Monday, August 16, 2010

China Watcher

Richard Baum has serious credentials: a senior China scholar at UCLA, high-level U.S. policy adviser, oft-quoted expert in the media, and founder/list manager of the world's largest listserv for professional China scholars, journalists and policy analysts. Though Baum has written six academic books during his 45-year career, his latest book, "China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom," is like no other on his publications list.

For the first time, he drops his academic objectivity to give readers a candid, eye-opening and sometimes hilarious account of his many adventures as he uses his keen intellect, instincts and sheer luck to penetrate China's thick wall of political secrecy.

"I've witnessed a good deal of the transformation of China," Baum told his colleagues at a recent gathering to talk about his book. "But as an academic, you don't express yourself in an unfiltered way." But during a sabbatical he took three years ago in France, Baum decided to give in to the pleas of friends and relatives and write a book that relays all the rewards, frustration, intrigue, embarrassing moments and highlights of his fascinating career. "It was time to stop hiding behind the footnotes," he said, smiling. The book "is China up close and personal, and it's China-watching up close and personal."

Baum never dreamed that, as a Jewish-American kid growing up in Los Angeles, he would become a sinologist. "My only experience with Chinese culture was eating the fortune cookies from Madame Wu's Cantonese Gardens. … There were the Saturday morning matinees featuring Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. But beyond that, I really had no predilection for being a China scholar."

But when Baum was in his senior year as a political science major at UCLA, he needed a poli sci class that fit his schedule — and Political Science 159: Government and the Politics of China — was it. "I stumbled into that class," he said. The professor, H. Arthur Steiner, a former Marine Corps colonel, ran his class like a drill sergeant. But his eyewitness accounts about postwar China, supplemented by books and mimeographed documents, completely captivated Baum. He eagerly delved into the early years of the Communist revolution, the history of the Chinese Communist Party and Mao's Great Leap Forward, followed by its dismantling by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

His serendipitous discovery of what would become his life's work is "testimony to the banal roots of life-altering choices," he said. A final irony: Baum now teaches Political Science 159 at UCLA.

In a story with all the intrigue of a spy novel, Baum tells how his career as a scholar was launched with classified documents that he stole (and later replaced) from the "dirty books" room in a Taiwanese think tank. Again, luck played a role in how he got access to these secret papers that contained startling revelations about what was going on at the highest levels of the Communist Party.

Baum takes readers along as he gets his first glimpse of China in 1975 as a scholar escort to a track and field team; as he witnesses the student demonstrations that led up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989; and as he is summoned to Camp David to brief President George H.W. Bush and White House Cabinet members prior to Bush's first presidential trip to Asia.

Over the years, Baum has made more than three dozen trips to China, lectured at 14 of its universities, visited 23 of its 27 provinces and spoken to peasants and senior Politburo leaders alike. Here, for the first time through his eyes, is China unabashed.

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