Saturday, July 03, 2021

Academic BDS Comes to China

The Guardian has an interesting article about a scientific journal editor, David Curtis, who stepped down from his post after his attempt to implement a boycott of Chinese academics was rebuffed by his publishers. The direct precipitation of his resignation appears to be a mix of two things: first, that he was prevented from publishing an article he co-authored raising the specter of a China boycott, and second, that he had of his own accord begun implementing a policy of rejecting all submissions by Chinese academics due to "the complicity of the Chinese medical and scientific establishment in human rights abuses against the Uyghurs." (The latter decision was denounced by the journal higher-ups as a violation of policies forbidding national origin discrimination).

It is not clear whether the figures involved in the call to boycott Chinese academics are involved in the BDS campaign against Israel. I can imagine them being sympathetic; I can also imagine them being people who thought BDS against Israel was absurd precisely because we should be starting with more serious violators like China and decided to put their money where their mouth was (a quick google search didn't reveal any particular links between Curtis and BDS, whether favorable or critical).

I have been banging the drum about the likelihood that BDS (or BDS-style tactics) will at some point stop "singling out" Israel and make itself apparent as part of activists' toolkits addressing other countries and controversies. And indeed, this particular iteration seems highly reminiscent of the earliest days of anti-Israel BDS (not only because it is originating in the UK). The flat ban on submissions by Chinese academics is identical to how academic BDS began -- the earliest significant academic BDS "move" was a decision by a British journal editor to demand the resignation of Israeli colleagues from her editorial board because "I can no longer live with the idea of cooperating with Israelis as such." Nowadays the BDS movement has made gestures at moving away from pure nationality-based discrimination in favor of allegedly targeting only "institutions, not individuals"; I suspect if the China BDS movement gains legs it will begin making a similar pivot (though, as with the Israel case, I also suspect that the new standard will often be honored primarily in the breach).

But what does the potential emergence of a China academic BDS movement mean for the future of the Israel academic BDS campaign? The core personnel are going to be different -- partially because different people have different interests, partially because the Israel BDS movement has more than its share of tankies who think the entire Uighur issue is western imperialist claptrap. Nonetheless, there will likely be some overlap, and the fact that BDS is being promoted in other cases will do more to legitimize it as a legitimate option even as there may be disagreements about whether a BDS style campaign is properly applied to this or that case. So in that sense, any successful mainstreaming of the China BDS campaign will likely help bolster the Israel one even if the principal actors are different people.

On the other hand, the development of "BDS" in the China context, precisely because it offers a comparator case and can falsify the "singling out" hypothesis, also is likely to generate new norms which will serve to modulate and regulate the Israel case as well. While Curtis' proposal is drastic -- no submissions from any Chinese academics, period -- it is supremely unlikely, given China's integration into global academia and knowledge-production, that a BDS movement of that form will gain any traction. Far more plausible is the implementation of considerably more narrow and targeted measures -- particular institutions or projects that are inextricably bound up in human rights abuses that directly (and not just by association) taint the specific academic work emanating therefrom. And particular will likely actually be particular -- it will not be tenable to use sweeping notions of complicity or culpability to drag in every single Chinese university or institution (the main mechanic by which "institutions, not individuals" reverts back to "individuals").

This is part of what I've been saying when I suggest that social movements, BDS including, "moderate as they mainstream." The more BDS becomes a general tool of social activism rather than an Israel-only one-off, the more it will adjust itself to adopt standards that actually can be plausibly generalized to a range of cases, and while extirpation of all Israelis from the global community is at least a conceivable social goal, extirpation of all Chinese nationals (or all nationals of all countries whose governments are implicated in significant human rights abuses) is not.

Put differently, to the extent people start thinking seriously about applying "BDS" to the China case in a manner that is plausible and scalable, the equilibrium that will be set will be one that likely will not countenance flat bars on academic participations by persons of a particular nationality, nor "institutional" proscriptions that amount to doing the same thing, but may accept narrowly-tailored measures targeted at specific wrongdoers. And -- insofar as China would be used as a comparator case to justify measures in other states as well (namely, Israel) -- there is a decent chance that these norms will translate over to the Israeli case as well. It won't happen without a fight, and you can be sure that the old-guard will continue to insist on the more fundamentalist version. But I do think that's the most likely trajectory.


Unknown said...

I think more likely than anything, a BDS movement for China won't materialize. If Israel's transgressions in the West Bank and Gaza are the bar for cultural boycott for some people, China (and for that matter more than a few other countries) have long exceeded said bar. The Free Tibet movement once had a lot of public recognition and momentum; as far as I'm aware it never called for a boycott of China's entirety.

LWE said...

At least, "boycotting the world's only Jewish state" argument doesn't apply here, given that there are more than one de-facto Chinese state in the world (Taiwan, Singapore), which this won't boycott.

I am curious, however, about the future of this "BDS China" movement. Will it actually become as loud and prominent as "BDS Israel"? It can be aided by the nature of political social media. On the other hand, as pointed out, China may simply be too big and influential to be a subject to a BDS-style campaign.