Charles Chang

Personal Experiences
Charles Chang
Duke Kunshan University
November 7, 2022

Cody asked me to share my experiences in education and academic career with you in the hope that they will prompt you to reflect on your own time at Madison and perhaps see it in a new light. I agreed, but only to find myself blocked with the very first sentence, for I do not see myself as a model of success—far from it—nor do I think it profitable to burden you with unsuccessful endeavors that are an inevitable part of life. After due consideration, however, I decided to proceed with my story and not be stifled by a keen awareness of my ignorance. Ignorance? Who isn’t? As the great philosopher Karl Popper put it, “our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” So here it goes, warts and all!

I was born in a small city in the remote interior of China. The apartment that my family lived in often had its electricity cut off. When that happened, my parent was wont to tell me a story about a village boy who worked on the farm during the day and so could study only at night. The problem there was that his family couldn’t afford even a candle. So the boy caught fireflies, put them in a gauze net, and read by their light. The moral of the tale? Children should study hard; moreover, even the constraints of poverty were not an excuse to slack off, for any truly motivated child should have the ingenuity to overcome them. Another story often told Chinese children was intended to instill in them the great virtue of filial piety. The story may be a shock to Western ears and be rated PG-13 so that it doesn’t reach the young. The story goes like this. In a poor family—another poor family!—the mother was dying of malnutrition. Her son took a knife, rolled up his sleeve, and sliced off a slab of his flesh so that it could be used to prepare a nutritious soup. Horrifying, isn’t it? The third story taught us children patriotism. Yue Fei, a general in the Song dynasty, was called on to defend China against northern invaders. A picture in our text shows him kneeling in front of his mother, who used a brush to write on his bare back the words “huan wo ho shan,” or “Return to us our rivers and mountains!”

A wonder of my early education was that we were not only taught to read from these Chinese stories. We also learned from European ones. For example, we read about Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree, a loafing around that apparently gave him the idea of the laws of gravitation, Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a storm to capture electricity, and James Watt, told to cook an egg, absent-mindedly cooked his mother’s watch instead. I loved these European stories, for their lessons were more exciting to me than were the Chinese ones. Sure, loaf under an apple tree. One needs leisure to come up a brilliant idea. Sure, fly the kite in a storm, a dangerous activity that might kill you, but then think of the gain in scientific knowledge! Sure, it is not nice to cook mother’s watch, but then so what? if daydreaming can lead you to the invention of the steam engine!

My parents taught at the local university. My father’s first job was to teach a course on Marxist class struggle in Greek mythology. Even to a five-year-old, stories of what transpired between Zeus and his wife Hera sounded more like marital bickering than class struggle. Still, any kind of struggle would have appealed to a boy, as it certainly did me. In fact, I was inspired by it. I also attended an English class, but, alas, it was not to pursue pure knowledge. Rather I wanted to impress a classmate that I had a crush on. He was the Chancellor’s son, on whom many grownups fawned, giving him expensive toys such as ships and airplanes. Every evening we played with them.

Young as I was, I thought of sex often, but it probably had more to do with my desire to escape from myself and take a holiday in someone else’s body than with the rewards of erotic stimulation. I now ask indulgently, What’s wrong with giving sex primacy anyway? In modern times, eminent thinkers such as Arthur Schopenhauer and Michel Foucault have done so. But I am getting far ahead of myself. To return to my childhood, my romance with the Chancellor’s son came to an end when he and his family went to Germany. I was dismayed, but not for long, for I had to prepare for elementary school. My parents wanted me to attend the best in the city. To do so I had to pass an entrance exam that consisted in probing whether I had sufficient knowledge of arithmetic and poetry. Well, I didn’t. Failure at age six made me stutter.

Rather than attend the best school, I attended the second best, a drop in status that greatly annoyed me. How could I accept it when my Chinese name, Chaoyi, itself implied the best? Students at my school came from families of modest backgrounds--farmers, butchers, small merchants, and such like. To my surprise, I quickly made friends, overcoming a significant difference in socioeconomic class between my classmates and me. Another surprise was the intellectual curiosity of my classmates. At age five or six, they were not content with the familiar and the local, their imagination running more to the grand and the distant, such as the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian pyramids rather than the local factory, dinosaurs rather than pigs. Like all young children worldwide, we Chinese have an inherent taste for the cosmos.

