The Basics of Chinapol
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The Basics of Chinapol
An interview with Richard Baum
Professor, University of California-Los Angeles
Founder and List Manager, Chinapol
The expanding political, economic, military, and even cultural clout of China has long been the focus of analysis in congressional hearings, conferences, books, journals, magazines, and newspapers. That the world’s largest, most populous country has seemed to have weathered the recent global economic crisis comparatively better than other nations has only increased the intensity of the discussion.
The debate over the extent, pace, and implications of China’s growing power has been further deepened by the expanding range of new analytical media offered in the Internet age: e-journals, e-magazines, blog posts, online discussion forums, listservs, and Twitter feeds. This Q&A presents an interview
by Asia Policy’s editor, Andrew Marble, with UCLA professor Richard Baum who directs one such Internet-based discussion group: Chinapol, a listserv dedicated to analysis of contemporary Chinese society and politics.
This Q&A is divided into three sections:
- pp. 154–55 provide background on the Chinapol listserv
- pp. 155–59 examine Chinapol’s analytical contributions to the study of
- pp. 159–62 address the challenges of running a listserv
Background on Chinapol
Andrew Marble: What is Chinapol?
Richard Baum: Chinapol is an interactive electronic forum, a listserv where
at last formal count over a thousand scholars, journalists, diplomats, policy
analysts, and other professional China watchers from 26 countries exchange
information, ideas, and insights about Chinese society and politics. The
membership base is multinational, multiprofessional, and multidisciplinary.
We’ve worked hard to cultivate an ethos of open information-sharing and
candid discussion of controversial issues, an effort that I believe has helped
establish the listserv’s reputation for promoting lively debate, intellectual
synergy, and critical analysis.
Marble: So how does this online community actually work? How do these
exchanges take place?
Baum: The community works through online member discussion. Members
simply send an e-mail to a central Chinapol listserv address, which forwards [End page 154] the message to the e-mail addresses of the entire membership roster. Scholars
in their offices can thus instantly communicate with colleagues in the field,
journalists can gather background material and conduct timely interviews on
breaking stories, and diplomats and policy analysts can access expert opinion
on issues affecting foreign policy decisions.
Marble: How did Chinapol start?
Baum: Interestingly enough, Chinapol has its roots in finance—my personal
finance. In the winter of 1994 I moved to Japan for a semester, and at the
time I was in more-or-less regular e-mail contact with around 30 other China
scholars in various countries. But Internet access in Japan was extremely
expensive at that time, with my CompuServe connection costing me a small
fortune—over $250 each month. I decided to economize by periodically sending China-related e-mails to several recipients at a time. As a result my monthly telecom bills quickly dropped by 70%.
Marble: And how did that personal network formalize into what is now known as Chinapol?
Baum: After returning to Los Angeles, I decided to institutionalize this China-
watching community by setting up a dedicated online SIG (special interest
group) exclusively for specialists working on contemporary Chinese politics. I
invited each member of my personal e-mail list to take part in the new forum
and asked them to recommend other China watchers who might be interested
in participating. As I needed an eight-letter alias for the group to conform to
the standard DOS file-naming protocol, I called the group Chinapol.
Membership continued to grow, and in the fall of 1999 I changed Chinapol
from a personal e-mail group to a private, fully functioning web-based listserv
hosted by the UCLA International Institute. Aided by Richard Gunde, assistant
director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, I established a formal set of
membership criteria, rules, and regulations governing group communication
and conduct. In 2002 we added a fully searchable data archive that allows
subscribers to retrieve past Chinapol posts from our restricted website by
date, sender, or keyword. By the fall of 2009 Chinapol had subscribers in 26
countries across the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australasia, including 423
scholars, 279 journalists, 108 NGO or think tank analysts, 106 diplomats and
government analysts, and a number of independent consultants, international
lawyers, and others. [End page 155]
Chinapol’s Analytical Contributions to the Study of China
Marble: The Chinapol listserv is a unique format for the analysis of contemporary Chinese politics, differing from such traditional analytical vehicles as speeches,
conferences, newspaper coverage, magazine stories, journal articles, edited
volumes, and the like. Let’s turn to some of the benefits that a listserv model,
methodologically speaking, brings to the study of contemporary China. Can you
offer some examples?
Baum: Many of the traditional formats you mention have comparatively
longer gestation periods. One benefit of an e-mail forum is that it allows for
the near-instantaneous distribution of critical information. News about fast-
breaking stories—such as the Tibetan unrest in March 2008 and the Sichuan
earthquake disaster in May 2008—has often been made available first on
Chinapol, subsequently becoming the basis for timely reporting and analysis
in the international media. In this respect, there is a close parallel to how
Twitter has been utilized, but our e-mail format has the added benefit of
allowing far more detailed, in-depth discussion.
