Controversy about Chinese students at Bard College: not what it appears to be on the surface

I’ve never been to Bard College, but it has always been a little special to me, since that’s where Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were students when they met and started Steely Dan.

More recently, it’s been in the news (well, the news among China-watchers) because of a controversy over an art exhibit. You can read the story, entitled “Chinese Students at Bard College Offended By Art Exhibit”, here at the China Change website.

You can pretty much predict the story just from reading the headline: art exhibit contains material critical of Chinese government; brainwashed Chinese student mob hysterically demands censorship and shrieks about the “hurt feelings of the Chinese people.” We all know the narrative. The article contributes to this by saying that “[t]he community of Chinese students (currently over 100) and scholars at Bard took issue with the exhibit.”

Except that’s not exactly what happened. I urge people not to simply accept this familiar narrative without digging deeper. Reality is not as tidy as we’d like it to be. The article talks about a letter from a Chinese student; take a look at what the student actually wrote, and the professor’s response. (Since the link may not last, I’m posting the letter and the professor’s response at the end of this post.)

There is stuff in the letter to disagree with, but it seems genuinely thoughtful and respectful. Most impressive to me was that the writer goes out of his way to state that he is writing in his personal capacity and does not purport to speak for all Chinese students, some of whom have different views. It can be very tempting for the leader of any group, to say nothing of a Chinese student group, to claim to speak on behalf of the whole. (The president of the American Bar Association recently got into a bit of trouble of this kind when he wrote a letter about the Kavanaugh nomination purporting to represent the entire ABA.) The writer does not say anything about hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, etc., and does not inaccurately claim to speak for all Chinese students; it is the China Change article that asserts that “the community of Chinese students” took offense. I respect Yaxue Cao’s work very much, but the article is just wrong to generalize in this way.

For example, the letter-writer says, “I personally appreciate you and your colleagues’ efforts and regard your works as thought-provoking stimulus. There are also many who share these feelings and who do not at all feel offended in this case. And yet still a large number of us find our concerns genuine and heartfelt — there could have been much better ways and more appropriate days to examine these topics and call for public attention.”

He also says, “I do not speak for anyone other than myself and I do not assume representation of anyone other than myself, either. I have tried my best to faithfully summarize the concerns raised from an interesting discussion that include many members of the Bard Chinese Community in order to update these feedbacks with you. I humbly forward these to you as some of my own personal concerns.”

Thus, this is very far from the neat and familiar “brainwashed Chinese student mob shrieks for censorship” story it might at first appear to be. The student expressed his views, and the views of some of his fellow students, in a rational and respectful way. I don’t know what more we could ask of him, unless we demand that he simply shut up and just sit there stewing – not a good way to teach people, in my opinion. I congratulate the professor on her response.


THE LETTER

Dear Prof. Karetzky,

Good Morning! I am Frederick Siyuan Min, a second-semester junior major in Political Studies and the Chair of Chinese Student Organization (CSO). I am writing to you about some personal concerns recently brought to me by my Chinese schoolmates at Bard regarding to the photo exhibition currently held in Campus Center, which you have co-curated. This could take a few minutes to read and I would like to thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

You must have known and studied the content of theses photos thoroughly, but for the sake of clarification, please bear with me: the series of photos features a large variety of topics relating to China and Chinese culture, including images of protests, an armed person waving a gun in front of Mao Zedong, the founding father of People’s Republic of China, and a Statue of Liberty photoshopped to be on the Tiananmen Square, where the Monument to the People’s Heroes actually stands. These are highly controversial and heavily loaded topics. As the striking black-and-white images have successfully drawn the attentions of people passing by in Campus Center, there is by far no tag or any explanation on the artworks. (I believe they are still in progress.)

The day before yesterday was October 1st, the National Day in mainland China, as equivalent to the Fourth of July here. Although Bard has protected us well, one has to admit that there has been ongoing and escalating tensions between the US and China, between both economies and between the peoples. Therefore, I was not surprised when I was approached by more than a few Chinese students who expressed their concerns about the timing, method of display, and the narrative of this exhibition that tackles on so many sensitive and controversial themes. I believe some of them have already approached faculty members individually, before I was informed about the issue. But I am concerned, as well; and I would like to pass these concerns to the curators of this event.