My school also taught me well in the traditional subjects of arithmetic, geometry, and then later, in middle school and high school, physics, chemistry, and biology. Strange to say, my schools didn’t teach me Chinese properly until I met a Mr. Su. From him, we learned to read classic Chinese poems and modern authors such as Lao She and Lin Yutang. Mr. Su told me, “The writings of Confucius and Chairman Mao are rational but not beautiful. Literature should be beautiful!” I didn’t understand what he meant at that time. Many years later, when I read Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, I finally understood what he meant by our hunger for beauty even in the direst of circumstances such as being incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp,. Here is an excerpt of what he said. “One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds flowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of every shape and color, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate gray mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. There, after a minute of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’”

Well, our school was rather drab, though of course it shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the hell that was a concentration camp. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Mr. Su for showing me how to appreciate beauty, which after all is the gold standard for all intellectual work, be it a mathematical theorem, a poem, or a social science treatise. Of course, I am nowhere near to achieving this ideal, but it should be one that is never far from our minds as we seriously embark on an academic career.

At this point, I wish to say something to my Chinese compatriots who now study at Duke Kunshan University. English, as we all know, is the major international language of our time. We need to know it well, and I am impressed by how well most students from China speak and write English with clarity and flare—an accomplishment that is a tribute to your talent and to the striking improvement in the art of teaching a foreign language. I, a student from a slightly older generation, am less fortunate, for I had not started to learn English properly until I was eighteen, and my English would be still further from the competence I desire if I had not met in that year, Alfred, a Californian and peace-corps member, who came to stay with my family for a summer. In that period, we laughed and played in camaraderie: he learned from me that Taiwan is a “part” of China, and I from him the better bargain of an improved English.

I took the college entrance exam and matriculated, against my wish, to Beijing Normal University. Worse, my assigned major was geography rather than computer science, my preference by far. Geography at Beijing Normal had three subfields—human, physical, and geographic information systems. Each student had to pick one subfield. I picked human geography on account of my deep interest in human beings. But to my disappointment, it was taught to boost tourism and produce planners for the Chinese government, the ultimate purpose of which was to build a beautiful modern China. Well, you might say, what’s wrong with that? Nothing, except that I embraced the then fashionable notion that the uglier the appearance, the truer it was. An urban scene of chimneys and soot was somehow more honest, truer to the underlying economic reality, than one of new town prettiness, just as the fanged uglies of the ocean floor were truer to nature’s fundamental cruelty than the misleading grace of dolphins and flying fish.

Although I continued to have a deep interest in human beings, how they make a living and tackle life’s challenges, I shifted my attention to technical skills, namely, GIS, data processing, analyzing, and modeling. Blame my youth, if you like, but at that time I believed that such skills, if probed with sufficient depth, could yield fundamental solutions and that these would have a certain elegance. That yearning for elegance or beauty is valid and fruitful, as I urged earlier, but that it could be found in the researches of social science was illusory and certainly premature. And yet some of the best minds have tried. Take, for example, Waldo Tobler’s first law of geography, which states, “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related to each other.” Well, the law’s simplicity gave it the elegance of a law of nature, but is it true? How can it possibly be true when borders between states exist? So I wrote an article to refute it, an article that provided me with the chance to meet Professor Li, my adviser at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Professor Li, a research professor at Boston University, helped the United States launch the widely used satellite MODIS. He returned to China when the Chinese Academy of Sciences beckoned. In the very year he returned, an epidemic known as SARS spread and killed thousands of people. Would Tobler’s law apply to the paths the disease followed? Well, Professor Li was reminded of my article on the subject, and, to make a long story short, took me on his PhD student. We eventually published a paper on SARS and, in my three years at the Academy, we examined the spread of other infectious diseases as well, including Hepatitis A and H1N1.

In addition to Professor Li, I was assigned a scientist trained in Japan, who had supervisory power over my academic progress. She turned out to be a fraud. Rather than do research, she dedicated herself to applying for government grants and then embezzle much of the money for her private use. As her official advisee, I had little choice but to apply for grants as well, and this meant socializing with officials who had power over funding. Research? Well, apparently it was not to be done in the lab or library, as I had naively assumed, but rather at appropriate dinner and drinking parties. In the end, I decided to quit and apply for a graduate program in the United States.

