A lifetime of keeping an eye on China

Updated: 2014-09-12 12:16

By Chen Weihua in Washington(China Daily USA)

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20 years at Rand

With his professors Whiting and Richard Solomon, another China scholar, both having worked at the Rand Corporation, Pollack said he was always curious about the private, non-profit think tank based in California.

So when he was offered a job at Rand, he immediately declined other options in academia. "Rand kind of intrigued me. It was kind of a unique place, so-called think tank, very interdisciplinary, very focused on policy questions," Pollack said.

His arrival at Rand in 1978 was a time when China and the US tried to work out a breakthrough to establish diplomatic ties.

Solomon, Pollack's professor in Michigan who later became the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was then the head of the political science department at Rand. He emphasized that China was a very new issue for the US government and encouraged researchers to delve into everything from China's foreign policy and decision making to its military behavior and economic development.

"Government needed a lot of guidance and help on how do we understand China, how do we understand leadership, how do we understand their policy debate and the impact of their domestic politics on their foreign policy," Pollack said.

"It was those kinds of questions, all the real world questions, that attracted me to Rand," he said.

Pollack stayed for more than 20 years, first as a young researcher, and then moved onto to the management in the mid 1980s. In 1994, Pollack chose to return to full-time research.

Though less so now, Rand was at that time doing most of its research for the defense department. That, Pollack explains, did not mean Rand had no independence.

"Rand always believes it will arrive at its own conclusion in research without regard to who was the sponsor," he said.

In Pollack's view, while people at Rand were then aware that the work was primarily for the Pentagon, they tried to define the work in a way that was more to educate the people at the Pentagon rather than to please them.

At Rand, Pollack was also happy to maintain a certain relationship with the academic world, including writing book chapters for the John Fairbank Center at Harvard.

Government payroll

But after more than 20 years at Rand, Pollack started looking for alternatives. He moved to the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in 2000 when the school wanted to build a civilian department to focus on big international issues.

Pollack spent most time there on research while serving as professor of Asian and Pacific studies and also chairman of the strategic research department. It was also then that the China Maritime Study Institute was created in the school.

Pulling several booklets from the bookshelf, Pollack tried to show that not all the studies at the war college are military, such as one on commercial shipbuilding in China.

He dismissed it as a misperception that military officers are all eager to go to war. "When you talk about war, more often than not, it's not the uniformed personnel who wants to get you into war, it's civilians. I am quite serious about that," he said.

Though on a government payroll at the war college, Pollack said he never felt that he was inhibited because "if I cannot do my own thinking and my own writing, there is no point my being there", he said.

However, he admitted that that if the government or Pentagon was paying the salary, he did not want to say that wouldn't affect how people there think.