American Taught at Chinese University for 9 Years: This Is What He Learned

Chinese students listen to President Barack Obama speak during a town hall meeting at the Shanghai Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai, China on Nov. 16, 2009. (Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza / via Flickr Obama White House)
Chinese students listen to President Barack Obama speak during a town hall meeting at the Shanghai Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai, China on Nov. 16, 2009. (Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza / via Flickr Obama White House)

After working in China for nine years, an American academic had some parting things to say about aspects of Chinese society.

Economics professor Christopher Balding left China mid-way through this year after his teaching contract at the HSBC Business School of Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School was not renewed.

“I leave thankful for the time I spent in Shenzhen, China, and working with elite students in China,” Balding wrote on his blog published July 17, 2018, after the university severed ties with him on April 1.

“Despite technical protections, I knew and accepted the risks of working for the primary university in China run by the Communist Party in China as a self-professed libertarian,” Balding wrote in the blog post that was over 4,000 words long.

“Though provided an ‘official’ reason for not renewing my contract, my conscience is clean and I can document most everything that demonstrates the contrary should I ever need to prove otherwise. I know the unspoken reason for my dismissal. You do not work under the Communist Party without knowing the risks.”

It isn’t made apparent in his blog post if it was a single incident that brought on this sense of insecurity, but last year Balding led a petition that urged Cambridge University Press to resist a demand from the Chinese government that it censor the content in its China Quarterly journal.

Balding taught international trade, negotiations, and ethics at the university in the city of Shenzhen, southeastern China. But at some point, it became clear to him that he could no longer remain in the country and thought it was time to leave altogether.

“China has reached a point where I do not feel safe being a professor and discussing even the economy, business, and financial markets,” he wrote.

In the latter part of his blog, the father of three children stated that one of his biggest fears about living in China was that he would be detained.

“Though I happily pointed out the absurdity of the rapidly encroaching authoritarianism, a fact which continues to elude so many experts not living in China, I tried to make sure I knew where the line was and did not cross it,” he wrote. “There is a profound sense of relief to be leaving safely knowing others, Chinese or foreigners, who have had significantly greater difficulties than myself. There are many cases which resulted in significantly more problems for them. I know I am blessed to make it out.”

Earlier in his blog post, Balding said his issues were not with the Chinese people, but with China’s government.

“I want to make perfectly clear that any complaints I wrote about in any forum are reflective only of my concerns about the illiberal, authoritarian communist government of China and not the Chinese people,” he wrote, implying that some of the social ills he next pointed out in his blog post were a result of the communist government and the lack of rights for individuals.

“There is a complete and utter lack of respect for the individual or person in China. People do not have innate value as people simply because they exist,” he wrote.

In his blog, Balding went on to say that mainland China is a country where “lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.”

Being ruled by an authoritarian regime, China’s lack of rule of law initially surprised him.

“Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules, it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right,” he wrote.

Balding wrote that in China “there is no innate value given to human life as precious,” and went on with an example given to him by a friend who is a Christian missionary who was stunned by how people in China viewed the making money as the entire meaning of their life.

“There was no value system. There was no exogenously held right or wrong, only whether you made money. With apologies to a bastardized Dostoevsky, ‘with money as God, all is permissible,’” Balding wrote.

“I could talk at length about that what I have observed, but I am not a human rights expert and what type of cultural changes or evolution it engenders. However, while the well-known cases draw attention, these attitudes and responses set the tone for a culture where individuals, respect, and truth mean nothing.”

Balding went on to write about his admiration of journalists and activists in China who were willing to face the wrath of the authoritarian government.

“I want to laud so many people such as journalists and activists that face real harassment, monitoring, and hurdles every day in working to uncover what is happening in China and those resisting all-encompassing authoritarianism we see in China,” he wrote.

“One thing I have come to believe deeply is that beliefs and convictions are only manifested in adversity or when tested. Beliefs which only receive beneficial feedback are less convictions and more conveniences.”

Balding and his family are now living in Taiwan. Along with teaching, he has written for international publications such as Bloomberg and Foreign Policy.

Watch this episode of Chinese Uncensored about Chinese students at an Australian university:

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