After I received several complaints, I directly went to the online WeChat group that consists most enrolling students, recent graduates, visiting scholars from China and our East Asian Representative Mr. Shawn Moore, (as I was not on campus and was with the BGIA program in New York City) and asked for their opinions on the exhibition. As a result, a vibrant and highly intellectual conversation took place. It is in Chinese but I would love to share the transcript if you are interested. As if now, I will take the privilege to summarize their messages and deliver them to you.

Major concerns are, but not confined within, that:

Firstly, despite the possible artistic implications, the political messages of these works are precise, and particularly provocative due to the choice of time of this exhibition. They are inflaming messages sent to a targeted group of people at a very sensitive time. Exactly one century ago, a rather reckless man insisted on attending a military drill and touring the city of Sarajevo on Vidovdan, the Serbian national day, which then cost he and his wife’s lives, sparking a series of exacerbating diplomatic crisis as well as violence that eventually led to World War I. It is not really an accurate analogy as the extent and intentions of Archduke Ferdinand are not in any way parallel to those of the curators, but the assumed delicacy of the choice of time during politically heated times is at stake. We do not know whether such a date is deliberately chosen, and believe that a postponement could have made this event much more educational and less emotional as it is supposed to be.

Secondly, many have argued that these photos imply an outdated, narrow-minded and self-righteous point of view full of orientalism. It is understood that most artists come from China but many think that these works have failed to produce a comprehensive understanding of China today or China in its past; nor does it reflect the views of the majority of China or of us. These are topics worthy of attention, discussion, debate, and even more, an academic scrutiny. Whereas, without any tag or further explanation on the artworks, one under the impression of this exhibition and without any other knowledge, might very well misinterpret China in a biased perspective.

Thirdly, many have indicated that it almost feels like an ambush to have seen these photos displayed in Campus Center, rather than in a particularly featured exhibition, and been forced to answer questions from our curious American friends. For anyone proud of and willing to defend their nationality, it is unfair to be publicly embarrassed in front of friends, classmates and faculty advisors. There is a certain sense of betrayal especially since we are Bard students and we have been extremely grateful to the pluralistic yet always respectful atmosphere here. We have rarely found ourselves in a position where we are to be judged by our nationality, our ethnics, the history of our country or the policies of our government. However, many of us feel like we are when having to withstand the strong emotional impact of this exhibition at an extremely open public area on campus.

That said, I am — I do not speak for CSO nor for the more-than-a-hundred Chinese students at Bard — and yet still confident that our students are not embarrassed or afraid of talking about these topics. CSO has previously organized documentary screenings followed by panels along with the Asian Studies and History Departments on the Tiananmen Square incident and civil rights movement in China. They were successful in terms of the willingness to engage and the intellectual capacity of our fellow students. And I believe all of us understand and have upheld the honored Bard traditions of proper rhetorics, even in an online group chat: we respect, we do not judge, we do not neglect the minority and we think critically, using everything we have learnt from our education here which we do so enjoy. I personally appreciate you and your colleagues’ efforts and regard your works as thought-provoking stimulus. There are also many who share these feelings and who do not at all feel offended in this case. And yet still a large number of us find our concerns genuine and heartfelt — there could have been much better ways and more appropriate days to examine these topics and call for public attention. It will be best if this exhibition is not held during national celebration days. In the meantime, the matters articulated in the exhibition deserve a more careful and comprehensive academic scrutiny. We would like to be, instead of shocked in public and then lectured, involved in a free, civil and equal conversation i.e. a panel discussion with not only the curators and artists, but also professors from our Asian Studies and History Departments. We would like to address our feelings and understandings with you, and we would like to hear more from you, with all due respect and sincere gratitude that you have provided us with an opportunity to rethink about and hopefully look beyond our identity with utterly good intentions.

This email has been presented in our WeChat group prior to being sent to you, and has not received any more request for further revision. I do not speak for anyone other than myself and I do not assume representation of anyone other than myself, either. I have tried my best to faithfully summarize the concerns raised from an interesting discussion that include many members of the Bard Chinese Community in order to update these feedbacks with you. I humbly forward these to you as some of my own personal concerns. Thank you again for your time and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours Sincerely,
闵思渊
Frederick S. Min
Chair of Chinese Student Organization

