Community Spotlight

Interview with Silvia Lindtner

Silvia Lindtner  Assistant Professor School of Information

Silvia Lindtner

Assistant Professor
School of Information

Meet Professor Silvia Lindtner from the School of Information and Penny Stamps School of Art and Design, who became an LRCCS faculty associate in 2014.  In this interview, she talks about her ethnographic research on World of Warcraft hackers in Beijing, the world of ‘making’ in China, and some of the inequalities present in that space.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: I always like to start from the very beginning – so where did you grow up?

Prof Lindtner: I lived in Austria until I was 21 – I graduated from college in a field called media technology and design, which was designed in many ways to prepare its students to help build something like the “Silicon Valley of Austria.”  I didn’t realize that at the time, as I felt excited about the intersection of digital studies, computing, design, and the arts, and the degree helped me learn more about that.

Couillard: And when did you become interested in more academic work?

Prof Lindtner: For my thesis I was already involved in a research lab at the German tech firm Siemens, and at that time I did some basic research in user interface design and mobile computing.  I thought that was interesting because it seemed the intersection of technology and people was missing in the computing industry more  broadly.  After my thesis I worked for a year and half abroad at Princeton in a research lab, and got to work in the space of human-computer interaction. After these two years exploring the intersections of research, technology, and design, I decided to apply for doctoral degree programs in Europe and the United States.

Couillard: So when did China come into the picture?

Prof Lindtner: Fairly late for me.  When I was at the research lab in Princeton, I had done some research on game design and also helped design a game.  And when I started out on my PhD at UC Irvine in 2006, Bonnie Nardi, one of the faculty at UC Irvine, got a grant from Intel to study World of Warcraft in China, which had become immensely popular in China at that time. She asked me if I wanted to be part of the team, and I was like, “This sounds amazing!”  From that point I began learning Chinese.

Couillard: What was your first experience in China?

Prof Lindtner: In the summer of my first year of the PhD program.  The project was in partnership with Beida [Peking University], and most of my research took place in Beijing.  I spent a lot of time in Internet cafes. For a while, I was following a group of students who were basically hacking World of Warcraft. The Chinese government at that time had censored some of the graphics of the game, and the young people in the Internet cafés were really upset about that – they wanted to play the “authentic” American game.  For example, there were skeletons in the game which got replaced with graves.  And the gamers were saying, “I’m much more afraid of censorship than I am of skeletons.”  So, what this group of students did was that they got a pirated version of the game, purchased a couple of PCs, wrote some software – and set up their own private game servers. They became so popular that a micro-economy developed around the game and some of the kids were even making money off of this.  I was so intrigued that I decided I needed to really get good at Chinese and make this my thing.

Couillard: How did these gamers respond to a random Austrian woman hanging around all the time?  

Prof Lindtner: As is common for ethnographic research, I developed close relationships with many of them.  In the following years, I focused specifically on another emergent gaming phenomenon – the killer game (杀人游戏 in Chinese). People had not only set up their own game servers, but had built gaming clubs to play this game. I spent two summers hanging out in these gaming clubs in Beijing and Shanghai, funded by a grant from the Intel People and Practices Research group under Ken Anderson and Maria Bezaitis.  People at these gaming clubs were definitely curious about me.  Being white and female opened some doors and closed others – people would invite me in because they were curious.  And I became especially close with some of the other female gamers, such as a Chinese woman who’d studied in Germany, who also spoke amazing German.  She was an important interlocutor. I’d also spend a lot of time with them offline; we’d go clubbing or partying after the gameplay.  They invited me to their homes, and other non-game activities.

Couillard: So when did “making” come into the picture?

Prof Lindtner: Throughout my research in China, I had been interested in the intersection of computing, the digital, and the arts.  I had followed a group of people in Beijing and Shanghai who had been working in this space, many with a computer science and/or creative arts background.  One that stood out was the collective that had gathered around called Xin Danwei (新单位), which was a coworking space in Shanghai at the time, that brought together an interdisciplinary collective of people interested in an open Internet and Chinese model of design innovation including China’s first Internet bloggers.

I was finishing up my preliminary research and looking into starting my dissertation research, which would be one year of fieldwork.  So I contacted them, told them about my ethnographic research, and they were like, “Sure, when can you start?”  Which was pretty unexpected – usually people are a little more hesitant.  This happened to be the group that set up China’ first hackerspace – only two months after I started working with them.

