Noted China watcher Richard Baum, who inspired generations of China experts and harnessed the power of the Internet to bring them together, passed away on Friday after a four-and-a-half year battle with cancer. He was 72.
Born in Los Angeles in 1940, Baum was an icon in the field of China watching. Over a period stemming more than four decades, he advised US officials, delivered important public lectures and inspired thousands of academics and journalists, budding and established alike, through his unflagging passion for the subject.
In 1967, then still a graduate student, Baum leapt to prominence when he managed to gain access to classified Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents gathered by Taiwanese intelligence.
Using those documents, Baum demonstrated how Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) focus on class struggle was clashing with the aspirations of his opponents within the CCP, namely Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇) and Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), whose main aims were to root out official corruption.
Through his work with Frederick Teiwes, another graduate student, Baum distilled the ideological battles that prompted Mao to unleash the Cultural Revolution, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 1.5 million Chinese and political persecution of a 36 million between 1966 and 1976.
Baum began teaching at UCLA in 1968 and directed the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies from 1999 until 2005, also serving on the US-China Institute (USCI) Board of Scholars and on editorial boards for a variety of publications, including China Quarterly, China Information, Asian Survey and The Journal of Contemporary China, according to the Web site of the institute at the University of Southern California.
He also was the author and editor of eight books on Chinese politics — perhaps most notably Burying Mao and China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom — and published several articles.
In February 1989, Baum was among a small group of academics who advised then-US president George W. Bush and future ambassador to China James Lilley before Bush’s visit to China.
Besides his publications, Baum’s legacy also includes Chinapol, a private Web-based listserv he launched in 1999 to serve as a platform for multidisciplinary exchanges on China.
Today more than 1,000 academics, journalists, activists and government officials from as many as 26 countries use Chinapol to exchange views and information about the political, social and economic aspects of China.
Among them are several academics and journalists who specialize in Taiwan.
As the forum’s moderator, the ever-watchful Baum became famous for issuing “yellow cards” whenever the large egos that come with academia and journalism led to sometime vicious online tirades, or whenever segues threatened to become interminable.
“His love of knowledge was highly infectious,” USC political scientist Stanley Rosen said after Baum’s passing, a view that has since been expressed in various forms by those who, directly or indirectly, were influenced by him over the years.