Merle Goldman, noted scholar of Chinese intellectual dissent, dies at 92 – Lifotravel

Merle Goldman, a prominent scholar of Chinese affairs who specialized in the work of writers and dissidents confronting the powerful central state, positing that China’s rise as a global economic force could eventually pry open Beijing’s tight lid on opposition, died Nov. 16 at her home in Cambridge, Mass. She was 92.

Ms. Goldman had Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare skin cancer, said her son, Seth Goldman.

As an author and analyst, Ms. Goldman was among the leading academic voices informing Western understanding and policymaking across more than six decades that shaped contemporary China. She chronicled each step from Beijing’s cautious openings in the 1970s to the current dictum of the Communist Party: giving supercharged modernization and middle-class comforts in exchange for zero tolerance on dissent.

The more than dozen books written or co-edited by Ms. Goldman are considered among the essential compendiums on China’s pro-reform movements. As part of the American delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights from 1993 to 1994, she helped examine China’s systematic purges after authorities crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Yet Ms. Goldman did not see only the state’s heavy hand. She broke ranks at times with other experts on China, offering less-pessimistic views on the country’s possible political evolution. It comes down to what happens when money isn’t enough, she believed.

The vast middle class created by China’s surge to become the world’s No. 2 economy may eventually seek its own political voice that the Communist Party could not easily ignore, she wrote in 1994’s “Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China.”

She also interpreted China’s Confucian legacy as inherently at odds with centralized power, favoring instead fair treatment by leaders and bestowing responsibility to intellectuals and writers to speak out against the abuse of political power.

“This does not mean that China will become a democracy in the near future,” she reminded an audience at Princeton University in 2006. Think rather in terms of generations or even longer, she said. And keep in mind, she added, a possible Chinese “democracy” with greater political latitude could end up looking very different than a Western model with different parties and agendas.

“[The Chinese] have a greater degree, certainly, of economic freedom,” she told NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” in 2006 after the release of her book “From Comrade to Citizen: The Struggle for Political Rights in China.” “Yet this is still an authoritarian government.”

That assessment was further reinforced in the years since, including China wiping away many of the political and media freedoms in Hong Kong carried over from its handover by Britain in 1997. She also noted a “virulent form of nationalism” emerging among many younger Chinese supporting crackdowns on pro-autonomy groups in Tibet and the sweeping restrictions and abuses on Muslim Uyghurs in western Xinjiang province.

Ms. Goldman’s deep personal connections in China often gave her scholarship added resonance and nuance. She built networks across the country, particularly among intellectuals, writers and others under increasing pressure by the state. Her network, as well as travel within China since the mid-1970s, allowed Ms. Goldman to share stories and insights that went beyond the geostrategic power plays.

In an essay in The Washington Post in 1999, Ms. Goldman described watching a Chinese village cast ballots for local positions within the Communist Party, which described the voting as a step forward in participatory politics. Instead, wrote Ms. Goldman, the party had “turned to village elections as a way of reestablishing control.”

Three candidates were seeking spots in the village in the southwestern Chongqing province: two Communist Party members and a third, Liao Zhenwen, who led a construction cooperative. When Liao’s name was dropped from the final ballot for village chief, his supporters grabbed papers and wrote in his name. Ms. Goldman’s group, observers with the Carter Center, were hustled away. The election results were later invalidated.

“Nonetheless,” she wrote, “the protest demonstrated the villagers’ willingness to express discontent with the election procedures and the party’s inability to manipulate them completely.”

She also displayed the confidence to acknowledge what she didn’t know. In a 2005 article, she began with a shrug.

“Is China’s political environment loosening up, or is the government cracking down?” she wrote. “It’s hard to tell.”

Merle Dorothy Rosenblatt was born on March 12, 1931, in New Haven, Conn. Her parents joined with their siblings to open stores selling fabric remnants and doing upholstery work.

She received a bachelor’s degree in 1953 from Sarah Lawrence College and then enrolled at Radcliffe University to pursue a master’s degree in Chinese studies, a relatively new academic field in the United States at the time. She graduated in 1957 and, after her wedding, spent a year in Fort Hood, Tex., during the Army service of her husband, Marshall Goldman.

They both headed to Harvard University: Ms. Goldman earning a doctorate focused on Chinese history in 1964, and her husband continuing with studies into the Soviet economic system. (He would go on to become a noted authority on the Soviet economy and Wellesley College professor.)

Her 1967 book “Literary Dissent in Communist China,” established her as one of the first American scholars to highlight the closing of intellectual freedom in China as Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution took hold.

At Harvard, Ms. Goldman studied with leading figures in Chinese scholarship, including Roderick MacFarquhar and John Fairbank, who both would later collaborate with her on books including 1992’s “China: A New History” (with Fairbanks) and as co-editor with MacFarquhar on “The Paradox of China’s Post-Mao Reforms” (1999).

She was a professor at Boston University from 1972 to 2001 and was on the faculty of Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. She was a frequent lecturer at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, among other places.

Ms. Goldman’s husband of 64 years died in 2017. Survivors include sons Seth Goldman and Ethan Goldman; daughters Avra Goldman and Karla Goldman; 12 grandchildren and four great-granddaughters.

When Ms. Goldman was deciding on a subject for her doctorate and academic career, she recalled two pieces of advice given by her parents: Do something serious and meaningful, and don’t go into the same field as your husband.

“So, she says that she said, ‘Okay, Marshall is studying the Soviet Union,” recounted her daughter Karla Goldman. “I’ll study China.”

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