A couple years later, there was a lot of international attention – China’ maker scene had attracted foreign investment, especially from Europe and the United States. It was especially Shenzhen in the South of China that figured in the global imaginary of making as a renewed and central protagonist. The Chinese government too started supporting these spaces, and they began popping up all over the place.  Some of the people in the hacker/maker community were ambivalent about the international and national endorsement – on the one hand, it appeared to grant them at last what China had long been denied: the status of modern innovation.  Of course this was a very complex issue, and it’s actually one of the topics in my first book, which I’m working on now.

Couillard: What sort of an impact would you like for your research to have?

Prof Lindtner: I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about China and its role in contemporary and past technology and innovation practices.  I’m interested in offering an alternative view. I have also become really interested in unpacking how Westerns perceptions of China have been shifting over the years. For instance, Shenzhen is now celebrated as a hotbed for innovation even through it was known only a couple of years ago only for low quality copycats.  I think these perceptions can also be mapped to global relations between China and the rest of the world.  So I hope my work will help challenge cultural stereotypes and biases around that history.

Couillard: What’s one of the biggest stereotypes you want to challenge?

Prof Lindtner: The whole promise of making (which I want to use as the title of my book) is this story about individual empowerment.  That if you give people the right open source tools, they can regain control over the means of production.  The promise was: this is for everyone – anyone can take part. This story of promise masks continuous racial and gender inequalities. For instance, in some of the Western-funded incubators where I did my research, continuous enactments of masculinity tied to the promise of regaining control via technological tinkering legitimized and rendered invisible class and gender inequalities. So much of the story is about promise and progress, but even in networks where people say they are committed to challenging patriarchy and classism, you still see these entrenched norms.

Thanks for reading!  Stay tuned for more LRCCS interviews.

Check out Prof Lindtner's website here: , and follow her on Twitter - @yunnia

Interview with Mary Gallagher - Part II

This is Part II of an interview with LRCCS Director Mary Gallagher.  Click here to read Part I, where Professor Gallagher talks about getting started in Chinese studies and her first trip to China - in summer 1989.

Couillard: You just came out with a new book – can you tell me about it?


Prof Gallagher: The book is called Authoritarian Legality in China: Law, Workers, and the State and is published with Cambridge University Press.  The book is asking a question which a lot of people are asking about authoritarian regimes which is, Can authoritarian regimes borrow from democracy to make authoritarianism work better? 

What I was looking at specifically was how the Chinese government built up a legal system and profession over the last two decades, and a collection of very comprehensive and protective laws, that ostensibly protect people in the workplace.

The government also encouraged the media to propagate information about the laws, and in a sense to delegate law enforcement to workers themselves.  Like saying, “We’ll give you protection, but you’re going to have to sue your company yourself.”

So in the book I looked at how workers did that and how it was successful in terms of improving governance, raising labor standards, and keeping social stability.

Couillard: One thing I read in the book description was that you thought that adopting these democratic practices is undermining the state’s rule.

Prof Gallagher:  Right.  So what I decided in the conclusion is that authoritarian regimes are interested in democratic ideas as a means to improve governance – such as increased transparency, giving channels for dealing with grievance to avoid those grievances turning into mass movements, etc.  But for rule of law building, the government was very half-hearted.  They did a good job making the laws, but didn’t allow for the buildup of supportive institutions, like administrative agencies to sue on workers’ behalf for systematic violations, or stronger trade unions to protect low-wage workers.  

The government didn’t do those things – they just delegated these duties to workers themselves.  What I found is that people tended to be very dissatisfied with this process, and especially so for people at the lower rungs of the labor market.  The people who really needed protection weren’t getting it.

As I argue in the book, the government’s expansion of workplace rights was a tactic to solve larger strategic goals. The central government sees rapid urbanization that is more inclusive and protection as the next growth engine. It can no longer rely on export-oriented industrialization or massive government investment. But formal urbanization, which includes changes in hukou status, is closely linked to formal employment. Pushing expanded workplace rights was a step toward this larger goal. As the book also argues, however, this “self-enforcement” model of implementation has tended to marginalize workers on the lower rungs of the labor market, while improving the protections of those with education and skills.

This inequality in implementation reinforces other types of inequality that divide Chinese citizens: inequality of income, wealth, access to health and education, etc. Some argue that these inequalities make it more likely that China will become stuck in the “middle income trap.”

Couillard: How did you get all this information?  Were you talking to workers, looking at archives?

Prof Gallagher speaking at " China's Economy Today " in 2015

Prof Gallagher speaking at "China's Economy Today" in 2015

Prof Gallagher: The bulk of the work was done through interviews with workers who had received legal aid from a center in Shanghai.  I did that intensively for a few periods over the course of about ten years.  I also collaborated with others to do surveys with a broader population.

