Academics & Faculty

Obituary: Richard Baum, 72, prominent China scholar and UCLA professor

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Richard D. Baum, a distinguished professor of political science at UCLA, an influential authority on contemporary Chinese politics and a high-level U.S. policy adviser, died Dec. 14 at his home in Westwood, Calif., after a battle with cancer. He was 72.
 
In addition to being a respected teacher, scholar and adviser, Baum was the founder and manager of the Internet-based discussion group Chinapol, the world's largest listserv for professional China scholars, journalists and policy analysts. More than 1,300 subscribers rely on the listserv to keep them up to speed on important developments in China.
 
But Baum is probably most widely known for his work as a media commentator, having provided perspective on developments in China for CNN International, the BBC World Service, Voice of America, National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal Asia, the South China Morning Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times.
 
"He was one of the most important and influential China scholars of his generation," said longtime colleague Clayton Dube, executive director of the University of Southern California's U.S.–China Institute. "Whenever anything important happened in China, people were anxious to know what Rick thought about it. His opinion was greatly valued."
 
Baum taught at UCLA for 44 years, where he served as the director of the Center for Chinese Studies. He was the author more than 50 scholarly studies and five books, including a 2010 memoir, and was the co-author or editor of five other books. In addition, he served on the editorial boards of six scholarly journals.
 
"He was a real pillar of the department," said Jeffrey Lewis, chair of the UCLA Department of Political Science.
 
From the height of Maoism during his student days in the 1960s through the era of globalization, Baum looked at a wide range of topics, including Chinese science and technology, the origins of the state in ancient China, the disposition of Taiwan, and the information revolution in China. But his research, at its heart, was concerned with a central theme: Chinese politics under Mao and during the post-Mao period.
 
Baum's first major studies dealt with the policy of the Chinese Communist Party toward the countryside between 1962 and 1966. The two works that resulted from these efforts — a 1968 monograph (co-authored with Frederick Teiwes) on the Socialist Education Movement and the 1975 book "Prelude to Revolution: Mao, the Party and the Peasant Question" — were considered pathbreaking at the time and remain highly regarded by China specialists to this day. The research was based on an extraordinary collection of classified documents from the People's Republic which Baum, as a young graduate student, stole — and later replaced — from the "dirty books" room at a Taiwanese think tank.
 
"At that time, no foreigner could do document-based analysis of this sort, and that, in part, accounts for the impact the book made at the time," said fellow UCLA political science professor Marc Trachtenberg.
 
Baum's second major project dealt with the extraordinary transformation that took place in China following Mao's death. The resulting 1996 book — "Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping" — is still considered the definitive analysis of Chinese politics during the dramatic period in which the country moved toward a market-based system while the Communist Party maintained its monopoly on power. The book includes an analysis of the pivotal events at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.  
 
In 2007, Baum finally succumbed to the pleas of friends, family and colleagues and began committing his adventures to print. By that time, he had made more than three dozen trips to China, lectured at 14 of its universities, visited 23 of its 27 provinces and spoken to peasants and senior Politburo leaders alike. The resulting memoir, "China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom" (University of Washington Press), was published in 2010.
 
"It was time to stop hiding behind the footnotes," Baum joked at the time. 
 
Billed as "China up close and personal," the book documented the rewards, frustrations, intrigues, embarrassing moments and highlights of Baum's fascinating career.
 
"Many in the profession will find his journey familiar, yet even professionals will find the book engaging because he so openly and candidly shines a light on what it has meant to be a China hand over the past 40 years," said a review that ran in Public Affairs.
 
Baum discusses his career and "China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom":
 
 
Born on July 8, 1940, Baum was the second of three children of Lester Baum, a film technician at Technicolor, and his wife, Nelda, a seamstress at Columbia Pictures.
 
In a 2010 talk, Baum confessed to having no inkling as a Jewish American kid growing up in West Los Angeles that he would become a Sinologist.
 