Marble: Has this kind of real-time posting made a difference?
Baum: In terms of actual politics in China, the listserv format can have, and
indeed has had, a concrete, observable impact. Let me raise a prominent
example. In October 2006, Chinese border guards in Tibet shot and killed two
young Tibetan civilians who were attempting, along with a dozen or so others,
to leave China via a Himalayan mountain pass. The Chinese government
initially claimed that the Tibetans had attacked the guards, who had thus
been forced to fire in self-defense. But within 24 hours a Chinapol member
posted videotape footage, captured by a member of a nearby Romanian
mountain climbing expedition, that clearly showed that military snipers had
shot the two Tibetans from a distance as they peacefully trekked through
the snow. Instantly alerted to the story, Chinapol’s more than two hundred
journalists put out a steady stream of critical reportage. The resulting storm
of international media publicity forced the Chinese government to retract its
claim of self-defense.
Here’s another example. There was a petition drive initiated by Chinapol
list members to protest the January 2000 incarceration of a Chinese-American
research scholar, Song Yongyi. Song had been arrested in China while
collecting research materials on the Cultural Revolution and was charged [End page 156] with the serious criminal offense of violating China’s “state secrets” laws.
Partly as a result of the Chinapol petition campaign and the resulting media
publicity, Song was freed from captivity. In an open letter to Chinapol posted
subsequent to his release, Song told members that without their efforts, his
academic career would have ended in prison.
Marble: Is there a danger though of Chinapol being seen as an advocacy group?
Baum: This is a real concern for me as the listserv’s manager. Recently some
members wanted to use Chinapol as a means for generating online publicity
for and soliciting attendance at a Beijing street demonstration in support of
tens of thousands of AIDS victims in Henan Province. As much as individual
members of the group (including me) sympathized with the plight of these
victims, as an impartial listserv, Chinapol could not allow itself to become—or
even be perceived as—an advocacy or lobbying group promoting particular
policy interests in China.
Individual Chinapol members do, of course, belong to advocacy groups
such as Human Rights in China and Human Rights Watch, and lobbying
groups such as the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA). And on
rare occasions we do allow the membership list to be used to circulate petitions
in cases involving blatant denial of due process to scholars, journalists, and
lawyers in China—whose communities form the very core of Chinapol’s
professional constituency. But we do not and cannot as a group use our name
to advocate or advertise political activism within China.
The difference is crucial to the integrity of Chinapol’s mission—which
is to serve as an open, unbiased channel of communication and discussion
for news and information about China. Members are, of course, free to use
Chinapol as a resource for identifying like-minded individuals, and personal
calls for advocacy can be made to those individuals outside of the Chinapol
listserv in what we term offline correspondence.
Marble: Let’s now move up the ladder of abstraction and discuss how Chinapol
has contributed more generally to the study of China as an analytical field.
You say that Chinapol is known for its synergy, cross-fertilization, and critical
analysis. How does this occur?
Baum: One of the principal keys to Chinapol’s success is that the opinions and
views expressed on Chinapol (unless reproduced from published sources)
are personal and confidential, and may not be quoted, cited, or otherwise [End page 157] referenced without the express consent of the author. This non-disclosure rule
allows experts the freedom to “think aloud,” if you will, to a geographically
disparate group of dedicated professionals, often resulting in a better grasp of
the underlying issues and a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of
Chinese politics. It would be hard to replicate this dynamic cross-fertilization
of ideas in a public access format.
Marble: Could you offer some examples?
Baum: A handful of examples from the past few months illustrate these
points. Although Chinapol is primarily oriented toward Chinese politics, the
listserv also includes a good deal of economic analysis. Reporting from China
and elsewhere, several of our economists, journalists, and policy analysts
have been spiritedly debating the efficacy of the Chinese government’s
stimulus package in countering the effects of the current global recession.
While the conventional wisdom seems to hold that China’s recovery has
been nothing short of miraculous—reaching 8.9% GDP growth by the third
quarter of 2009—our Chinapol analysts have been rather more cautious,
pointing to several potentially serious problems in China’s recovery strategy.