Because we were based at the center and had access to their case files, we could prompt them to talk about their cases in detail.  We could say, “We know this happened – why did you choose to settle, to mediate – things like that.  So in the end, I have to say, people who have legal issues often want to talk.  We’d usually start the interviews by asking, “How did the dispute start?”  And many times they’d come back with, “Well, in 1968…”  

Couillard: Haha

Prof Gallagher: Which is basically when they were entering the workforce.  Many of these workers had entered the factories during the Cultural Revolution as a way to not get sent down to the countryside.  So to explain their story, they had to go all the way back.

Couillard: Another thing that I’m interested in hearing your opinion on is the 19th Party Congress, which just concluded recently.  What should we know about that meeting?

Prof Gallagher: Xi Jinping said in his key statement, to paraphrase, one of the biggest obstacles in China’s path is the combination of slowing growth and rising expectations.  This relates to some of the things I wrote about in my book, particularly in regards to the danger of the Chinese government not reaching these goals of inclusiveness and broader workplace protection.

Ten or fifteen years ago migrant workers demanded things that were a function of desperation – they hadn’t been paid, they’d lost their limbs, or other desperate problems of subsistence.  In more recent years we’ve seen demands that are more about security – such as a strike of 50,000 workers in Guangdong in order to get social insurance arrears paid.  

From an outsider’s perspective, it’s interesting and unnerving to observe Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. China needs a decisive leader to get it through this stage because the slowdown of the economy has the potential to affect the party’s hold on power. At the same time, if he has eliminated all sources of criticism and diverse views about how to solve China’s problems, he may make critical mistakes.

Interview with Mary Gallagher - Part I

Mary Gallagher  Professor  Political Science  LRCCS Director

Mary Gallagher

Political Science

LRCCS Director

For the two year anniversary of the LRCCS Spotlight Interview series, I sat down with someone most of our readers already know – the director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, Mary Gallagher.  In this interview, Professor Gallagher talks about her new book, her first trip to China right after the student movements of 1989, and why she decided not to be a banker – among many other interesting topics.  Read on for the good stuff, and stay tuned for Part II coming out next week.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard


Couillard: I always like to start from the very beginning with these interviews.  Where did you grow up?  

Prof Gallagher: I grew up in a town called Bethel, Connecticut.  I stayed there until I was 18; most of my huge Irish-Catholic family still lives in that general vicinity.

Couillard: And how did you first get interested in China?

Prof Gallagher: Partly because I found French boring.  I studied French in middle and high school, went there on a summer exchange when I was in high school.  When I went to college, I fully intended to do a semester abroad in France or Switzerland. But instead , my freshman year I took a class titled “Whatever happened to Marxism?”  And became complete fascinated by China. In the summer after my freshman year, I enrolled in first-year intensive Chinese at Yale, which was near my home. I left eight years of French behind me and then applied to do study abroad in China.

I was supposed to go to China the summer of 1989, before my junior year in college.  We were actually supposed to arrive at Beijing Normal University on June 10, 1989. But after the crackdown on the student movement, our program shifted to Hong Kong for the summer and then proceeded to Nanjing University for the fall.  It was a really interesting time to be there.  That summer in Hong Kong, there were lots of protests against the Chinese government.  And as for the mainland, people who went there earlier in the 1980s remember that time as being very liberal, and where China was going as very open-ended. But for me it was a completely different experiment. It was a very constrained and repressive environment. People were afraid to talk to foreigners openly sometimes and my roommate used to say about the propaganda on megaphones on campus, “they’re blaming you again.” She meant of course that the Chinese government was vilifying the US government for the student movement.

Professor Gallagher (front row, four in from the right) with her study abroad class at Nanjing University in 1989

Professor Gallagher (front row, four in from the right) with her study abroad class at Nanjing University in 1989

Couillard: Wow.  I can’t even imagine.

Prof Gallagher: Yeah.  I went to Beijing for the first time for National Day in October of ’89 and at time you have a foreign passport to walk on Tiananmen Square.  You could clearly see tank marks and other evidence of what had happened

Couillard: Could you see bullet holes?

Prof Gallagher: In the early 90s I knew an elderly professor who biked with me to the west side of Chang’an Street to show me bullet holes in buildings. That made me very nervous.

Couillard: Were you afraid of getting in trouble?

Prof Gallagher: I felt like it was potentially dangerous for him to be showing me those things.  People at the time didn’t talk much about what had happened openly.  

The people who I know in China who were college students at that time can all tell stories of how they participated and what happened after.  When I was studying in Nanjing in the fall of 1989, I had a Chinese roommate who I thought seemed very buttoned-down and not political.  But every weekend she had to do manual labor as punishment for her participation in the student movement.