"My only experience with Chinese culture was eating the fortune cookies from Madame Wu's Cantonese Gardens," he told UCLA Today, the campus's staff and faculty newspaper in 2010. "There were the Saturday morning matinees featuring Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. But beyond that, I really had no predilection for being a China scholar."
 
That changed during Baum's senior year as a UCLA undergraduate in the early 1960s. In search of a political science credit that would fit into his packed schedule, the political science major signed up for "Political Science 159: Government and the Politics of China."
 
"I stumbled into that class," he recalled in 2010. The professor, H. Arthur Steiner, a former U.S. Marine Corps colonel, ran his course like a drill sergeant, but his eyewitness accounts of postwar China, supplemented by books and mimeographed documents, captivated Baum. The young student eagerly delved into the early years of the Communist revolution, the history of the Chinese Communist Party and Mao's Great Leap Forward, followed by its dismantling by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.
 
Baum's serendipitous discovery of what would become his life's work is "testimony to the banal roots of life-altering choices," he said. Ironically, Baum went on to teach that very same course at the university, from which he retired this past July.
 
Baum got his first glimpse of China in 1975 as a scholar-escort to a track-and-field team. He briefed President George H. W. Bush and White House Cabinet members prior to Bush's first presidential trip to Asia, in February 1989, and witnessed the student demonstrations that led up to the Tiananmen Square massacre that spring.
 
In later years, Baum's chief influence lay in Chinapol, which he continued to moderate until this fall. Founded with just a handful of personal contacts, the listserv eventually grew to include a who's who of China watchers from 27 countries, said USC's Dube. Participation was by invitation only, and participants had to agree to a strict "no disclosure" policy. Baum chose Dube to take over as Chinapol's moderator with Richard Gunde, another longtime colleague and the former assistant director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies.
 
Discussions on Chinapol are confidential, according to Dube. "This allows for a free exchange of information and analysis of what's going on in Chinese politics, economics and society," he said. "The minute something happens in China, this is the place you go for insight into what caused it and what its implications might be."
 
In founding and moderating Chinapol, Baum played a "vital role in connecting scholars, government officials and media" to each other, Dube said.
 
But Baum was more than an insider's China expert. He wrote and presented "The Fall and Rise of China," a 48-part video lecture as part of the Great Courses series of commercially available lectures by prominent university professors. The series was published in 2010.
 
Baum was married for 29 years to his first wife, Carolyn Lee Baum, a Woodland Hills, Calif., psychoanalyst and the mother of his two children, Matthew Baum and Kristen Baum Wilcox. Matthew is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and a professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Kristen is a certified Feldenkrais practitioner in San Diego.
 
Long divorced, Baum met Karin Joffe, a former managing director of a Hong Kong restaurant group, on a blind date in 2004. They married in 2008 and bought a house in a picturesque French village in the shadow of Provence's Mont Sainte-Victoire.
 
"He loved the light, the sun, the people and the food," Joffe said. "People kept saying, 'Why, if you're a China scholar, are you in the south of France?' But of course there are China watchers all over the world."
 
Baum and Joffe spent much of his final years there, and those were some of the happiest years of his life, recalled his brother Steven, a West Los Angeles screenwriter.
 
"They took great pleasure sharing their little piece of paradise with family and friends, old and new," he said.
 
In addition to Joffe, Baum is survived by his son Matthew; daughter-in-law Jeeyang; daughter Kristen; son-in-law Jan Wilcox; grandchildren Téa and Alec Baum and Sophie Wilcox; brother Steven; sister-in-law Clare; nieces Alana and Mira Baum; and nephews Jeff, Mark and David Flagel. Baum's elder sister, Wendy Moloshco, a Long Beach, Calif., resident, preceded him in death last year.
 
A memorial service will be held at UCLA's Faculty Center on Saturday, Jan. 19, at 2 p.m.
 
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