Richard Baum, longtime China watcher, former director of UCLA’s U.S.-China Center and founder of the Chinapol listserv, died on December 14 at age 72. An obituary in the LA Times explains his life’s work and the path that led him there:
During an academic career spanning four decades, Baum traveled to China more than three dozen times, including for a period leading up to the violent clashes at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In the 1990s, building on a small email network of professional contacts, Baum launched Chinapol, a private, Web-based discussion group that has become required reading for China watchers around the world. With more than 1,300 members in 27 countries, including China, it has fostered debates on hot topics like China’s economic recovery, spurred news coverage of human rights cases and provided early information on fast-breaking events like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
[…]He stumbled into his life’s work while a UCLA senior, when he took a class on Chinese government and politics to fulfill a major requirement. He wound up teaching that class years later after joining the faculty in 1968.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA in 1962, Baum went to UC Berkeley, where he received a master’s in 1963 and a doctorate in 1970, in political science.[…]
An article in the New York Times has more on the origins of Chinapol:
In the 1990s, Dr. Baum spent parts of several years in Japan. He had a steady e-mail dialogue with several dozen other China experts, but keeping it going while he was overseas became increasingly expensive because of Internet charges, which were steep at the time. To save money, he started Chinapol, a Listserv group whose first members were mostly academics. The group steadily expanded to include ambassadors, business leaders and journalists — all seeking insight and perspective as China rose as an economic and political power.
Participants had to be approved by Dr. Baum — a recommendation from another member helped, as did an affiliation with a prominent news organization — and advocacy, attacks and self-promotion were not allowed. Violators could be quickly culled, an intolerance that some joked evoked that of China’s leaders.
“Rick was lovingly known as ‘Chairman Rick,’ ” said Clayton Dube, a longtime friend and colleague who leads the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California.
The forum has been especially useful for journalists working in China. Although posts on Chinapol are confidential within the group, a reporter can contact a member separately to follow up on a post or to request permission to quote from it.
An in-depth interview with Baum about the listserv that is his legacy was published in 2010 by the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Asia Policy journal, and can be read in full online.