Being a selfish college student, I was put out about it, because that meant I had no one to practice Chinese with on the weekend.  I complained to her about it, saying they should have paired us with students who didn’t participate in the movement so we’d have more time with them.  And she just looked at me and said, “Nobody didn’t participate.  Everyone participated.”  I think that was true for a lot of universities. And now it’s interesting to see what’s happened to that cohort of college grads. Many who stayed in China are now very successful and much more politically conservative than they were then.

Couillard: At what point did you become interested in Chinese politics?

Prof Gallagher: Somehow I knew I wanted to be a political science major when I first started college.  And that class on Marxism in the beginning of college drove me into China.  When I came back from China in 1989, there were lots of interesting things happening – the Berlin Wall had just come down (which I didn’t find out about until a month later), and the Soviet Union was falling apart.  I came home in December of ’89 and I remember on the cover of the New York Times was the picture of Ceaușescu and his wife in Romania who had been executed.  In the midst of all this going on, I decided to write an honors’ thesis, and the process of doing research convinced me that academic work was for me.

Couillard: How did you get to your current area of focus right now?

Prof Gallagher: I did my senior honors’ thesis on student movements, and I compared the May 4th Movement in 1919 to the 1989 movement, looking at images and the signs students used, how they invoked past student movements.  So I was already interested in state-society relations – how people put pressure on the state.

I think I just got lucky; when I started looking for a dissertation topic is when China had just started drafting its first labor law.  At that point I felt I’d had enough of student movements and decided to switch to studying workers.  This turned out to be a good professional move, as there were very few, if any, consequential student movements after 1989.  

Couillard: One thing I’m curious about – in order for you to get to where you are today must have taken a tremendous amount of effort and perseverance.  What do you think drives you to work so hard?

Prof Gallagher: At the end of my undergrad I was considering some different career options.  I had interviewed for a position as an executive-in-training for a bank in New York City.  A couple things happened there that changed how I thought about work.  The interview was very intense, and one of the interviewers, a middle-aged man, said to me, “Did you know that in banking women don’t wear pants?” Because I was wearing pants.

I was so horrified and shocked that a woman wearing pants in 1990 in New York City was somehow not acceptable.  The second thing that happened was a discussion with my advisor. He said to me, “If you have a job like working at a bank, at the end of the day you can leave it behind and forget about it.  But if you become an academic, it’s more like a vocation.  Your job is your life.”  

That was somehow attractive to me.  I wanted to have a job I was passionate about.  I also wanted to have a job where no one told me what to wear.  So I’ve got the best of both worlds.

Couillard:  Work all the time, yayyy!  Haha.  So what drives your passion?  Is there some kind of impact you’re hoping your research will contribute to?

Prof Gallagher: I think China and the US have this incredibly important relationship that has consequences for the whole world.  And I don’t think Americans have a very good understanding of China.  I hope my research can contribute to a deepening of understanding on the American side.

Couillard: You just came out with a new book – can you tell me about it?

To be continued in Part II!  Stay tuned for the second half of the interview, where Prof Gallagher tells us about her new book Authoritarian Legality in China as well as her thoughts on the 19th Party Congress

Interview with Postdoc Lei Duan

Lei Duan   段磊  LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

Lei Duan 段磊
LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

Meet Lei Duan, LRCCS 2017 – 2019 postdoctoral fellow.  In this interview, Dr. Duan told me all about his research on private gun ownership in China – from socially accepted violence to lady sharpshooters.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.

Couillard: Where are you from in China?

Dr. Duan: Tianjin.  I grew up there and moved to the UMass Amherst for my Masters’ degree in 2009, then went to Syracuse for my PhD.

Couillard: When did you start studying Chinese Studies?

Dr. Duan: My undergrad major was world history, but in China that means something different than here.  In China, that means any history besides China.  But when I went to UMass Amherst that’s when I started learning Chinese history in an academic way.  

Couillard: Much of your research is about guns.  How did you get into that?

Dr. Duan: It’s a long story.  My original dissertation topic was about private security companies (镖局) in China in the early 20th century.  I couldn’t find much data on these companies, but during my search, I found a lot of these people and firms had gun licenses.  I found that interesting, because there’s lots of research on military history, but almost none on private gun ownership – guns used by ordinary people.  How the common people empowered themselves using guns and how the government responded.

I basically look from the 1860s – 1949.  The 1860s was the first time foreign modern guns came to China on a large scale.  And ending in 1949, because the new Communist regime quickly disarmed the people through mass movements.

Couillard: So guns were legal before 1949?

