Op-Ed: Does the Hoover Institution produce genuine scholarship?

May 17, 2019, 1:27 a.m.

The answer, of course, is yes. The Hoover Institution’s roster lists many accomplished scholars who have published important works, some of which sit on my own bookshelves. One recent publication, however, would likely receive a C if turned in as an undergraduate assignment. I’m referring to China’s Influence and American Interests*, a report that has produced considerable anxiety among Chinese Americans, especially international students and faculty from mainland China working in STEM fields. 

Many, including myself, believe the report feeds the same xenophobia that has been stoked by government officials who have declared China’s rising economic and geopolitical clout to constitute a “whole-of-society” threat to the United States. How else to interpret the report’s scrutiny of an otherwise innocuous donation by an Alibaba executive, Joseph Tsai, to his alma mater, Yale, to establish a center for the study of China at the Yale law school? The report suggests we should be worried about donations to universities from individuals connected to China even as it notes, “There is no evidence so far that any of these gifts has compromised the independence of the recipient institutions.” This is a maneuver that insinuates something while maintaining plausible deniability, akin to wondering aloud whether an academic institution produces genuine scholarship, and then saying, “Yes, of course (wink).”

My main criticism, however, is not along these lines. Rather, I am concerned with the way the report seems to disregard the basic practices of scholarship, something that became clear after I worked with another graduate student, under the supervision of Prof. Gordon H. Chang, to examine the report’s citations in a few of the report’s chapters.

Some footnotes appear to be unrelated to the footnoted passage. For instance, a paragraph at the top of page 42 lists a number of individuals alleged to be senior members of the Chinese Communist Party who are also responsible for maintaining relations with people of Chinese descent living outside China. The footnote at the end of the paragraph cites a single article that is entirely about a person who does not appear in that list. That person’s name appears in the report for the first time 113 pages later. For another example, we could turn to a passage in chapter 6 of the report referring to an event in 2016 that cites an article published in 2014.

Many crucial passages and quotations in the report are entirely unsupported with footnotes. This includes the claim, on pages 40 and 43, that Beijing sees people of Chinese descent living outside China as “sons and daughters of the Yellow Emperor”, quotes attributed to Chinese government officials on page 43, the claim on page 60 that a particular individual is a high-level member of a Chinese political body and long passages about the history of China’s policy towards foreign-language and Chinese media in chapter 6, among others.

My colleague, who painstakingly went through the Chinese language sources cited in the report, believes those sources were used in especially careless ways. For example, one passage in the report on page 115 claims that China’s international image hit new lows after Beijing’s 1989 repression of protests in Tiananmen Square, but it cites a Chinese article that does not mention those incidents at all and instead attributes China’s international image to the legacy of Cold War anti-communism.

My point is not that the report is full of falsehoods. Many passages have appropriate footnotes, and perhaps some of the passages with questionable footnotes are accurate. Furthermore, it is inevitable that any work of scholarship contains some mistakes. Still, this strikes me as less a series of mistakes than an apparent disregard for the nuts-and-bolts of academic writing that we require of first-year undergraduates enrolled in PWR. It undermines the credibility of the report in rather serious ways, if not the credibility of the report’s esteemed authors. And it’s the kind of thing that makes you appreciate even more the work of academic presses like our own, which spend the time and resources to ensure its publications are genuine, top-notch works of scholarship.

*I reviewed a version of the report that has since been revised. Page numbers in this op-ed refer to the version currently available online.

— Calvin Cheung-Miaw, ’03, PhD candidate in Modern Thought and Literature

Contact Calvin Cheung-Miaw at calvin.miaw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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