THE RESPONSE

Thank you for your letter and I am happy you took the time to confront me directly. There are several misunderstandings here. First, the time slot was decided last spring by the campus directors of the space. I had no idea of the significance of the date, OCT 1, certainly no political import was intended. Secondly, I mounted this show by myself, with the help of two Chinese students, and so did not have enough time to put up the labels. They are now mounted along with a copy of the catalogue which I include for you here as a pdf. Please feel free to disseminate it as you see fit. Thirdly, this show is a traveling show, it first was shown in the Fall of 2017 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice part of the City University of New York, it is on their website. These artists and the co- curator, all live in China; some of them have world-wide renown and accolades for their courage in speaking freely about human rights problems in China. I, for my part, thought it was important to realize the impact of American ideals of democracy that have inspired people in China. The photo of participants in the umbrella movement was from Hong Kong, and the demonstrators in the street were engaging in the democratic movement in Taiwan, where realizing the ideal of democracy is hopeful. This is all the more important to me today, as I say in the preface of the catalog, because these very values are at risk in our society, where freedom of speech is being challenged.

These photos illustrate the abuses of human rights in China, the persecution of the people involved in the democracy movement, the problems of rural people who have come to the city seeking employment and are forced to live on the edge of the consumer society in Beijing in camps on the outer ring roads without water or electricity, the plight of prostitutes, homosexuals and transgender people and the problems of women seeking equality in the work place and in society in general. These are problems we still face in America, and seeing them on view makes us all the more aware of the imperfections of our society. Exposing these abuses is important for any hope of resolution. I think several of the facts explained here, had they been known at the time of the installation, would have allayed many of the fears of the students you described in your letter.

It is important to me that you realize this show is dedicated to the noble prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was the voice of democracy until his recent death during incarceration in China. It is his saying, “I have no enemies and no hatred” that led my preface. I assembled this show in part because of my admiration of his strength, courage and humanity.

It is also important to point out to you my lifelong engagement and admiration of Chinese culture, please check my website for my over 10 books, sixty articles and international presentations devoted largely to Chinese culture–modern, medieval and religious. Please see my website for the more than a dozen catalogues of shows I have curated on such topics of contemporary Chinese art- as the literary culture, cultural identity, Daoism and Christianity, to name a few. Several of these were held at Bard.

I would like to invite you and any and all who are interested in the current exhibit to join me in a round table discussion which will be held after the showing of dissident films by Chinese artists in the Campus Center on Oct 13 at noon. After which there will be a reception.

I would be happy if you could post my response on wechat so your fellow students do not remain misinformed as to my purpose.
Thank you
Patricia

 

6 thoughts on “Controversy about Chinese students at Bard College: not what it appears to be on the surface”

  1. Professor Clarke, thank you for sharing this. I appreciate that your comment reminds me once again how important it is to do fact checking and read source materials. That can never be emphasized enough. Too many people take news articles at their face value or simply choose to believe what they want to believe. I also admire this student for rationally expressing his own opinions and hopefully that reception the professor talked about will provide a good forum for an open discussion that promotes further understanding and communication.

  2. Dear Prof Clarke,

    Indeed, let’s start with fact checking: what in my characterization of Siyuan Min’s letter is not what “appears to be on the surface” and not described in his letter? I didn’t mention that he said the letter only represents himself and that he wrote courteously, but has he not repeatedly stated that he was conveying the feelings of current students, recent graduates and visiting scholars who had been voicing their displeasure in a WeChat group? Has he not said that fellow Chinese students had come to him to voice their dismay at this art exhibit, and that he was writing to pass on these sentiments to Prof. Keretzy? I have a theory about why he studiously emphasized that he was writing on behalf of himself, given the recent speech by the Vice President Mike Pence. But then again, he signed this letter with his title as the Chair of Chinese Student Organization. All considered, I do not think it’s an unfair characterization for me to summarize Min’s letter as representing at least a portion of the Chinese students at Bard College.

    I invite everyone to read my essay (980 words) with or without the same presumption that I have a “narrative.” Let’s have a close reading of all the texts involved. I’m fully confident that my writing will stand well under the closest scrutiny. https://chinachange.org/2018/10/19/chinese-students-at-bard-college-offended-by-art-exhibit/

    After my post was published, one of the participating artists Wu Yuren, whom I have never met, shared a photo with me: In 2015 when Prof Patricia Keretzy spoke with artists in Beijing, they were tailed by a guobao (political police, or secret police), the man in dark shirt. Find the photo on Twitter: https://twitter.com/yaxuecao/status/1054078202203852800?s=21

    We don’t know whether there were Chinese students in that WeChat group who held views different from what Siyuan Min relayed. If there were, and if they dared to voice them publicly or among themselves, Min didn’t convey them in his letter. That’s something to think about.