Dr. Duan: Yes, if you applied for a license.  The government allowed people to arm themselves as a way for the state to extend its power into local society.  The government relied on armed civilians to protect their locality.

Couillard: Are you talking about law enforcement or just regular people?

Dr. Duan: Both.  As well as paramilitary forces.  But this is only part of the story.  Most people didn’t actually register their arms.  So I’m looking at how and why they armed themselves.

Couillard: How did someone get a gun back then?

Dr. Duan: At this period, the government had very little direct control over local society.  One way they could exert this control was by selling government guns to local militia forces.  There was also the wealthy Chinese who could buy guns directly from foreign arms dealers.  There were many western companies selling guns to China directly – such as Colt.  They had sales representatives targeting the Chinese market.

But in rural areas, most guns came from the military.  There were many civil wars among warlords, and guns were often abandoned on the battle field.  After the fight was over, local people would find the guns and keep them or sell them.  There were also self-manufactured guns – ‘foreign guns’ created in local workshops.  

Couillard: How did people use the guns?

Dr. Duan: One use was for self-defense.  You can see this by looking at ads targeting the Chinese market, which always marketed guns as a means of protection.  But another reason was to elevate social status – especially for urban, wealthy middle class.  Guns were a symbol of modernity.

Couillard: Would they carry the guns around?

Mrs. Li Junseng, winner of first honor in the pistol shooting competition of Shanghai Revolving Association in May 1928.

Mrs. Li Junseng, winner of first honor in the pistol shooting competition of Shanghai Revolving Association in May 1928.

Dr. Duan: Mostly they would display them in their homes, but there were also very small pistols that ladies would sometimes carry in their purses.  In fact, there were some Shanghainese women who participated in shooting competitions.  For some urban women, guns showed how women had equal power with men. For rural women, who protected their villages when men went off to war, guns were a symbol of participation in local politics.

It also showcased Chinese determination to arm against foreign invaders.

Couillard: It sounds very patriotic.

Dr. Duan: Yes.  If you look at guns before this period, they were seen as a tool of violence.  But by the 1930s, guns were socially acceptable.  Guns had many meanings for different people.  Guns lived in a colorful social life and exhibited themselves as tools of violence, labels of social status, and symbols of self-empowerment.

Couillard: What about gun crime?

Dr. Duan: Especially in the cities like Shanghai, we saw gun violence almost every day.  Shooting, homicide, smuggling, etc.  Mostly gangsters, such as the Green Gang (青帮).  Many of these gangs focused their activities on gun smuggling. 

Couillard: What did gun control look like?

Dr. Duan: There were many regulations, but they were often overlooked.  And regulations looked very different for different locations.  The Republican government’s policy was uneven and inconsistent. In some ways, the government tried to restrict private gun ownership, and in others recognizing the potential of armed civilians to defend localities. In contrast, in the 30s and 40s in northern China, the Communist Party in that area decided to co-opt gun owners into their fight.  They mobilized the people who had guns to fight against ‘class enemies’ who were trying to take their guns away.  

But after the communists already had power, they disarmed the same people who they previously mobilized.

Couillard: What’s important to you about this research?

Dr. Duan: First, most gun scholarship is focused on military modernization.  But I want to place guns in a social and cultural context – why and how did non-military  people arm themselves?

Second, this study also provides a new prism through which to examine state-society relations in modern China.  How did gun owners challenge state power?

Third, I’m looking at the evolution of CCP policy about gun control.

Couillard: What sort of an impact would you like for your research to have?

Dr. Duan:  I hope that we’ll have a better idea about the formation of socially accepted violence in modern China, and also the dynamics between state authority and social power.  

Couillard: What will you be working on during your time at LRCCS?

Dr. Duan:  I am currently working on revising my dissertation for publication. I am also working on another project which uses my dissertation as a baseline, exploring the complexities of the Chinese government’s disarming of civilians after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Couillard: Do you own any guns yourself?

Dr. Duan: No – the only guns I’ve ever used are water guns, haha.

Spotlight: Liz Berger

Liz Berger  LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

Liz Berger
LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellow

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight, I sat down with Liz Berger, one of four LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellows for 2017-2019.  In the interview, Dr. Berger talks about her research on how ancient people hailing from present-day China dealt with climate change, and potential implications for today.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: First off, where do you call home?

Dr. Berger: I grew up in western Massachusetts, then went to college at Columbia in New York City.  After that I worked for a couple years in Brooklyn in a non-profit.  But then I decided to go back to school for archaeology, which I’d studied in undergrad.

Couillard: When did China come into the picture?

