Photo taken on Feb. 19, 2016 shows Prof. Frank Pieke, executive director of Leiden Asia Center. (Xinhua/Liu Fang)
by Liu Fang, Zindziwe Janse
LEIDEN, The Netherlands, Feb. 25 (Xinhua) -- Leiden University, the Dutch university housing one of Europe's most prestigious academic centers for Asian studies, is setting up a new-style Asia Center to seek socially relevant and applicable knowledge on modern East Asia by expanding its expertise and using this in collaboration with diverse societal partners.
"The work we do should be both academically interesting as well as relevant to organizations or individuals in the Netherlands," said Prof. Dr. Frank Pieke, executive director of Leiden Asia Centre officially launched last January, in an interview with Xinhua.
In its website presentation, the center promises that it will "consult with the societal field in identifying research questions, conduct original academic research, take into account the needs of partners in society and expand a broad network within the Dutch government, the media, educational institutions, the business sector and the social midfield".
The structure design of the center mirrors the ambition of Pieke, who "happily" sees his role switching from researcher into "full-time manager".
Chair of Modern Chinese Studies at Leiden University since 2010, now head of the Leiden Asia Center, in July he will also become head of the Leiden Institute of Area Studies (LIAS), one of the eight research bodies under the faculty of humanities.
In his conception, apart from a permanent direction executed by himself focusing on China and two other experts from Leiden University focusing on Japan and Korea respectively, Leiden Asia Center will have a supervisory board formed by academic and non-academic members and an academic advisory board whose members are supposed to be both Dutch and international.
Both boards will take part in the process of identifying possible questions to develop into research. These questions will then be shaped into projects together with so-called project panels, including people from the government, businesses, media, and/or NGOs, to ensure that the projects are actually important and relevant for the Dutch society, explained Pieke.
Dutch Queen Maxima attends a conference on connecting the Netherlands and China in Leiden, the Netherlands, on Oct. 1, 2015. (Xinhua/Sylvia Lederer)
Projects are divided under three core themes, "Europe and Asia", "People, rights and human rights" and "Lifestyle and culture". For example, one of the first batch of ongoing projects, which focuses on the nature and impact of Chinese investments and Chinese businesses in the Netherlands, is supposed to produce results helpful for the Dutch government and business sector, said Pieke.
The actual research will be done by staff from Leiden University and/or other universities, with external researchers hired on a short-term contract.
For the 58-year-old anthropologist and China expert who said "having published enough academic works for a lifetime", precisely "four books internationally, three books in Dutch, 25 articles in referee journals, 80 publications in total", to produce knowledge of Asia with both academic and applied components is a necessity for the Dutch society and at the same time an opportunity for himself to enrich his career with new experiences.
"The Dutch people only feel Asia important when they want to sell things there. That's a great mistake. A lot is to be done to render the relevance of Asia clear to the Netherlands," he said.
In his analysis, the Dutch government have a few people with genuine China-background but they are regularly taken away from their expertise because of the rotating system, which leads to restarting the conversation every three or four years. In the Dutch business world, certain companies do have good China expertise, but often narrowly focused.
In the public discourse, particularly China but also Japan and Korea are still heavily perceived in orientalist stereotypes -- an inscrutable civilization quintessentially different, a far away place that is everything "we are not" and on which people project both their desires and fears.
"An imaginary China still to a large extent shapes the discussion and debate about China in Dutch society. That is why you get weird statements, reactions and policies," commented Pieke.
The professor, who has always insisted that the Chinese society is a much more complex thing that cannot accommodate easy stereotypes, wishes to find new ways of changing the discourse, with Leiden Asia Center operating as an interface between university and society.
"The usual model of societal relevance or impact of research is that you think how it could be useful for people in society after you have done the research. Our center will make 'being useful for people in society' an intrinsic part of the whole process of doing research, instead of putting it at the end of it. Academic work in a sense is easily managed because it is driven by individual curiosity. Our projects will be driven by interests in society and they are more difficult to manage," he said.
In fact, Pieke not only welcomed but also actively looked for this challenge to "crawl out of the safe shell and do something that is 'real'".
He has spent 27 academic years in Amsterdam, Berkerly, Beijing, Oxford and Leiden, first studying cultural anthropology, then investigating the state and socialism in modern Asia, the rule and organization of the Chinese Communist Party in the context of China's globalisation and market reform, the international migration, transnationalism and cultural diversity.
Now he seems eager to do research in an applied way, or in his own words, to "understand lofty empty words such as globalisation, cultural flows, syncretism or hybridization at grassroots levels".
Besides, it is more interesting "to work together with the people whom you are interested in and who also have an interest in working with you," he said. "Rather than being an outsider saying 'please tell me what you do', now you are sort of there when they do it."