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Studying Modern China: Blind Spots, Unsolved Puzzles, Hidden Controversies

They came together to address issues that often come too short in modern China Studies: blind spots, unsolved puzzles, hidden controversies. The aim of the MERICS International Academic Conference MERICS held on April 11 in the Embassy of the Netherlands, not far from MERICS, was to initiate an international gathering of researchers to promote the exchange about often neglected issues from their perspectives.

Ten speakers split into five conference sessions offered a total of around 80 guests from academia much inspiring input: Elizabeth J. Perry, Harvard University, and Wang Shaoguang, Chinese University of Hong Kong, held the first session. Perry explained the challenges China will have to stand with regard to higher education in the future. Wang pointed out how Western and Chinese perspectives diverge on policy and made clear that from his point of view it is not useful, to apply western state models to explain and typecast the Chinese state.

Before noon, David S. Goodman from the University of Sydney and Frank Pieke from Leiden University, held the second session. Classes and political change in China - especially the role of the elites - were the subject of Goodman's lecture. Frank Pieke also dealt with the interdependence of politics and society, and spoke about the consequences of the changing Chinese society for politics in China.

Barry Naughton, University of California at San Diego, and Chen Ling from Tsinghua University in Beijing chaired the third session. Barry Naughton questioned the dramatic changes in almost all areas of politics. When, he asked, did the agenda change? And how come, that after economic reforms China's politics rather went backwards? Chen Ling themed cultural differences between the “East” and the "West". She pointed out, that the mutual understanding - despite all the language skills and research that has being done - from her point of view is still very limited.

In the afternoon, Orville Schell from the Asia Society in New York and François Godement from the European Council on Foreign Relations gave their input speaches. Schell defended the thesis that China’s narrative of humiliation is distorting China’s ability to relate to Japan and the West. Godement pointed to a tension between “The Great Wall” and (as he calls it) “The Sponge”: He spoke about how China filters and takes in the outside world.

Last but not least Vivienne Shue, University of Oxford, and David Shambaugh, George Washington University, gave the last session. Shue compared the political process in China with a tennis match between “governing” and “being governed”. In a series of matches, she said, after each game the opponents would do a analysis of their mistakes. Most important, she concluded: It is part of the game to lose points and still win the match at the end. Shambaugh pointed out that the Western China Studies increasingly tend knowing more and more about less and less of China.