Dr. Berger: I’ve been interested in China since high school.  I had a teacher who started a club for students interested in learning East Asian languages.  She had lived in Japan and spoke Japanese, but the administration decided Chinese would bring more opportunities to the school, so we learned a little bit after school – they didn’t offer it as a regular course.  We established a relationship with a sister school in China and took a ten day trip to visit them in Yangzhou, as well as some traveling in Beijing and Shanghai.

Couillard: So you went to China for first time in high school – what was your impression?

Dr. Berger: Everything was so stimulating and interesting.  I loved the language and I loved the food.  We stayed with host families and went to school in Yangzhou, and I have this distinct memory of riding with the mom on the back of her electric bike on the way to school and thinking, “Oh my God, how did I get here?”

Even though I’ve gone to China quite a bit since then, I still have moments where I look around and think, “I come from a small town in New England – how did I get here?”

Couillard: Haha yeah, I know the feeling.  What about your work now - what feels important to you about the research that you do in bioarchaeology?

Dr. Berger: Climate change is obviously a massive area of concern for modern society.  It’s important to have data that’s not just spatially diverse but also temporally diverse.  We have to have a long record of climate change over time, and part of that is how humans reacted to climate in the past.  Bioarchaeology helps fill in that part of the picture.  We can see what kinds of systems were resilient, what systems collapsed, and what can we learn from that to help us face whatever’s coming.

Couillard: How does the climate change we’re going through right now compare with ancient climate change?

Dr. Berger: There’s been multiple periods of different kinds of climate change.  The one I’m looking at happened roughly 4000 years ago.  At that time the climate all across Eurasia got cooler and dryer – more or less the opposite of what’s happening today.

In Western Asia there’s a lot of research that’s been done on the consequences of that event – cities that were abandoned,population redistribution, that sort of thing.   The climate change was happening in Northwest China as well. During the Neolithic Age, people in that area were farmers, and then after climate change, in the Iron Age, they were semi-nomadic pastoralists.  So the assumption is that this was due to a collapse of subsistence systems caused by climate change.

I wanted to look at that period from the perspective of human health and test that assumption – to see if I could find evidence of an actual collapse.

Couillard: What did you find?

Dr. Berger: I found that there wasn’t evidence of a catastrophic collapse of the farming system.  With the exception of higher altitudes, people who were farming in China in the Late Neolithic continued to farm through the Bronze Age.  They already had animals they were raising for food, and so were able to adjust the plant to animal ratio in their repertoire to adapt to the climate.  So far I haven’t found evidence of collapse – I’ve found that their food system was resilient, flexible, able to adapt.

Couillard:  That’s much less exciting

Dr. Berger: Right, but I think it’s a positive thing. It tells us climate change doesn’t necessarily mean collapse, if the system is resilient enough.

Couillard: Do you think our system is resilient enough?

Dr. Berger: Not at this point.  I think it’s extremely NOT resilient.  But there are lots of people working on this problem.  

Couillard: What kind of an impact do you hope your research will have?

Dr. Berger: I want the data that exists in China to become more accessible and useful for scholars in other parts of the world, and for Chinese scholars to be included more in the international dialogue.  Much Chinese archaeology has been published only in Chinese, which means western archaeologists have very little idea of some of the work that’s going on in China, or for certain parts of China, the best they can do is a reference that’s 20 years old.  I think that’s a shame because China is a massive source of data and collaboration, and that western scholars need to be more aware of it. I think this is gradually changing though.

Couillard: What will you be working on during your time at LRCCS?

Dr. Berger: I’ll be finishing up some publications and starting to fill in some of the temporal gaps from my PhD research.  The conclusions that I’ve drawn from those data are subject to change when I start filling in the blanks.

I’m also involved in several ongoing field projects. I’m part of a team of bioarchaeologists working on Bronze Age skeletons from eastern Gansu Province, at the Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, which is a very large and quite interesting collection. I’ve also started to look at evidence for foot binding in Ming Dynasty cemeteries, which is interesting because very little has been published on the actual skeletons of women who underwent the foot binding, and it’s clear that the way it was done and the intended result was different in different times and places throughout China. 

Another project I’m still involved with is an ongoing excavation with the Shaanxi  Institute of Archaeology, and there’s also an archaeological field school there that’s run by the Institute for Field Research.  I was one of the co-directors of that project last summer, and if there are UM undergrads who want more information about doing field work there, they should get in touch with me.

