Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist known for his political activism, in S.A.C.R.E.D., an installation about Ai’s experience in solitary detention.

China professor Moore wants to go to Yantai

‘Even if it were North Korea’

Oliver Moore has no illusions. Freedom in China is under pressure. And it’s only getting worse. And yet: we have to go there.
Text by Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Sometime during the seventies, a man visited Oliver Moore’s classroom. He was there to give a talk. What the talk was about exactly – politics, the Cold War, the future – Moore can’t really remember. He does remember when the man had started talking about China. Self-importantly, the man had said: ‘No one knows what China will do next.’

‘I thought, that’s rubbish’, Oliver Moore says now. ‘A little racist, even. This idea of: somewhere in the Orient is this mysterious country, with mysterious people, and no one really understands them.’ He had trouble accepting this idea. Now, Moore is an expert on China himself. For over a year he has been holding a new chair of Chinese language and culture at the Arts faculty. On Tuesday, he is delivering his inaugural lecture.

The new chair was created because the Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen (CEASG) thought it was high time to add a China expert to their staff. And not because the board of directors is keen to start a Chinese campus. ‘I’ve had to explain this so many times’, Moore says wearily. ‘My job has nothing to do with Yantai.’

Not that he’s against the plans. On the contrary: as far as Moore is concerned, the University of Yantai Groningen can’t come fast enough. ‘Call me an optimist, but I think we can help with changing things.’


Moore should know. He studied the country at length, first at universities in Leeds and London, then in Shanghai. The Cold War had barely ended when he first set foot on Chinese soil in 1982. He didn’t have a great time at first.

‘The food was terrible and the people wouldn’t talk to me’, Moore chuckles. But he knew it would take time. He has visited China many times since that first time, and every time China was a little bit different. ‘The people became friendlier, more polite. Although politeness is a matter of perspective, I think.’

We often lend more credence to the bad stories, when China also gets things right

Take the stereotype of Chinese people spitting on the street, for example. ‘Some westerners think that’s rude. But Chinese people don’t see the problem; in their culture, the ground is the lowest, dirtiest thing there is. You know what Chinese people think is rude? Eating with your hands. The way westerners do when they don’t know how to use chopsticks.’

Moore’s lecture is called Facts, Fictions and Attitudes: Common Tactics for Representing China. The western perspective, he feels, is too often based on fictions, when it could really benefit from some facts.

‘We often lend more credence to the bad stories about China, when the country also gets things right’, says Moore. ‘They’re cleaning up their cities, they’re extremely concerned with the environment. They’re fighting corruption, and the government is slowly becoming more approachable.’

Efficient, not democratic

It sounds hopeful. Should you think, however, that everything is going well, Moore is keen to correct you. ‘Individual freedom has actually got worse’, he says. ‘Freedom of speech is getting increasingly eroded. It’s unsurprising: the Communist Party must be in control. It’s an efficient system, to be sure, but it’s not democratic.’

It’s this system that has the university council so worried. Should you start a branch campus in a country that simply lacks democracy? It was recently announced that UGY, if it’s established, shall be partially managed by a secretary for the Communist Party. But the RUG board maintains that academic freedom will be safeguarded. Critics, however, disagree, saying it’s reminiscent of big brother.

‘Yantai’ has become a fraught term, a controversial issue. Nevertheless, Moore looks almost pleased when the conversation turns toward the desired campus. ‘I was wondering when you’d bring it up’, he says happily. He launches into his story. ‘I’d still be backing this plan’, he says, ‘if we were talking about opening a campus in North Korea.’

Not every Chinese civil servant is a Bond villain, you know

No, China is not a democratic country. No, the Chinese people do not have the same freedoms as Dutch people. Sure, this could make the collaboration difficult, or even painful. Moore has heard it all. And yet he maintains that we should do it.


‘Nothing is going to change in China if we continue to look down on the country from here, telling each other how terrible it is’, he says. ‘I think things can change if we become involved in China. Academics are a great breeding ground for informal contacts, much better than business or politics. There are plenty of people in China who don’t agree with the way the country is currently being run.’

But what about the increasingly limited personal freedom? What about the party secretary?

‘To be honest, I was quite surprised to hear how surprised the RUG was about the party secretary’, Moore remarks. ‘In China, universities have to have a party secretary. That’s just how it works. What were they expecting?’ He leans in, conspiratorially, his eyes twinkling, and says, drily the way only a Briton can: ‘Not every Chinese civil servant is a Bond villain, you know.’

I don’t think becoming a martyr for academic freedom helps much

Right. That’s easily said from the comfort of his Groningen office. What if he didn’t work here, but in Yantai, and that same civil servant threatened to fire him if he didn’t change his curriculum?

‘I don’t see that happening, to be honest’, Moore argues. ‘I don’t think there’s anything I couldn’t teach in China if I wanted to.’

Fair enough. But what if?

‘Fine, what if. There are two things I could do. Either I stick to my guns and allow myself to be fired as a martyr for academic freedom. I don’t think that would help much. Or I remain on good terms with this civil servant by leaving the forbidden subjects out of my lectures. But in my own house I’d still be able to say what I want, to whomever I want.’ Satisfied, he leans back in his chair. ‘There. Any more difficult questions you’d like to ask me?’

Moore certainly isn’t insensitive to the uncertainty the university council feels, and the fears it has. ‘But to me, that fear is one-sided, rigid.’ To him, it is reminiscent of what that man said in his classroom, all those years ago: ‘No one knows what China will do next.’

He still refuses to accept that.


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