I really thought I didn’t do China studies until 2014

I really thought I didn’t do China studies until 2014 December 31, 2014

Umbrella Movement, Mong Kok, 2014 - by Citobun (Umbrella_movement_Mong_Kok_November_26_2014_post-clearance_35) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Umbrella Movement, Mong Kok, 2014 – by Citobun (Umbrella_movement_Mong_Kok_November_26_2014_post-clearance_35) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
If New Year’s Eve is a time to take stock of what went down in the year before, you could say that I’ve had a lot of thinking to do.

I’m in the middle of finishing yet another piece on the Hong Kong protests of 2014, a topic that has occupied much of my thinking since late September and that is making me rethink how I articulate my academic interests. Those who read this blog know that I rotate among several items of interest regularly – American megachurches and the demise of Mars Hill Church, property politics in British Columbia, an occasional dabble into Roman Catholic geopolitics, and a great deal about how the private consensus is unraveling. I insist that I work on publics, that my regional focus is the Pacific Rim, that my postdoctoral work is on Asian American and Asian Canadian studies.

All of this is of no avail. It’s taken the events of 2014 – the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong – to make me realize that I need to admit myself that I do China studies.

This is a difficult admission to make. When I began my doctorate, my committee’s advice to me to work on Christianity in China – by which they meant the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – set me at odds with them. The jobs were there, they told me, because of the growing political and economic power of the PRC, as well as the proliferation of (often elite) migrants from the PRC around the world. It made sense: I’m Chinese, I speak both Cantonese and Mandarin, I operate with enough of a reading knowledge of Chinese to get by if I have sufficient dictionary tools (we in geography do not have a language requirement, unlike our friends in the humanities), and this would all be a match made in heaven with China written into the title.

The thing was, I didn’t want to be pegged as a China studies guy, and still don’t. As I observed the academy at the time, that seemed to be precisely what was happening. If you do China, you devote your whole life to studying China, China, and more China. I had other interests. I was working on grounded theologies. I wanted to do stuff on public spheres. I didn’t want to give up Asian American and Asian Canadian studies.

The result is that my committee and I agreed that I should do a Pacific Rim church-state relations kind of project. That’s why I ended up studying the contributions of Cantonese-speaking (read: Hong Kong-centric) Chinese Christians in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. I indulged in Asian American and Asian Canadian studies. I read mostly in public sphere theory and political theology. I even dabbled in Catholic studies to balance out what I was seeing as a Protestant obsession in the social science of religion, and I wrote a postdoctoral fellowship grant to study younger-generation Asian Americans and Asian Canadians in the Pacific Northwest. I was extremely gratified when my new research in Seattle and Vancouver turned up case after case of younger-generation people arguing that they did not have transnational Asian sensibilities, that having been raised in America and Canada, they focused their energies on local issues and conceptualized their difference in terms of race. I even taught a class on American religion.

And then the Sunflower Movement happened. Then Occupy Central heated up. Then the Umbrella Movement exploded.

When students occupied the Legislative Yuan in Taipei in March, I began to accept that my research would always have Asia-Pacific connections. I was, after all, still going to draft and submit articles on Hong Kong, and I had planned to do one on Occupy Central as soon as it was clear what kind of civil disobedience Benny Tai actually had in mind. But then things began to heat up, very seriously. I began to write primers on this blog – primer after primer – that I inserted between all the Mark Driscoll posts that the evangelical blogosphere was begging for. I also wrote posts over the summer about whether Asian Americans and Asian Canadians could be supportive of the impending Occupy Central protests.

And then it happened. It finally happened. After months and months of stalling, the students gave up on Occupy Central and decided fatefully to enact a series of student strikes and to take back Civic Square in Admiralty. When police fired back with tear gas and pepper spray, it wasn’t Central that got occupied – it was Admiralty, Lippo Centre, Causeway Bay, and (good heavens!) Mong Kok across the water. The Umbrella Movement was on, and I had followed it all the way up to that point.

But it wasn’t until I started writing and giving talks on Hong Kong that it dawned on me that, against my will, talking about Hong Kong and Taiwan will still get you pegged as a China studies guy. The questions I began to get asked in Catholic interviews were about Sino-Vatican relations. When I gave a talk on the ‘shadow of Tiananmen’ – a topic that had been decided prior to the Umbrella Movement – I got thrown a bunch of questions about the Chinese state apparatus. Even when answering objections about American involvement, I found myself having to think a lot about how the PRC propaganda machine worked. One piece that started out on this blog and wound up working itself itself into several talks is now even being slated for publication in an academic journal called Review of Religion in Chinese Society.

I’ve finally accepted it.

In a way, I’ve prepared for it. I did my share of reading China geographers for my comprehensive exams – George Lin, Fulong Wu, Laurence Ma, Carolyn Cartier. I certainly had thought a lot about Chinese urbanisms as part of studying Asia-Pacific urban geographies. My undergraduate advisor Tim Cheek also employed me to be his research assistant as he worked on post-Reform China and the role of zhishifenzi (intellectuals) throughout the twentieth century. The times that I’ve had to ask my friend Anna Scott – now a Georgetown graduate student working on Chinese policy – about the Chinese state apparatus have been too many to count. I had thought through the ‘trans-Pacific transpositions’ that historian Tim Tseng writes about, connecting Chinese nationalisms with Chinese churches in the Americas. I had even found that one of the major texts in public sphere theory, Craig Calhoun’s Neither Emperors Nor Gods, was on the 1989 Beijing Spring in Tiananmen Square – not a popular topic with the PRC, to be sure, but definitely centering China studies all the same. But to admit that I was actually studying China from the outside-in, that’s something that perhaps I had said one or two times, but that I had never taken seriously.

Now I have to. The last few months have made me think constantly about the Chinese state apparatus, what ‘one country, two systems’ means, and the extent of the PRC machine into North American societies, both in terms of influence and in terms of protest. I think a good deal about the PRC, and I’ve been reviewing a bunch of China studies stuff in order to do a half-decent job writing about Hong Kong.

So, as 2014 draws to a close, I suppose that for all the talk about doing geography, religious studies, public sphere theory, Catholic studies, Protestant studies, American studies, Canadian studies, Hong Kong studies, migration studies, and trans-Pacific studies, my committee was right all along. I have to be honest with myself. If the study of public spheres in Greater China and Asian North America keeps on drawing me in this direction, then I suppose I do have an interest in things like Sino-Vatican relations, Chinese ideologies of privatization, PRC policy geographies in Greater China, and public spheres and religious spaces as Hong Kong relates to China. In that case, I really do do China studies.

Bring it on, 2015. I’m late to my own party, and I’ve got to catch up on. Bring it.

POSTSCRIPT: This means, of course, that #TPCIU is as related to the American studies side of my work as it is the China/Asia-Pacific side. But you knew that already.

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