Dr. Berger wishes to thank the following Chinese institutions for their collaboration: Gansu Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Shaanxi Institute of Archaeology, Jilin University Research Center for Chinese Frontier Archaeology, Northwest University School of Archaeology and Museology, Ningxia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology

LRCCS Spotlight: Kenneth Lieberthal

Kenneth Lieberthal   Professor Emeritus

Kenneth Lieberthal

Professor Emeritus

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight, I sat down with Professor Emeritus Kenneth Lieberthal, former LRCCS director, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, and Senior Director for Asia on the U.S. National Security Council, to name just a few of his distinguished titles.  In the interview, Professor Lieberthal talks about how he initially got involved in Chinese Studies, his time working for President Clinton, and his vision for the future of our Center.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

Couillard: How did you initially get interested in China?

Prof Lieberthal: By accident.  I studied Russian in high school and college, including doing a college major that focused on Russian/Soviet history, culture, economics, and politics.  I then enrolled at Columbia for a Ph.D. in political science.  

I prioritized Columbia because it had one of the best Russian Institutes in the country. But when I met with my advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski (who went on to become President Carter’s National Security Advisor), before classes started, he said, and I’ll never forget this, “Well Mr. Lieberthal, my advice to you is to not take any courses in the Russian Institute; you’ve already covered everything we have to offer.  You should do something else.”

As this was two days before the beginning of classes, I quickly reviewed the course catalogue to see what else looked interesting – and I spotted  one lecture course on the Chinese revolution.  I knew nothing about China, but I was interested in communist revolutions.  So I signed up for that class.  It was like stepping in quicksand, and I’ve been sinking ever since.  

Couillard: So that conversation with Professor Brzezinski was the catalyst that shifted everything.

Prof Lieberthal: Exactly.  Ironically, decades later, I moderated a panel that he was on in Washington, and afterwards I was chatting with him and I said, “I have to thank you for my being known as a China specialist here.”  He said, “What do you mean?”  So I reminded him of that conversation at Columbia in 1965, and he said, “You know, I have no recollection of that whatsoever.”

Couillard: Hah

Prof Lieberthal: That really struck me because it’s one of the things that’s really exciting about teaching and always worth remembering – that as a teacher that you have an opportunity to interact with young people when they are developing the interests that will shape their lives.  A number of times over the years I have seen students I had thirty, twenty, or even ten years ago, who commented to me that something I said, either in class or in conversation, changed their life.  But at the time it’s often hard to know what’s having a significant impact on whom.

Couillard: Do you think you’re more passionate about teaching, scholarly work, or policy work?

Prof Lieberthal: For many years I wasn’t passionate about policy.  I was very interested in research, writing, and teaching, and I quickly found that each contributed significantly to the others.  Research gave me a deeper understanding of what I was trying to teach.  It helped set my agenda and got me engaged in ways that went beyond what reading and teaching alone could do.  And writing was a tremendous discipline.  I found that could I get away with a lot of imprecision in speaking that I just couldn’t get away with in writing.  So I did not start writing a piece until I had figured out what I wanted to say.  And once I started writing, I would realize all the things I had not sufficiently figured out.

Writing is itself a great learning experience, and it carries over to teaching – not only in terms of what to communicate, but also the phraseology.  How you put things so that – ideally – someone with almost no background will understand what you’re saying, and a specialist in your field will still find what you’re saying interesting and valuable.  

Former LRCCS Director Ken Lieberthal speaking on the current state of the Chinese government's relations with the US at the 2017 UM Pan-Asia Alumni Reunion in Shanghai

Former LRCCS Director Ken Lieberthal speaking on the current state of the Chinese government's relations with the US at the 2017 UM Pan-Asia Alumni Reunion in Shanghai

Couillard: What about the policy side?  What brought you into that?

Prof Lieberthal: A variety of circumstances rather than any single event or opportunity. To the extent that any one individual proved critical in my becoming interested in the policy side, that was a former mentor and colleague of mine, Michel Oksenberg.  Mike became a central figure both at the UM and nationally in the development and ongoing evolution of major national efforts to understand and deal with China.  He was President Jimmy Carter’s chief China staff on the National Security Council and played a major role in the negotiation of full diplomatic relations between the US and China.  In the late 90s I was asked to become Senior Director for Asia on the National Security Council and special adviser to President Clinton for National Security Affairs – which frankly had a big impact on my life.

Couillard: What kind of a job was that?  Did that completely take over your life?

Prof Lieberthal: Oh yes.  And at that time (1998-2000), President Clinton saw major opportunities in foreign policy, and thus it was a great time to serve on the National Security Council (NSC).  For me, the job was totally consuming – 24/7.  I had a specially encrypted phone next to my bed, getting calls anytime of the night (which was not at all infrequent, given the roughly 12 hour time difference between Washington and Asia).  But I always saw it as a privilege.

Couillard: Did you get burnt out toward the end? Or were you still enjoying it?

