Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Irressistible Disruption and the Weaponization of Knowledge Production, Analysis, and Education--A View From National Battle Lines Between Germany and China

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

Global elites have been fascinated (more fear, loathing, desire and the expectation of exploitation) with disruption and disruptive technologies (see, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here), even as these elements seek stability and the preservation of the structures of order (and power) (e.g., here, here, here, and here).  They mean to capture disruption and bend it to whatever orthodoxy suits their fancy (and there are many fancies in the world today) (here, here, and here).  Indeed markets may well be emerging for satisfying the demand for stability in disruption (see, e.g., here).  

None of this is either profoundly new.  In the economic sphere, the discussion tends to be fairly transparent and directed toward the protection and promotion of power and position within the interplay of key economic actors in relevant markets (whether to not managed to some extent or other by political forces). Yet these basic relations may tend to be veiled in the usual rhetorics of the vanguards of powerful orthodoxies in the political, social and religious spheres. This is particularly in the context of advanced stage of conflicts, or where the alignments of power relationships among competing structures appear to be shifting. 

But a critical element of disruption is the way it helps to see the world in a different way--that is, in the way it may change the perception of reality and the ordering and significance of knowledge within and among communities. Changing the way one views the world is likely the most disruptive  ends to which the "technologies" of economics, law, politics, society and religion are deployed.   And deploying such technologies in the service of the preservation of world view (and its stability enhancing absorption of that which cannot be avoided) represents the the other side of disruption.  In either case, change comes, and with change a realignment of relationships even among those who manage to retain their place in the world.   

This post considers the way that disruptions in knowledge and the preservation of old knowledge now fuels  the contests for position among key actors in all sectors of human activity. Disruption is aligned with the weaponization of education (and through it knowledge) to advance objectives for which education is a means. It is clear that global society is already in the midst of great disruption--the technological aspects are merely the tip of icebergs under which the great disruption in the shape and use of knowledgeable are already proving their value in the high stakes games of states, of societies and of other communities.  The recent interactions between German civil society organizations and China suggest some of its current contours. 

 (Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

Disruption may thus be better understood as a means rather than as a thing itself. In the realm of perception and knowledge it assumes the character of those ends, ends that vary by sector and in the fields of power in which it is to be utilized. To that end, all social forces must be deployed to the extent of the ability of actors to use them. If one looks with any degree of concentration one could always see these deployments everywhere, both within and among states; and in the wars for the control of normative baselines that are meant to arrange relationships among groups which are thought usefully to be differentiated from each other on the usual basis of the current age--sex, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, wealth, language, morals, ethics, habits, etc. (e.g., Culturally Significant Speech: Law, Courts, Society, and Racial Equity).  

The deployment of such social forces has always centered on an irresistible weaponization of education--that is probably among the most potent disruptive  to the current world orders. Here education can be understood in multiple senses: (1) the socialization of youth ; (2) the production of knowledge in aid of the governing ideology; (3) and the deployment of knowledge and youth to further communal aims. Education that fails in the inculcation of appropriate morals, values, perspectives and "truths," and the production of knowledge that fails to aid the governing ideology or conform to communal orthodoxies is subject to discipline unless and until it too achieves the disciplinary authority inherent in orthodoxy and the control of the levers of managing people, things, ideas, etc.   Contests over education, thus understood, are central to the control of stability with disruption (in a sense the old "creative destruction" notions of an earlier age in the West), and as a potent tool in the management of perception in contests among orthodoxies for control (of whatever it is over which they seek dominion). 

It is old news that education has been a powerful weapon in the shaping of mass perceptions of the structure of society and its expression in politics, ethics and thus useful in the control of the political effects of "right" and "wrong". Controls of the avenues of knowledge production have also been profoundly affected by shifting orthodoxies.  That is a tale that effectively defines the history fo the United States since the start of the 20th century (with antecedents in the earlier contests over the institutionalization of education and thereafter of the control of education by the state or by religion).  And it bends all sectors into the project of education--of the socialization of youth and of the production of knowledge and of their deployment to further communal aims--from the learning factories of the formal education sector (e.g., here), to the Churches, to the sports (e.g., here) and entertainment fields (e.g., here). And the object is the capture of the hearts and minds of the masses (e.g., here). This weaponization of education  thus also outlines the "total war" character of the effort--as well as the value of leveraging technological disruption amplify the disruptive or protective thrust of education in its three senses.  In our own age it has again blurred the lines between education and propaganda (e.g. here); between knowledge production and patronage (e.g., here); and between

