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Cornell Contemporary China Initiative Fall Focus: What is China?

A pink and white lotus floats in the foreground with skyscrapers in distance
September 1, 2021

In the Cornell Contemporary China Initiative’s seventh year, our guest speakers and host Allen Carlson critically examine, the question “What is China?”


This topic is explored in the series through utilizing an inter-disciplinary perspective and making use of both historical and contemporary lenses. In so doing it will touch upon some of the most pressing and significant political and social issues now facing “China” and the rest of the world.  In this context, particular attention will be paid to contested places, with special consideration of how they are placed within (or without) what is considered to be China. And will shed light on the impact such practices and processes have had on those living in these regions.

Hosted by Allen Carlson, Director of CAPS and Michael J. Zak Chair, Cornell University | CCCI Director, Fall 2021

Co-sponsored by the East Asia Program and The Levinson China and Asia-Pacific Studies (CAPS) Program

Please register in advance for each lecture through the linked titles below. All times are ET.

At the Edge of China—life in a Tibetan town

Barbara Demick, author, journalist

September 27 at 4:45 p.m.*

Barbara Demick looks at life in Ngaba (Aba in Chinese), a small Tibetan county, which became the engine of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule with a wave of self-immolations that started in 2009. Ngaba is the subject of Demick’s newest book, Eat the Buddha, which was listed among the best non-fiction of 2020 by the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Economist, and NPR, among others. 


Decolonizing Chinese Historiography—with special attention to Xinjiang

James Millward, Georgetown University

October 25 at 4:45 p.m.

This talk focuses on the use of history, and, more broadly, examines how common concepts and vocabulary used by nearly all China scholars teaching and writing in English not only mischaracterize the past of states and peoples on the East Asian mainland, but reinforce PRC justifications for its colonialism, now egregiously oppressive and verging on genocidal. The problematic terminology we all use includes the idea of "dynasties," "borderlands," "minorities," and even, as it is often employed, the word "China" itself.

Hong Kong: Global China’s Restive Frontier 


November 8 at 4:45 p.m.

How did Hong Kong transform itself from a “shoppers’ and capitalists’ paradise” into a “city of protests” at the frontline of an anti-China global backlash? More than an ideological conflict between a liberal capitalist democratizing city and its Communist authoritarian sovereign, the Hong Kong story, stunning and singular in its many peculiarities, also offers general lessons about a global force and its uneven consequences.


Is China Part of Taiwan?

Shelley Rigger, Davidson University

November 15 at 4:45 p.m.*

There is a long-standing debate over whether Taiwan is part of China. Beijing insists that not only is Taiwan part of China, it is part of the People’s Republic of China. Most Taiwanese reject the idea that the island they live on is part of the PRC, and they would prefer to remain outside the PRC state’s jurisdiction. But when it comes to China – the abstract, cultural, historical idea of China – the situation is more interesting. While some Taiwanese embrace an identity that relegates Chineseness to a minor role (or even dismiss it altogether), most of Taiwan’s 24 million people recognize a cultural and historical attachment to China. Where the two sides differ is over the meaning of that attachment for contemporary political arrangements. Few Taiwanese are swayed by the historical determinism and cultural essentialism that underlie the PRC’s case for “unification.” Rather, they believe that political identity and citizenship should follow the will of the people, not the dictates of history.

* The date was erroneously listed and is now correct as of September 23, 2021.

Additional Information


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