Prof Lieberthal: I got worn out, but I wouldn’t say burnt out.  I was the second oldest person on the NSC staff when I served there – about 55.  It was somewhat a younger person’s game, in part because the work demands were so extreme.  We were always on call.  The advantage of the NSC is that you have very little bureaucracy – at least when I was there.  The total NSC staff then was about 100 people to cover the entire world.  It was a very flat hierarchy – there was one layer between NSC Senior Directors and the president.   The disadvantage was that we had almost no staff.  Things were coming at us a mile a minute, and errors could have very serious consequences.

Couillard: Were you a part of the administration during the Chinese embassy bombing in Yugoslavia?

Prof Lieberthal: I was.  It was physically and emotionally a horrendous time.  It came right after a huge project I was involved in that had completely consumed my life regarding China’s accession into the World Trade Organization.  In the aftermath of that, on my first night of rest, I was headed to a concert at the Kennedy Center with my wife – it was a Friday evening.  We were about to walk out the door, and I was saying to her, “This is the first time I’m going to get to relax for a little bit.”

Couillard: Uh-oh

Prof Lieberthal: And then my secure phone rang – “Dr. Lieberthal, we’ve got a situation here…” We do not have time to go over the developments that took place over the ensuing weeks, but it was one of the most intense and exhausting experiences of my life.

Dernberger Symposium (2015) left to right: Yuen Yuen Ang, Kenneth Lieberthal, Yasheng Huang, Thomas Rawski, Dwight Perkins, Mary Gallagher. Symposium photos by Peter Smith.

Dernberger Symposium (2015) left to right: Yuen Yuen Ang, Kenneth Lieberthal, Yasheng Huang, Thomas Rawski, Dwight Perkins, Mary Gallagher. Symposium photos by Peter Smith.

Couillard: That sounds terrible.  There’s so much more I’d like to know, but in the interest of time, I’d like to change the subject a bit.  One thing I’m really curious about hearing is what you’re up to now.

Prof Lieberthal: I’m doing a variety of things.  At the UM I am a member of the Provost’s Advisory Committee, I am on the board of the William-Davidson Institute, and I have tried to help raise funds for the China Center.  I also serve on a variety of Advisory Boards in China (of universities and think tanks in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kunshan), Singapore and the US, as well as on the editorial boards of five journals in the US, Europe, and Asia.  I also do some private sector consulting.  And I remain engaged in Washington, mostly in the think tank and NGO communities. 

Couillard: What’s your vision for the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies?

Prof Lieberthal: The idea behind the UM China Center, from its inception in 1961, has been to bring together faculty from different disciplines who work primarily on China so that they can, through interacting, develop a better understanding of China and benefit from each other’s scholarship and broader efforts.  And to offer courses to prepare students to have a multidisciplinary understanding of China.  Over the years, the China Center has had two centers of gravity – one more focused on the social sciences, which had a large component of policy related activities in the 70s, 80s, and 90s; the other on the humanities.  

The Center now reaches out across the University in ways that in the 60s or 70s we never would have dreamed of.  Now, engagement with China is a reality across the University – whether it’s the School of Public Health, or Engineering, Medicine, Music – you name it, and they’re doing substantive work with individuals and institutions in China.  Within that context, the goal is to have the LRCCS be able to be a source of information and provide advice to programs across the University, help to provide a bridge to Chinese counterparts, and as always to try to train the next generation of top scholars, people in government, business, non-profits, and more.

Couillard: Last question, and it’s a big one - how do you think we should approach the understanding and study of China?


Prof Lieberthal: With an appreciation of the forces that shape China – its history, culture, political system, and major challenges. First, deep history: what are the intellectual, philosophical, and societal legacies of China’s deep history?  Second, modern history, especially the repercussions of the industrial revolution in the West that directly and indirectly caused the decline of the Qing Dynasty to lead not to the establishment of a new dynasty but instead to the disintegration of the dynastic system itself.  Third, how the political system actually works.  This includes not only political struggles at the very top but also how policies are developed, adopted, and implemented.   Mike Oksenberg and I wrote a book on this called Policy Making in China: Leadership, Structures, and Processes.  Finally, you have to understand the details of key substantive problems that the country confronts.

In other words, if you want to understand a major country, you’ve got to understand its deep past, you’ve got to understand its recent past, you’ve got to understand how the system actually works, and you have to understand the serious technical dimensions of the issues it’s grappling with.  The interplay of these fundamental factors inevitably profoundly affects any country’s goals, fears, and principles, and I believe the LRCCS can provide great value to the extent that it can communicate the importance of that set of factors and provide expertise on each of them.