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Our China syndrome

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As Duke faculty members, one of the most important skills we teach is how to think critically, how to make good decisions, how to avoid cognitive biases and faulty logic. As we make one of the most important decisions in the history of the university—the establishment of the DKU four-year program in China—those skills are desperately needed, and apparently lacking.

Context Matters: We are about to establish a four year college that is supposed to be as good as Duke, 8,000 miles away in a deeply authoritarian country that is in the middle of human rights crackdown, with whom we might be about to start a trade war. (Or possibly just a war, if the President-elect’s Taiwan phone-discipline stays this good.) This is a country that has locked up hundreds of human rights lawyers, and imprisoned its own academics for such offenses as writing about the guarantees in China’s own constitution. What could go wrong?

Timing Matters: A new, erratic and illiberal president is about to take power in our country and a new president is about to come to Duke. It makes no sense to tie President Price’s hands right at the beginning of his administration by committing the university to this program. And as for the other guy, where to start? He has threatened trade wars with China, immigration bans, destabilized the Taiwan situation, and offered robust defenses of torture. Ideal timing! Let’s commit to building a four-year college in one of his principal targets, whose faculty and staff could then become political pawns. Good idea? Hint: on Repression Jeopardy, the answer would be “Alex, what are 2000 hostages to fortune?”

The Sunk Costs Fallacy: Google it. No, really, Google it. There is no more perfect example of the sunk costs fallacy than our DKU decision-making process. I did mention it was a fallacy, right?

It is Not Personal: Many faculty members and at least one trustee have told me that they felt that voting against this initiative would just be a slap in the face for a much-beloved (at least by me) departing President Dick Brodhead. This was one of the signature initiatives of his presidency. Please. Let us build a statue to honor this good man, not a disastrous initiative in a country whose government’s actions make a mockery of the ideals of liberal education for which he has worked so tirelessly.

Standards Matter: The degrees that DKU grants are required by Chinese law to be fully equivalent to Duke’s own degrees, and the faculty and students equal in quality to Duke faculty and students. Please read for yourself the equivocations in the Administration’s plans about how this will be sort of true, but not true, and the students will have degrees like the home institution’s, but not really, they will be “special,” and the faculty can’t transfer as of right to big Duke, but will totally be the same. They are, frankly, embarrassing. Equivocations are like mold: a sign that something wrong is going on inside.

Don’t Reason From Anecdata: Whatever your discipline, you have seen the moment where the student says something like, “Well, my granddad smoked like a chimney and he lived to be 93 so I don’t think smoking is that bad for you.” The professor then (gently) points out that we shouldn’t reason from isolated experiences at particular moments in time, but rather from systematic data, structure and evidence. Yet time and time again in the debate about DKU, particular anecdotes about “having had a good class in Kunshan with a really open discussion” were offered as evidence that the structural authoritarianism of the country would not be a problem. We would not tolerate such sloppy logic from our students for a moment.

What is the Exit Strategy?:The rule of law does not exist in China in the way we understand it. Contracts, laws and guarantees are subject to political exigency—they work until they don’t, which is generally at the moment they are needed; a time of repression. DKU has “guarantees” of free speech from a government that does not for a moment honor the “guarantees” in its own constitution. Duke’s only threat is that we will walk away from the whole campus, leaving our students and faculty high and dry. Leave aside the fact that China almost always charges “troublemakers” with additional wrongs: a lot of those imprisoned human rights lawyers were also accused of crimes such as sexual predation. Weird, huh. And would we defend that student, that faculty member? In a factually murky situation, with lots of accusations? What precise level of repression will cause us to shut down an entire university? I asked the Provost and she said that the administration had not considered that question.

Principles Matter: And this is the most important point of all. China has made a bet that it can harness the productive power of free-ish markets without providing the freedoms of liberal society to go along with them. China’s leaders are not dumb and they realize that knowledge workers in an information society need to think critically and creatively. Liberal education gives just that training. Hence they like the idea of a campus like DKU. But the student at Duke whose education leads her to become a civil rights activist, an advocate for gay rights, a critic of the carceral state or a member of an unapproved religion (there are only 5 approved religions in China) has the freedom to act on those beliefs.

And that, China is not willing to grant. It wants “neutered” liberal education—ability to think critically without the freedom to say or do anything about it outside of the classroom. And that is the precise deal that Duke is agreeing to. We are offering to supply that neutered education, making ourselves complicit in their plan. But freedom to think critically without the freedom to act on those critical thoughts is not liberal education. Imagine the student at DKU who is moved by a class discussion to hand out copies of the Chinese Constitution on campus, agitate for Falun Gong, or criticize the government’s appalling human rights or environmental record. When they come for that student, will we tell him, “Sorry, this was liberal education lite. We never meant all those noble pieties we taught you”? We should be ashamed that, as a university community, we are even considering the idea.

James Boyle is the William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke Law School. 

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