These include a massive build-up of unsold inventories in many state-owned
factories; a glut of low-interest “sweetheart loans” and credits extended to
state administrative agencies and their well-heeled clients, known as “crony
capitalists,” to the neglect of individuals, small businesses, and families truly
in need of relief; and a staggering epidemic of embezzlement of stimulus
funds on the part of government and state enterprise officials. Upward of
$35 billion in embezzled funds were uncovered in the first audit of one
thousand state agencies, and this figure may barely scratch the surface of the
total amount involved. By casting a cool and critical eye on official claims of
China’s economic recovery, Chinapol’s economists have helped to place the
recovery in a more realistic perspective.
The recent execution in China of Akmal Shaikh, a reportedly mentally ill
British citizen of Pakistani origin, provides another example of how Chinapol
serves to catalyze expert opinion and analysis. The approaching execution of
Shaikh set off an intense online debate over the nature and appropriateness of
the laws and regulations governing prosecution and sentencing of mentally
ill defendants in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). With half a dozen
specialists in Chinese law taking the lead, the discussion proved extremely
enlightening to non-specialists such as myself. [End page 158]
Chinapol has also been an indispensable barometer for gauging the ebb
and flow of media and Internet censorship in China. With around 150 list
members living in China at any given time, our members are able to spot
new website blockages, keyword filters, and firewall devices within minutes of
their implementation. Our members also monitor hundreds of Chinese blogs
and chat rooms daily, and report in real time on important new developments
in cyberspace. And, as noted earlier, when a Chinese scholar, journalist,
lawyer, or human rights activist gets in trouble with the authorities for
exposing corruption or injustice, or for asking politically incorrect questions,
Chinapol’s journalists cover it like a glove.
Recently, a book review was posted on Chinapol that discussed anew the
case of John Stewart Service, an American foreign service officer who was
convicted of passing top secret information about the Chinese Nationalists to
Soviet agents in the mid-1940s. A major debate followed on Chinapol, focusing
on the issues of Service’s guilt or innocence and just what the word treason
means in legal terms. In this discussion, Chinapol’s experts shed important
new light on the circumstances of Service’s alleged crime and stimulated a
vigorous debate on the appropriateness of the charges against him.
Challenges to Running a Listserv
Marble: For readers who may be considering launching a listserv for their own
particular country, region, or issue of study in Asia, can you share some of your
strategies for leading this type of analytical endeavor?
Baum: Be careful of your own success! As I mentioned, Chinapol now has
over a thousand members. On balance, I think such a large subscriber base has
added to the quality and variety of relevant information and expert opinion
available to list members—and through them, to governments, news media,
policy communities, research scholars, and university students everywhere. On
the downside, however, in addition to a certain loss of member familiarity and
intimacy that comes with increasing size, there have been other unintended,
and unwanted, consequences of expansion.
Marble: Can you elaborate?
Baum: Though it is vital to allow room for different viewpoints and shades of
opinion to be freely expressed on our listserv, I strongly discourage partisan [End page 159] advocacy, polemical argumentation, and ad hominem attacks. At the discretion
of the list manager, a Chinapol member’s name may be removed from the list
for violation of these norms. First or minor offenses result in a “yellow card”
(warning). Serious or repeated offenses result in a “red card” (expulsion).
Happily, I have only needed to red-card a small handful of members in the
fifteen years of Chinapol’s existence.
Still, as membership has increased, and the average daily flow of e-mail
traffic has swelled from three or four messages a day to more than thirty,
inevitably there has been some increase in the frequency of discordant,
strident, or tendentious messages, sometimes leading to an open exchange
of personal epithets. In 2003 there was an intense debate over the ethics of
the Beijing government—and in part as a result of my efforts to maintain
an atmosphere of self-restraint, a small group of vocal human rights critics
of China ended up splitting off from Chinapol to form their own online
discussion group, which they called Pangolin-pol. Today Pangolin-pol is the
largest open-membership alternative to Chinapol.
Marble: Has Chinapol been a victim of its success in other ways?
Baum: Indeed. Our rising international profile has meant that Chinapol has
inevitably attracted the attention of Chinese government agencies, who have
almost certainly been monitoring our communications. On one occasion, a
Beijing-based Chinapol member told me that a Chinese acquaintance of his,
a mid-level government official, had in the course of a personal conversation
revealed the contents of a recent Chinapol message. U.S.-based members
have also received invitations to seminars in China—electronic invitations
sent to e-mail addresses that they use solely for Chinapol correspondence.
This surveillance problem has been compounded by another by-product of
a large membership base: the increased likelihood of list members leaking
confidential content to unauthorized individuals.
My sense of being under official Chinese scrutiny was reinforced in the fall
of 2005 when a Chinapol colleague and I decided to organize a no-host banquet
for our Beijing-based list members. The event was attended by 74 members—
and was closely observed by an unlikely looking busboy and his walkie-talkie
toting colleague, who hovered conspicuously around the edges of our gathering.