There is an international element to these issues that has lately reached become more public and generated more by way of official response in the context of relations between China, Australia and now the European Union and its Member States. 
In The Globalization of University Education and Interference in the Domestic Social and Political Orders of States: Considering Chinese and Australian Approaches, I explored some of the political ramifications  in China and Australia relating in large measure to the management and use of higher education and the projection of ideologies of knowledge and to control of interpretation abroad. Some reference was made to Chinese efforts and to Australia's National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference (Bill 2017). I suggested the way that these sorts of engagements "move quickly, then, from a "thing" (knowledge and learning) to values, interpretation, management and ideology.  We move from the collection and deployment of data bits to (1) power (who determines what may be learned; and what is taboo),  and (2) form (what may be learned; the form does this knowledge take)." Flora Sapio offered further reflections on the themes raised in her essay, Scattered Thoughts on the Globalized University and the Logic of the Nation-State as an Ideal Form. (The Globalization of University Education, supra)
Now those disruptions in education, their conflation with political contests, and their importance for the disciplining of the world views of key stakeholders in global politics has moved to the relations between Germany and China--to the ways in which the old model of projection of knowledge into China from abroad has now been contested and when the reverse has begun to occur also met with resistance from the new host jurisdiction.  The key actors are the states of China and Germany, and two key producers and disseminators of knowledge-- the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) -- both traditionally well aligned with the views of their patrons. On the other is the apparatus of the Chinese state as projected outward through its organ, Global Times.
Recent reporting from David Bandurski and the China Media Project provides a useful window on that battlefield.

Feb. 6, 2018
China Media Project
Over the weekend, the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) and the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), both based in Berlin, jointly released a report calling on European leaders to take more concerted action to deal with China’s efforts to exert political influence in Europe. “If Europe intends to stop the momentum of Chinese influencing efforts,” the report said, “it needs to act swiftly and decisively.”

The report takes a fairly comprehensive look at Chinese influence tactics in Europe, outlining challenges in three “arenas”: 1. political and economic elites; 2. media and public opinion; and 3. civil society and academia. The report also draws parallels with “high-profile precursors in other Western liberal democracies, specifically Australia and New Zealand.”

Whatever its merits, the GPPi/MERICS report was sure to draw sharp criticism from China. The first volley came late yesterday in the Global Times, the tabloid published by the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily. The op-ed, “Misguided Academics Promote China-EU Confrontation,” argued that the GPPi/MERICS report was an unfair reflection of China’s ambitions in Europe, and that it “advocates confrontation between Chinese and EU political models.”

Over the past year, MERICS, Europe’s largest think-tank on contemporary China, has been singled out for ad hominem attacks from the Global Times, and the idea that the think-tank nurtures “misguided academics” is a principal line of attack. Just last week, in fact, an article in the Global Times credited the newspaper itself with driving a precipitous drop in “negative” coverage by MERICS by running a report back in March 2017 “on the problem of politicization of ‘China research’ at MERICS.” The piece, which suggested MERICS president Sebastian Heilmann was leaving his post in September because of “reservations on the part of the funder,” Mercator Stiftung, quoted an anonymous academic from Hamburg, Germany, to disparage MERICS research as “China research for the entertainment section.”

Anticipating further growls from the Global Times and other state media about Europe’s newly cautious attitude toward China, we offer a translation of the most recent Global Times attack on MERICS. Enjoy.

President of Europe’s Largest “China Research Center” to Vacate His Post: And the Back Story Seems to be Even Richer!
January 30, 2018

[Global Times Germany correspondent, Qing Mu (青木), Global Times reporter Zhang Beixin (张倍鑫)] — The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), which has been called Europe’s largest “China research center” recently issued a notice on its official website announcing a change of management, saying that effective September this year Sebastian Heilmann would no longer serve as president of the center. In March last year, the Global Times ran a full-page report on the problem of politicization of “China research” at MERICS (see image). After that, MERICS’ entirely one-sided voice criticizing China was somewhat moderated, and use by German media of the research results from scholars at the think tank also went down. A scholar who cooperates with MERICS told the Global Times reporter that doubts raised by China also put pressure on Mercator Stiftung, the foundation that created the think tank. A person familiar with the situation told the Global Times reporter that Heilmann’s departure likely owed to reservations on the part of the funder.

MERICS was created in November 2013 with funding from Germany’s largest private foundation, the Mercator Stiftung. This center recently issued a notice saying that Heilmann would return to Germany’s Trier University starting September 1 owing to family reasons. Within just a few years, [the notice said], Heilmann had fashioned MERICS as one of the world’s leading think tanks for China research, and the Mercator Stiftung expressed its thanks for his outstanding work. The foundation was preparing for the second round of MERICS funding (2019-2023). In the future, Heilmann would actively support the smooth leadership transition at MERICS, and would continue to maintain a close connection with MERICS.

