chapter  23
6 Pages

Ignoring the ramparts: John Friedmann’s dialogue with Chinese urbanism and Chinese studies


Writing in 2007, Zou Deci, former director of the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design, declared that Zhongguode chengshi bianqian offers “a profound analysis of the politics, economics, culture, environment and governance of China’s cities,” one that is “worth our while to learn from.” Such is the preface to the Chinese edition of John Friedmann’s China’s Urban Transition.1 It has served as a point of departure for John’s dialogue with his Chinese counterparts in and around the Academy over the past decade. It is also the product of some five years of reading and dialogue at the University of British Columbia where John cheerfully engaged the China Studies community as part of turning his professional gaze on China. I joined UBC’s Centre for Chinese Research in 2002 and soon met this most congenial of revolutionaries. I have come to understand both sides of John’s dialogue – with Chinese

urban planners and with China studies scholars at UBC – as part of his longterm commitment to radical social practice. Mostly, I was amazed at his quiet confidence as he plunged into an extended reading program of recent scholarship on China’s urban and rural issues, supplemented with long conversations with several China specialists at UBC and regular participation in our many public talks and seminars. In particular, John has been a mainstay of our intensive China Studies reading group in which we dissected each other’s papers in preparation for publication. That John’s engagement was something unusual, and indeed a version of the radical social practice he had been advocating since at least his 1979 book, The Good Society, only dawned on me slowly. I am a cheerful and interdisciplinary soul, so John’s fieldcrossing from urban planning to modern Sinology struck me as simply interesting. Not so, I came to discover, for some of my colleagues. I have been disappointed by such a guild mentality, but John mounted the disciplinary ramparts as if he were stepping onto the dance floor, with grace and a bit of a flair. In time I came to read The Good Society, in which John lays out what he

means by radical practice. As those familiar with his work know, this is always social practice, taking place in small groups and in dialogue in taskspecific settings. The goal is to make life better, particularly social life, but it

is personal and face-to-face, not hierarchical or directive. Indeed, John insists “All dialogue is open ended and allows for transformation of the self and other in a process of transactive learning” (Friedmann 1979, pp.39-40). Anyone can join in, the conversation is tied to activity, joining thinking and doing, and these groups can link with others informally when it makes sense to those involved. This is the doing of the Good Society, in which process is the goal, or at least the best shot at the goal we can pull off at the time. I don’t think John has ever said the words ‘radical practice’ in all our work together, but it has underwritten a decade of shared exploits. John not only came to the Centre for Chinese Research to deepen his

reading on China, he joined the community. When I arrived he was already working with Michael Leaf in our School of Community and Regional Planning on questions of periurban development in China and Southeast Asia. They invited me to join the examination of an MA thesis on urban issues in China and thus I met this astonishing intellectual who brought to mind Pablo Casals (not least because John was still playing his cello then). After the exam we all went up the hill for Chinese noodles and a friendship was born. I discovered in John a mentor for engaged scholarship, love of poetry, and community building. A deeply cultured man, a Viennese intellectual – poet, scholar, musician, and playful trouble-maker for the literal, pedantic, tone-deaf, and self-satisfied – John embraces difference and, luckily for me, has a weakness for Australians. China’s Urban Transition is but one of John’s efforts to do a bit of radical

practice as well as to extend his knowledge of place making in another part of the world. As readers of the book immediately discover, John sets out to challenge his urban studies colleagues with a strongly historical approach and focus on endogenous factors in China’s urban transition in explicit contention – or dialogue – with the general focus on the present and global factors (Friedmann 2007). China’s Urban Transition is a call to urban planners to take Chinese experience over time as well as over space seriously. At the same time, John’s approach and these fruits of his wide-ranging reading of countless specialised studies byChina historians, political scientists, geographers, urban planners, sociologists, anthropologists, and humanists of various stripes (how many urban planning texts cite the I Ching?) has been a signal contribution and challenge for China studies scholars. John’s interdisciplinary application of space, demography, rural and urban sociology, the anthropology of identity, and politics of urban administration plugs Chinese experience into cross-cultural and comparative conversations that break out of the ‘China centred’ scholarship in which my generation was trained and which still characterizes much Sinological work. For both professional communities this book offers a call to interdisciplinarity – a reminder that we need the analytical focus of disciplines but no one or two intellectual tools is sufficient to get the job done. John ends this book with the hope that Chinese planners can build sustainable development by “‘steering the middle passage’ between anarchy and stasis” (Friedmann 2007, p.129.) Likewise, he

reminds us to seek a balance between local knowledge and comparative insight. John consistently joined in the activities I arranged at the Centre for Chinese

