Sitting down with Minxin Pei, CMC’s resident China expert

A man talks into a microphone.
Claremont McKenna College Professor Minxin Pei speaks on the sources and implications of China’s kleptocracy Nov. 21, 2014. (Courtesy: Wikimedia user Zanhe)

As the Chinese government comes under intense scrutiny over its handling of the spread of COVID-19, national news outlets have turned to Claremont McKenna College professor of government Minxin Pei for insight into the government’s inner workings. 

Pei appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered last month to share his analysis on the situation in China, and is a frequent commentator on NPR programs, as well as in BBC News. He’s also been quoted and published opinions articles in other outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Pei is an expert on Chinese governance, U.S.-China relations, the Chinese Communist Party and comparative politics. His interest in the politics and governance of China stems from his upbringing there.

“My childhood coincided with a cultural revolution which was politically very tumultuous, so that formative experience made me very interested in politics,” Pei said. 

Pei, a native of China, initially studied creative writing when he first arrived in the U.S., but later switched to politics when he realized his true interest lay there. 

“If you want to be in academia, it’s much better to study something that’s changing, because there’s always something that’s new for you to study,” Pei said.

He earned both his master’s degree and PhD in political science from Harvard University after completing his undergraduate degree in Shanghai. 

Pei’s commentary has also appeared in newspapers such as the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek International and International Herald Tribune, according to the CMC website, and he has written extensively about the Chinese government and politics within the United States. 

Pei has been in the media spotlight for over 30 years since arriving in the U.S. in 1984. NPR first approached him in the late 1980s as a graduate student to talk about the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing. 

“What happens in the media is that if you’re quoted or you appear on one show, then everyone wants to get you,” Pei said. 

In 2008, Pei was named one of the top 100 public intellectuals by Prospect Magazine. The list also included Samantha Power, author Salman Rushdie and CNN’s top political analyst Fareed Zakaria.

Prior to teaching at CMC, Pei worked at Princeton University for six years. He also completed an eight-month residency as the Library of Congress Chair in U.S.-China Relations in 2019.

Pei has been a non-resident senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States for their Asia program since 2012. He was formerly an adjunct senior associate of the Asia program with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Pei has been critical of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s singular ruling authority. In an opinion piece he wrote for The Japan Times, Pei condemned the CCP’s delayed response to coronavirus, likening it to the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic. 

According to him, the CCP deliberately withheld crucial information from the public regarding SARS, which only worsened the crisis and, unfortunately for them, their reputation.

China’s response to coronavirus has not been much different than its response to the 2002-2003 epidemic, albeit slightly more transparent than before. 

“All you need to do is change ‘SARS’ into ‘coronavirus’ and it’s like the same thing,” Pei told TSL. 

The Chinese government’s restriction of social media during early stages of the coronavirus outbreak prevented the possibility of a timely and effective response from the Chinese public and global health authorities, according to Pei.

“When there’s no press freedom, a contagious disease at the initial crucial stage does not get enough attention, and then it gets out of control,” he said.

Although he believes the coronavirus outbreak is now under control within China, it has come at the expense of an enormous amount of resources and a nationwide shutdown. 

“All you need to do is to make people stay home; they don’t go outside, the virus dies. If they get sick, [the authorities] take them away and put them in isolation. And that’s how viruses get contained. It’s not really rocket science. It’s very medieval,” Pei said.

He also acknowledged that he’s more free to criticize the Chinese government while living in the U.S. than he would be if he lived in China.

“In China, your voice has a huge price tag,” Pei said. “You could end up in jail.” 

In another opinion piece for Project Syndicate written in Jan. 2020, he noted that the CCP’s authority depends on suppressing its mistakes, and warned that China, therefore, cannot be expected to handle similar crises in different, more proactive manners going forward.

“Dictatorships lie all the time,” Pei told TSL. 

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