This month, I am using the privilege of this space to reflect on the rising tide of nationalism, reactionary populism, and authoritarianism that has washed over the world in the last decade – from Brazil to Hungary, Russia to the Philippines, India to the US and beyond.
I do so from my perspective as a Chinese American geographer who studies contemporary Tibet. I suggest that binary thinking and academic un-freedom threaten to foreclose the potential for geographers’ (and others’) research and teaching to make a productive difference toward a livable and dignified planetary future.
Let me start with an example. In September, I was invited to provide testimony to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China for a hearing on “China’s environmental challenges and U.S. responses,” a topic chosen in anticipation of the 2021 UNCCC (COP 26) conference in Glasgow in early November. Dominant U.S. discourse focuses on the fact that China’s annual CO2 emissions are now more than double those of the US. As US-China relations have rapidly deteriorated into what some are calling the ‘new Cold War’, this has led to the repetition of the idea that ‘China is the biggest climate culprit.’ Yet, from the perspective of climate justice, this ignores the fact that China’s per capita emissions are still less than half those of the U.S., and that, since its annual emissions only overtook those of the US in 2006, its cumulative emissions are currently just over half of those of the United States. The point is not that these per capita and cumulative emissions should be equalized – that would be utterly disastrous, especially for the people already suffering the most from climate change – but rather that this fact need to be kept in mind when crafting solutions and before apportioning blame.
Most of my testimony focused on the ways in which one particular policy, which has been promoted in the name of climate change adaptation, is neither adaptive nor just for Tibetan herders in the PRC. However, as a US citizen and a scholar concerned with climate justice, I also felt compelled to argue that, rather than dwell on blaming China for its current annual emissions, it would be more productive to aim for true bilateral cooperation toward a rapid energy transition in both countries. This would include trying to avoid the emissions locked into China’s recently built coal-fired power plants, through commitments to decommission coal generators ahead of schedule and to have a coal consumption cap with regulatory consequences, but it would also include a plan and concrete policies that can enable the US to meet its target of cutting emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030.
It was thus deeply disappointing when a representative (from the same political party as myself, I would add) who came in midway through the virtual hearing stated, “In 1990, greenhouse gas emissions from China were 9% of the world’s emissions and today it’s [28%]….America has gone from 17% in 1990 to 12% today…We are aggressively moving in our country to address this…What can we do to really wake up the world to the fact that China’s bad actions are not limited to forced labor camps….but they are [also] destroying the world’s environment?…” He then asked me directly, “What can we do to tell the world about [China as a bad actor] and get this [message] out there more effectively?”
I was, I admit, flabbergasted at the image of the US as a paragon of aggressive action on climate change given the last four years – or the last thirty. It is widely accepted that the Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement provided a clear opportunity for China to step into the void of global climate leadership. However, when I tried to articulate my opposition to his framing, the representative suggested that this was tantamount to me condoning what is happening in Xinjiang, referring to the crisis of extrajudicial mass incarcerations of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, and the systematic destruction of their culture, from the desecration of sacred sites to the criminalization of ordinary forms of religious observance.
As geographers, our eyes should be open to the fact that we are witnessing broad patterns, not isolated events.
What I want to point out here is a Manichean view of the world in which everything is only black or white, good or bad – “you’re either with us or against us” – where critique of one’s own country’s policies can only mean that you must be “for the other side.” This type of dualism also characterizes the position of the Qiao Collective (a group of self-identified diasporic ethnic Chinese who offer an anti-imperialist critique of the US), in its claims that the Xinjiang disappearances and incarcerations in mass internment camps are a myth, a politically motivated lie, a false name for an actually well-justified “de-radicalization program.” Their denial is interwoven with a heavy dose of whataboutism, the idea, for example, that the US has no right to critique the crackdown on and jailing of protestors in Hong Kong, given its own plague of racialized police violence.
I am not saying it is useless to point out hypocrisy – just that we can’t stop there. We also need to acknowledge that none of us have a pure position from which to stand. Furthermore, especially as geographers, our eyes should be open to the fact that we are witnessing broad patterns, not isolated events. Rather than ‘us vs. them,’ a more perceptive (and geographical) analysis could start from what geographer Gillian Hart calls relational comparison, an understanding of global processes as the result of interlinked trajectories of socio-spatial change. Understanding Xinjiang is not just a question of understanding the authoritarian Chinese state (though that’s certainly necessary); it’s also linked to transnational processes of “carceral capitalism” and “terror capitalism.”
A second example comes in the form of a resolution, introduced earlier this month by one of the nine elected regents of the University of Colorado, where I work, calling for a ban on mandatory training programs on diversity and on any teaching that acknowledges the existence of unconscious or structural racism. This is of a piece with Trump’s executive order banning diversity training based on critical race theory, calling it “divisive, anti-American propaganda,” and the recent hysteria over the purported teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools. As of August, 27 states had introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict the teaching of critical race theory or otherwise limit discussions of racism.
As many have pointed out, this is a misuse of the term ‘critical race theory,’ a scholarly approach grounded in critical legal studies that investigates the ways in which race and racism are imbricated with law – e.g. red-lining, the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, or the fact that Native Americans were not guaranteed the right to vote in all states until 1962. It is a sophisticated set of concepts and tools most often taught in specialized graduate seminars and used in research – including that done by geographers. To quote ethnic studies professor Jennifer Ho, “saying that critical race theory is being taught in K-12 classrooms is like saying your seventh grader is learning electrical engineering.” Teachers say they’re being banned from teaching concepts they don’t teach anyway.
But the issue is much bigger than just making a generalized bogeyman of a precise and specific scholarly concept, or of ascribing false beliefs to it. Many of the bans are so broad that they effectively force teachers to self-censor any discussion having to do with race at all. Consider Southlake Texas, where reality outdid satire recently when an administrator advised teachers that having a book on the Holocaust in their classroom necessitated giving students access to a book from “an opposing perspective,” and teachers reported being “literally afraid we’re going to be punished for having books in our classes.” In such a classroom, presumably, the basic historical facts of the territory that is now the United States, which very much include indigenous genocide and slavery, would also be off limits.
I’m actually pretty used to hearing about bans on concepts and books in classrooms in the name of “national unity” – in Tibet. Of course, the scope of educational censorship is significantly wider and the punishments far harsher in China. I am not positing an equivalence, but rather a family resemblance in the ways in which a national drive to reduce “divisiveness” undermines the value of scholarly research and trust in educators. Most recently, departments and institutes of Tibetan studies have been closed in Chinese universities, and social scientists have been warned that it is no longer permissible to do research focused on “a single ethnic group,” all in the name of “forging the communal consciousness of the Chinese nation.” The current assimilationist drive is a deliberate effort to replace ethnic consciousness and identity with a nationally unified one. Consequently, it is not permissible for teachers to state anything other than the accepted line about Han benevolence toward Tibetans. Nor can anyone talk about the actual historical-geographical processes by which the current Chinese geo-body has come to be as it now is. Let’s not get to a point where the same is true of the United States.
I titled this month’s column using a word that is ancient in origin, derived from the same Dutch root that gave us the English language “freight,” evoking heavy cargo transported from place to place around the globe. Like it or not, we all carry the cargo of previous generations, for both better and worse. Denying these inheritances, forcefully eradicating or rejecting difference in the name of the nation, drawing irreconcilable lines of enemy and friend, as dominant forces around the world increasingly incite us to do, will only create even more frightening legacies with which future generations must grapple.
Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.