The Basics of Chinapol

The Basics of Chinapol

Interview with Richard Baum
July 1, 2010

The debate over the extent, pace, and implications of China’s growing power has been deepened by the expanding range of new analytical media offered in the Internet age. This Q&A presents an interview by Asia Policy‘s editor, Andrew Marble, with UCLA professor Richard Baum, who directs Chinapol, a listserv dedicated to analysis of contemporary Chinese society and politics.

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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 China
  • 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]

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