Research, always encouraging and with practical suggestions. When I set out to start a project on ‘rethinking Chinese thinking’ with legal scholars and political theorists in 2004 John moved smoothly between fields with a sharp but jargon-free understanding of each approach. When I revived the effort in 2011 in a conference on ‘Chinese values and universal norms’ John was in the middle again. Meanwhile, John brought incisive criticism and fresh perspectives to our papers in the China Studies reading group and in 2005 he brought together the first of our Chinese Urbanism roundtables (this one on identity over time), bringing in students and faculty from history, geography, art history, political science, and urban planning. In all of these activities he was looking for what we could learn from each other and then what we could do, practically, now. This is when I reached for The Good Society. In 2006, when I returned from a stint in Beijing appalled by the air pollu-

tion, I discovered the nature of John’s ‘participation’ in the Centre. He became our agent provocateur or ‘outside agitator.’ He encouraged me to set up an interdisciplinary research group: China Environmental Science and Sustainability (CESS). It has long been my wish to bring natural scientists and China studies scholars together to make sense of China’s environmental crisis. However, the habitus of departments and disciplinary incentives that reward intra-disciplinary publication militate against such collaborations partially by habit and partially by guild mentality. If John has explicit enemies it would be these. Yet his response has not been to complain; it has been to act. He simply started planning our first meeting and a grant application. What has evolved is an ongoing conversation, sometimes quite active, sometimes sidelined by other tasks, but over the years we have built a community of scholars of nature and society to address specific issues in China’s environment.2 We have a long way to go before we can achieve the combination of intellectual synergy and community connection between UBC researchers and communities in China that we seek, but the conversation has begun. John’s approach to China is refreshing but it still faces some challenges

both at home and abroad. In China’s Urban Transition he is explicitly using China as the ‘other’ with which to challenge the social planning world in Euro-America. It is a useful challenge and his emphasis on endogenous factors in China’s current urbanization is a useful corrective to overly abstract models of urbanization that essentially draw from Western experience or assumptions about the universality of globalization. But this comes at a cost. Intellectually, using China to critique ourselves is good for reflexivity but less good for providing a critical analysis of activities in China. John’s work has not really engaged the social planning world of state socialism in China as fully as he has engaged the modernist presumptions of the Western planning. China’s planners are probably more secure in their technocratic elitism than planners in Western universities or multilateral agencies. This

Chinese high modernism in which ‘science’ still reigns supreme is buttressed by an anxious and repressive government that will brook no criticism it has not itself vetted beforehand. Thus, John’s model of community deliberation and self-determination faces severe challenges from both the scientism and the authoritarianism of actually existing socialism in Xi Jinping’s China. Likewise, John’s radical presence in our China community has not always

gotten results. For example, partially in response to his own dismay at the planning community in China, John tried to get a number of Sinologists and scholars working on technical aspects of environmental pollution to join forces with scholars and communities in Wuhan in central China for an ‘on the ground’ planning project to see if we could work together on some research and some solutions for water pollution in that major city on the Yangtze river. Despite some initial overtures, in the end we (including myself) dropped the ball. We were unwilling to let go of our current projects or were unable to see how this proposed collaboration could contribute to or develop our work. This is the challenge of institutionalization, and it remains one that my unit, the Institute for Asian Research, struggles with right now as we have developed a new Asia-focused Masters in public policy. For me, this training programme should incorporate the challenges that John and his like-minded colleagues and students have put forward, but for others of my colleagues what is needed is more models, more mathematical rigour, and bigger data sets. At times I find myself wanting to re-read Mao’s On Protracted War. John’s approach will continue to irritate the positivists in our community.

