996) and In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture (1999). ‘On China’s Editor-Censors’ is one of Xu Zhangrun’s Ten Letters from a Year of Plague. Today, its message is more resonant than ever.

Two other works in this series — A Provocation (2007) and Ethical Dilemmas (2023) — relate to China’s relative openness at the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the lengthening shadow of the Gate of Darkness 黑暗的閘門, yet again, from 2012.


At the end of December 2016, I’d given a talk titled Living with Xi Dada’s China — Making Choices and Cutting Deals. The section ‘Coping with Xi Dada’s China’ offered a list of points of order which I introduced by saying:

Okay, so you just want to have a peaceful life as an aspirational member of middle class, middle of the road, safe cog-in-the-machine, mid-level academia. China just happens to be your subject or career choice, just as it might be some other place, some other discipline, some other form of cookie-cutter knowledge production. You have one of those post-colonial treat-it-as-a-field-of-research and safe-career kinds of approach. Well, that’s just fine. Best of luck and enjoy the trip. My advice, my work, my ideas, our website then are not for you.

‘For those’, I continued, ‘who might aspire to something more, I offer a preliminary list of watchwords, or cautions, relevant to those who would engage with contemporary China beyond the bounds of personal expediency.’ In the following essay, published by The China Project in September 2023, I expanded on that list that addressed some of the ethical dilemmas of ‘cutting a deal with Xi Jinping’s China’.

My thanks to Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and editor of The China Project, for his support. (Jeremy is now an Editorial Fellow at ChinaFile.)

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
13 June 2024


Further Reading:

In a retro mood: The ethical dilemmas of cutting a deal with Xi Jinping’s China

How can scholars, journalists, and others engage with China ethically? The eminent Sinologist Geremie Barmé offers 10 watchwords.