    A discussion is what Prof Keretzy wants. A discussion is what the artists want. And a discussion is what I want. But it’s clear that the Chinese students at Bard don’t want a discussion except for venting their displeasure at a WeChat group and via this letter to Prof Keretzy. Bard College is eager to stop any further spillover and contain possible damage in their relations with the Chinese consulate officials in New York (I’m not speculating; I know it for a fact).

    Indeed, things are NOT what appears to be, and my 980-word essay has barely scratched the surface.

    All the best,
    Yaxue

    P.S. By the way, earlier this afternoon, I was able to access this post on my cellphone, then I couldn’t anymore – it kept directing me to a Safari survey site. You might want to take a look to see if something is wrong with this site.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Yaxue. My remarks about people imposing a narrative were not intended to be about you; I was concerned about readers of the story, whether as reported by you or as reported by anyone else. Sorry for not making this clear. The only criticism I had of your story – which I made, incidentally, in the context of praise of your work – was that the story stated that “[t]he community of Chinese students (currently over 100) and scholars at Bard took issue with the exhibit.” As you report it, the story does not contain evidence that this generalization, covering all Chinese students and scholars at Bard, is actually accurate. What your story reports is that some Chinese students took issue with it. The letter-writer explicitly says that he does not represent all students, and says that some students don’t agree with him.

      In your comment above, you say, “I do not think it’s an unfair characterization for me to summarize Min’s letter as representing at least a portion of the Chinese students at Bard College.” I completely agree. That is not an unfair characterization at all. But that’s not the characterization that appeared in your article, and it’s the characterization that appeared in your article with which I disagreed. It looks like we now agree that some but not all students/scholars at Bard were offended, and as far as I know we don’t disagree on anything else.

  3. Prof. Clarke, a few quick thoughts:

    Siyuan Min’s letter is indeed respectful and thoughtful, but the central message remains the same: This exhibit is politically unacceptable. I believe he made it abundantly clear despite layers and layers of “thoughtful” patting.

    You have a problem with this particular sentence of mine: “[t]he community of Chinese students (currently over 100) and scholars at Bard took issue with the exhibit.” Maybe this is getting too technical, and silly, but for my own edification, is it really an off-off characterization on my part if he said he was passing on sentiments of the WeChat group that, I quote Min, “consists most enrolling students, recent graduates, visiting scholars from China”? If “most” can not be characterized as “community,” what’s the threshold for “community” then?

    I don’t think my essay contributes to the narrative that “brainwashed Chinese student mob hysterically demands censorship and shrieks about the ‘hurt feelings of the Chinese people'”. It’s such a grotesque characterization of what I wrote that I don’t care to argue with you on this point.

    What I did is I pointed out the distorted logic in Min’s argument, however respectful and thoughtful, that doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense because it’s an ugly spin on nonsense. You and I both know the spin. Everyone knows the spin. Young Min tried his best to spin. He did well at some spots, and at others it’s just laughable.

    From sources at Bard, I heard that the college considers the spillover (my post and the Sinicism inclusion and social media discussion) a disaster and hopes it will fade away as soon as possible and not get in the way of the school’s business with China.

    Now, readers of this blog who I believe are mostly academics, please consider the chilling effect of Min’s letter on academic freedom at Bard when some of your Chinese students bark at criticism of Chinese government and your employer does not like what you do.

    Some of you might object, but I’m going to say it anyway because that’s how I see it: “Chinese students are being weaponized to curb academic freedom on American campuses.” Look at the photo of Prof. Patricia Keretzky sitting in a cafe speaking to artists under the watchful eyes of a guobao (secret police) in Beijing in 2015; and consider what Min’s letter will achieve with the help of an acquiescent college administration. (Photo is here: https://twitter.com/yaxuecao/status/1054078202203852800?s=21)

    That’s the heart of the matter.

    1. Yaxue, as I said, “My remarks about people imposing a narrative were not intended to be about you; I was concerned about readers of the story, whether as reported by you or as reported by anyone else. Sorry for not making this clear.”

      Min said the WeChat group consisted of “most” students. He did not say that the views he was expressing represented most or all students. Those are two separate ideas. In your original comment below, you yourself say that Min’s letter represents “at least a portion of the Chinese students at Bard College.” This is no doubt true and I don’t think much more needs to be said.

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