The change in leadership at MERICS did not attract much attention in Germany’s media, but in China research circles in Germany it caused something of a stir. Berlin China specialist 莱希贝格 told the Global Times reporter that Heilmann was stepping down early, before the end of MERICS’ first five-year round [of funding], and clearly his cooperation with the Mercator Stiftung had not gone so smoothly. 莱希贝格 reckoned that MERICS’ greatest failure had been to spark questions from China, for example that it had been too political, and had lacked objectivity.

At the time of its founding in 2013, MERICS said that it hoped to “reveal different aspects of China”, and to “deepen knowledge and understanding of China in Germany and in Europe.” But the result was that it released various research articles on China that were essentially critical of China and were clearly subjective in nature.

Thanks to its reputation as Europe’s largest “China research center,” MERICS quickly gained visibility. In particular, after the center’s scholars published articles in America’s New York Times, in Germany’s Der Spiegel and other “major Western media,” MERICS became perhaps synonymous with “China research” in Europe. Germany’s Der Tagesspiegel newspaper reported previously that some traditional think tanks in Germany worried that MERICS was monopolizing “expert knowledge on China,” and that they believed it lacked historical perspective on China.

Through investigation, Global Times reporters found that MERICS does not resemble a think tank in the true sense, and it has not long-term research plan. Each week the center issues its online magazine called “China Monitor,” which 5 to 10 articles. These “academic articles” all follow hot topics about China, looking more like personal reflections, the language often provocative, tending to draw attention. This has led the organization to have a poor reputation among academics. One Chinese expert in Hamburg told this reporter angrily that these article could not be called scholarly research, that they lacked serious arguments, and that they also lacked a historical view — that some resembled “China research for the entertainment section.”

The Global Times reporter has applied for onsite interviews with this think tank on many occasions in the past, but has always been refused, the organization saying that “we refuse interviews from state media.” In March last year, the Global Times ran a full-page article called “Getting to the Bottom of Europe’s Biggest ‘China Research Center'” in which it exposed the problem of politicization in MERICS articles. People with knowledge of the situation have revealed that after the report came out, Heilmann was furious and said he wanted to seek out the Global Times reporter to argue it out, and that he even flew into a rage asking the Chinese Embassy in Germany how the article had come about.

According to an investigation by Global Times reporters, from 2013 to March 2017, around 80 percent of the articles published by MERICS were negative. After the publication of the full-page report by the Global Times, articles from the center about China that were negative with a strong sense of subjectivity were around 50 percent. The tone of its experts in media interviews was also somewhat moderated. For example, in an interview with Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) radio on April 6, MERICS scholar Sabine Mokry (莫诗彬) affirmed China’s activities in Africa, saying that China’s economic and political involvement in Africa had earned praise from locals.

According to its plan, the Mercator Stiftung should already have invested 18.4 million Euros in MERICS. Insiders reveal that the foundation is clearly unhappy with the current situation at MERICS. One person in charge at the foundation previously told the Global Times reporter that MERICS’ objective had been to advance understanding of China, not to oppose [China]. [Berlin China specialist] 莱希贝格 believes that given the current situation at MERICS, the management change is perhaps an opportunity that can make MERICS move in a more objective direction. 
When read in light of recent regulatory activity in China, and in Australia, it suggests the breadth of the conflict and the substantial stakes that all invested in this battle believe are involved.  Every state actor in these recent events have taken substantially similar positions--to protect their control over education, and to project their own education abroad.  At the same time, global civil society actors have taken dependent autonomous positions seeking to some extent to preserve the emerging autonomy of knowledge yet dependent on the prestige and financial rewards of their home states or of the rewards offered for cooperation abroad. None of this is new or revolutionary or even an indictment of conduct that is both natural and expected.  That it should be so plainly revealed now is a suggestion that the participants now feel freer to operate in the open.
"All societies are full of useful and useless knowledge; they are full of knowledge that is forbidden to all, or sometimes to all but a few.  The interpretation and utilization of knowledge is as much a matter of politics as it is of anything else." (The Globalization of University Education, supra).  The actions of states, academics, and civil society actors recently are driving these fundamental points home.  We are not speaking of "spin control" (e.g., here, and here).  We are instead speaking to the fundamental construction of ways of seeing, of understanding and of building the world.  The difference between facts and interpretation, between reality and perception, or between truth and facts, has always been ambiguous.  But societies have managed more often than not to work around the edges of these contradictions.  When they have not societies have ushered in periods of "disruption." Education, in all three of its manifestations, and as methodologies heavily embedded in all forms of communication, now has become a much less veiled weapon in the battles over authority, the disciplining of human perception, and the management of human space. Let's see where disruption takes us this time.

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