Almost certainly plainclothes security cops, these uninvited guests must have
known in advance just when and where our banquet would be held.
Most disturbingly, in late 2009 we had an instance where many of
Chinapol’s journalists who had posted online messages critical of recent events [End page 160] in Xinjiang were targeted in a stream of intense hate mail. Alarmingly, these
threatening missives included forwarded confidential Chinapol postings. This
suggests a concerted strategy of attack, which in turn suggests involvement
by a Chinese government security agency. In this connection, I have been
reliably informed that Beijing authorities have been intercepting Chinapol
messages flowing into and out of the e-mail boxes of some of our China-based
members, who currently number over 150.
Marble: So there are complications then for China-based members—perhaps
some of the best-placed to offer insightful discussion on Chinese politics—who
wish to participate on Chinapol?
Baum: Unfortunately, yes. Chinapol is forced to be very selective about
allowing PRC nationals to become members. Nationals of Taiwan and Hong
Kong are allowed because their governments do not expend enormous
resources attempting to control the flow and content of politically relevant
communications; nor do their governments punish or intimidate their own
citizens for openly questioning state policies or leaders.
On the other hand, it seems counterproductive to maintain a blanket
exclusion of all PRC nationals simply because they live and work inside
China. There are certainly individuals of high ability and integrity working
in Chinese universities, mass media, and think tanks whom we respect and
trust, and whose opinions on matters of public policy are of interest to us.
For this reason, I have periodically waived the “no PRC” membership rule
in individual cases. And I fully expect that as China becomes more “normal”
with respect to ending intrusive Internet surveillance and censorship, more
Chinese nationals will be added to the list.
Having said this, however, I do take seriously the concern expressed by some
list members, including not a few active diplomats and government analysts,
about the vital importance of maintaining the ethos of confidentiality and the
related desirability of protecting potentially vulnerable Chinese interlocutors.
On the former question, I need only mention the case of Chas Freeman, whose
off-handed, out-of-context remarks about the Tiananmen crisis, posted in
confidence on another listserv several years ago, somehow found their way into
the media recently, with potentially devastating consequences. There is also the
very real possibility that Chinese list members might be tempted to reproduce
confidential messages on their blogs or in their classrooms as evidence of their
being “wired” into foreign opinion. Given the generally hazy understanding
of many Chinese concerning the importance of privacy, confidentiality, and [End page 161] intellectual property rights protection, this is not an insignificant concern. Then,
too, there is the question of access to the Chinapol archive. Since our archive
dates back to January 2002, any members—Chinese or otherwise—who might
be admitted under liberalized eligibility rules would automatically have access
to all online communications from the past seven years. This, too, is potentially
worrisome to many current members.
Some have argued that such objections are moot, since Chinapol is already
quite porous, and since agencies of the Chinese party-state already have the
technical capacity to monitor our messages—and have to our certain knowledge
actually done so at least occasionally, and quite possibly with some regularity. My
response is that the artificially constructed cocoon of ostensible confidentiality
that we operate under in Chinapol is as much a psychological conceit as it is
an actual effective firewall against prying surveilleurs of various types. But it
nonetheless functions as a very real security blanket in the sense that it enables
a modicum of free-flowing commentary and conversation to take place without
everyone constantly casting nervous electronic glances over their shoulders.
Marble: Looking to the near future, are there any plans to modify, add to, or
adjust the goals, rules, or operation of Chinapol?
Baum: To judge by the high volume of supportive messages I receive from our
members every month, the vast majority of Chinapol subscribers appear to
be relatively satisfied with things as they are. While some would prefer that I
allow people greater latitude in venting their unfiltered emotions and personal
antagonisms online, most seem satisfied with the current rules governing civility
and collegiality. As for the question of expanding the list to include more PRC
nationals, I intend to continue doing this slowly and cautiously in the future.
I am concerned that as new people join the list and some long-term
members become inactive with the passage of time, a rising number of passive,
non-participating members and “lurkers” may clog the Chinapol membership
list. Many people simply move on to new careers or professional interests,
leaving China behind; journalists in particular tend to have a short half-life
of active interest in China, as they move from assignment to assignment. At
some point, I will probably have to conduct a re-registration (or “pruning”) of
the list to ensure the ongoing interest and commitment of our members. But
I have no current plans either to change the rules and operating procedures
of Chinapol or to retire from being its list-meister. As Burt Lance once said
to President Jimmy Carter, when asked for advice on how to save billions of
taxpayer dollars, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” [End page 162]