The Orient in eastern Germany: Canadian professor researches China in Leipzig
“I don’t like it; I love it!” – This is how Konrad Adenauer award winner Professor André Laliberté sums up his time as a visiting scholar in Leipzig. Since the beginning of this year, the Canadian political scientist from the University of Ottawa has been conducting research at Leipzig University’s Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies (HCAS): “Multiple Secularities – Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”. He specialises in the role of religions in Asian societies. Laliberté was invited by HCAS Director Professor Christoph Kleine, who also nominated him for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s 60,000-euro Konrad Adenauer Research Award.
Why would a political scientist from Canada come to Leipzig of all places to conduct research on China? For Laliberté, the answer is obvious: “Some of the best experts on religion in China are in Leipzig! They are investigating topics that couldn’t be studied in the same way locally.” So accepting the invitation to Leipzig wasn’t a difficult decision for the visiting scholar from Canada: “It is a privilege to be part of their team,” explains the Canadian with his winning smile, adding: “I am glad to find so many like-minded colleagues in Leipzig who have expertise in other countries and specialist areas.”
Christoph Kleine is delighted that the Humboldt Foundation agreed with his suggestion: “André Laliberté is a distinguished top-class researcher who is in the prime of his career. He works exceedingly effectively, researching in and between different cultural, linguistic and academic communities. With his studies on the interrelations between religions and politics in China and Taiwan, he has carved out a unique niche for himself.”
At his home university in the Canadian city of Ottawa, as Professor of Political Science André Laliberté teaches and researches Chinese politics and religious policy in both French and English. He also speaks fluent Chinese – a decisive advantage over many of his Western colleagues, as this not only enables him to conduct research first-hand using Chinese sources, but above all to exchange ideas on an equal footing with Chinese scholars. Besides China, his field of research includes Korea and Taiwan as two countries with strong Chinese cultural roots.
André Laliberté is particularly interested in the ambivalent relationship between Chinese societies and religion: on the one hand, the political order aims for a clear separation of religion and politics, with religion generally expected to be subordinated to the national order. On the other, governments go to considerable lengths to shape the religious landscape in such a way that it serves a multitude of political goals. But Laliberté believes that this is not without reason. One of his research foci is on welfare policies in Chinese societies, especially in the field of geriatric care. These ageing societies and the skewed gender ratio due to the preference of boys compared to girls at birth pose great challenges here.
Laliberté is closely observing one cultural change in particular: in Chinese societies, the state is often dependent on religious institutions when it comes to supporting people who cannot rely on the assistance of their families. This is why governments are increasingly open, for example, in their support for Confucianism as part of the cultural heritage, which stands in stark contrast to China’s repressive religious policy of the 20th century.
By focusing on this subject, André Laliberté is closing a research gap, because existing specialist literature that deals with the welfare state in East Asia is largely silent on the role of religion.
In his research on China, Laliberté also sees an opportunity to curb human rights violations in the long term. “If we better understand China as a culture, we are in a better position to question the positions of the Chinese government on human rights.” The Canadian criticises the blinkered focus of Western governments on trade policy and strategic issues when it comes to China; he has the impression that cultural differences from Western societies are used to justify human rights violations: “When our governments question China about human rights or the ill-treatment of religious believers and ethnic minorities, many people accept the Chinese government’s reply that we should not hold it to the same standards as Westerners, to which I reply that this is a racist argument. I am convinced that China has more in common with the rest of the world than the Chinese government would like to admit,” explains Laliberté. “Chinese people, like any people, deserve respect for their fundamental rights,” he continues.
Christoph Kleine considers it a stroke of luck for Leipzig University that the China expert from Canada opted to conduct his research here: “André Laliberté has an excellent network of contacts in the international scientific community. His academic focus, specialising in Chinese societies, fits perfectly with our research profile, as China is becoming one of our key topics.” The Leipzig Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies, which is led by religious studies scholar Christoph Kleine and cultural sociologist Professor Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, investigates how non-Western and pre-modern societies distinguish between the religious and the secular.
Ever since his childhood in Montreal, Laliberté was fascinated by the history of China with its tragedies and successes – especially by the fact that its society seemed to be doing very well without the belief in a single God, as is widespread in Western societies. After his studies at renowned universities in Canada, research projects took him to the US, China, France, Taiwan and now Germany. This is his fifth time in Leipzig, but his stay as a recipient of the Konrad Adenauer Research Award is his first extended period in the city.
With this annual award, the Humboldt Foundation aims to promote exchange and cooperation with Canadian scholars. “The award means a lot to me because I have strong feelings about the necessity to encourage this kind of relations. Canadians all too often think in comparison to the USA, but I believe that Canada has a lot of common ground with Germany on important issues,” says Laliberté, citing climate protection and gender parity in politics and society as examples. He feels at home in Leipzig. He particularly appreciates the cooperative environment and the openness Leipzig University has shown to international researchers. It goes without saying that English is a common working language for all. “I can even converse with a few of my colleagues in French and Mandarin,” notes Laliberté. Keen to return the favour, the ambitious academic has set himself another goal in addition to his research objectives: to learn German.
Originally scheduled to run until the end of June, the Canadian politics professor will use the prize money to extend his research stay until mid-December. He is also already planning another research visit to Leipzig next year.
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Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies: “Multiple Secularities – Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”
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