Surprisingly, it is also a burr in the side of area specialists. I became so used to working with John on trying new things at the Centre for Chinese Research that it was a shock to me to discover the resistance of some of my Sinological colleagues. As the Centre set out a few years ago to revise its mandate and to shape the graduate training at the Institute of Asian Research I invited John as a very active member of the Centre to join in the conversation. In short order (but in polite Canadian fashion) I was taken aside and informed that this was a conversation for specialists and your friend John is not one, after all he doesn’t speak or read Chinese – how could he guide us on a China policy curriculum? I am happy to say that this was not the attitude of all my China studies colleagues, but it represented an important part of our institutional culture. On the one hand, those not trained in the finer points of our sub-specialty are not welcome to the table or are lightly dismissed, and on the other hand we abandon responsibility for what happens in any other field, deferring to the wisdom of the specialists of that domain. This is foolishness in so many ways that it does not bear much explanation. Having worked for years against the divides of disciplinary dominion I was appalled to find it amongst area studies scholars – ourselves generally interdisciplinary in approach and subject to the jibes of disciplinarians (Szanton 2004; Wesley-Smith & Goss 2010). John made a spirited case for bridging Sinological studies with policy

issues – something since applied with great success at other universities from

the Australian National University’s Centre on China in the World to University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.3 But John’s suggestions fell on deaf ears. This, I have come to see, is that other part of The Good Society: the struggle. For John’s work it has largely been against the coercive aspects of the world of social planning, and I have inherited from him the same struggle in my patch. I am happy to report that the dialogue John has so encouraged is now taking off at UBC and, meanwhile, I have taken the struggle to my own face-to-face community in a project to use collaborative translation pairs of Anglophone and Sinophone scholars to work on active translation between Chinese and English and so work towards a practical version of co-production of knowledge about China.4 This includes much of the messiness, misunderstandings, and time-consuming conversations that support what John so encouragingly labels ‘dialogue.’ But it is worth it. We are training a new generation of collaborative scholars (and with better translation skills as a bonus). They are making a new style of China scholarship built on co-production of knowledge. Much of the skill set and inspiration for this effort comes from reading and working with John – from the inclination to listen first to the willingness to let the interaction change us but also including ‘to get something done.’ The conversation with Chinese urban planners likewise is not without its

struggles. The translation of John’s book, China’s Urban Transition, reflects this. It is published neibu – internal circulation: a residual category of classified documents and publications carried over from the Mao period. Neibu books are not available to the general public, at least in spirit, and are not available through normal book shops. In Mao’s time these classified materials were things deemed too politically sensitive for ordinary people, the political laity. Only high cadres and professors and others in the priesthood of socialism could deal with any ‘dangerous ideas’ in such books – whether on local conditions or coming from bourgeois countries. Today, the neibu classification is used to circumvent over-zealous censors but comes at the price of diminished circulation. The upside of this prophylactic publishing is that this translation appears to be free from the deletions and changes invariably required of translations published in open (gongkai) circulation. Thus, John’s book may have a limited audience (ironically among the cadres of the social planning world in China), but at least his voice comes through pretty accurately. Of course, the preface by Zou Deci and the translator’s introduction both contain the ideological equivalent of the Surgeon General’s Warning: ingesting these products can be dangerous to your (ideological) health (literally “because he is a foreign scholar he cannot avoid some mistakes; readers should take note”). Constrained distribution and ideological caution are not the only challenges

facing John’s efforts at dialogue with his Chinese colleagues. In his recent visits to Shenzhen he has lamented the continued dominance of the megaplanning approach at the expense of place making. The self-confident modernism John struggled against in Latin America in earlier decadesis alive

and well in post-socialist China. Yet, as other papers in this volume attest, that conversation and that struggle to build communities of participatory planning continue in China and with Chinese colleagues. John has been cheerfully relentless in his search for communities of dialogue –

or potential dialogue. As with my community at UBC, this has entailed some struggle. Yet, I have never seen John raise his voice in anger as he tweaked academic pretensions or crossed sacred disciplinary or area boundaries. I have come to see that in addition to learning more about China and offering an urban studies lens for China specialists, John’s goal has been to enact the Good Society he had written about in the 1970s. He never mentioned the term to me but I can find the explanation for his actions in that book. The goal of radical social practice, as John wrote there, is not some destination – an improved China curriculum at my university or a unity of mind with Chinese planners – rather, it is the doing, the process, the effort at community and dialogue, and even the struggle. These are the clothing we weave and wear each day that marks us as pilgrims of the Good Society. Meanwhile, John is translating Rilke.