The University of Wisconsin, Madison was the only university I applied for, the reason being that I still wanted to study geography and I learned that a new professor at Madison was seeking a student for her NASA project that focused on China. Madison gave me the opportunity to learn and think in an atmosphere of calm beauty, attend public lectures on all sorts of subjects, from pure mathematics to modern dance. Surprisingly, it also gave me philosophical inclinations that pushed me to move far beyond my research subject at that time, which was urban expansion in western China.

Influenced by Marxism for years, I remained faithful to its ideal of a society that was egalitarian. However, confronted by problems in an authoritarian society, I shifted my belief system (my faith, if you like) to neo-Marxism or to something that might be called socialist-feminist. But after getting acquainted with philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, I decided that my real passion was existentialism with its emphasis on personal responsibility and freedom. That stage didn’t last long either. I turned to religion. Oops, I used the “R” word, a word that is absolutely forbidden within the walls of academia! So let me quickly explain. By religion I don’t at all mean the rigid faith of Bible-thumping, fundamentalists. Rather, for me, it has its source in such writers as C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and more recently, Rowan Williams and Thomas Nagel. I started to ask myself about the meaning of life, my own, and everybody else’s. And also I wanted to know why I wanted to study social science.

Such reflections led me to an unintended consequence: I began to disagree with my adviser at that time. She subscribed to a metrics of academic success that called for the publication of four journal articles in the course of pursuing one’s Ph.D. I, instead, wanted to truly understand China and this meant knowing its history, society, and politics, as well as the technical means to study them—a life-long course of study of which publications are mere pauses, tidying up a certain body of material before moving on. In the end, my adviser ended my assistantship and gave me an ultimatum: either keep working on applying remote sensing technique to urban expansion in China or find another adviser. Coincidentally, I also received an ultimatum from my parents, which was to get married and that soon! Of course I am in favor of biological propagation. All animals—including human animals—must propagate to keep the species going. But it is hardly the answer to my search for the meaning of life.

So what should I do? Actually, my decision in regard to both ultimatums was not all that difficult. In my experience, more difficult to decide is whether to have fish or pork for dinner. What to eat may require a cost-and-benefit accounting, but on serious matters of life, it doesn’t and shouldn’t be necessary. Let me illustrate what I mean with a story.

Florus, a Roman historian, was summoned by Nero to act in one of his notorious spectacles. Nero was delighted in forcing famous and noble Romans to put on costumes and go on stage and act out degrading roles in so-called tragedies he devised. To refuse was to risk death. Badly shaken, Florus goes to see his friend Paconius Agrippinus, the Stoic philosopher.

“What should I do?” says Florus. “If I refuse I will be beheaded. If I take part, I will be humiliated before all of Rome.”
“Nero has summoned me, too,” says Agrippinus.
“So what do we do?” says Florus.
“You appear in the tragedy,” says Agrippinus.
“And you?”
“I will not.”
“But why should I, and not you, appear in this spectacle?” says Florus.
“Because you have considered it,” says Agrippinus.

My decisions to the ultimatums? I disengaged from my adviser and allowed that there are plenty of others to propagate. I have cleared the deck, so to speak. But what to do next? Life is full of surprises, for at about this time, I met my new adviser, a political scientist who is intelligent, stimulating, and encouraging! She has demonstrated to me the meaning of human goodness in academia by always helping the student ahead of her own work. Under her direction, I designed this dissertation project, which I would like to turn into a book. As you have just learned, my dissertation is a systematic study of information manipulation in authoritarian China when it comes under the stress of a sudden political event. I show not only that the regime carefully permits netizens to criticize even on contentious topics, but also that it allows critical netizens to congregate at places that are deemed politically safe. However, the regime withholds such right when it considers the gathering too well organized or occurs at places that seem risky. Netizens, for their part, adapt by showing a surface compliance that by no means reflects their real degree of trust. Over time, the regime has developed a balancing act with netizens that is almost an art form.

Methodologically, my study requires that I sift through and make sense of a massive volume of variegated social media data—meta, mobile, streaming, and geospatial. To do so, I have come up with a computational approach that complements standard methods such as the survey and the interview. In the course of doing my research, which is essentially analytical and computational, I have come to see that a comprehensive understanding of any political phenomenon calls for the insights and skills of a number of disciplines, including political science, mass communications, geography, and computer science. On this note, optimistic and yet a reminder of how good research can be forbiddingly difficult, I end.