Richard Baum dies at 72; China expert at UCLA

Richard Baum, a leading China expert at UCLA who founded a lively and influential Internet forum used by hundreds of scholars, diplomats, journalists and government officials to follow ideas and trends in contemporary Chinese politics, died Friday at his Westwood home. He was 72.

Baum had cancer, said his son, Matthew.

The political scientist was the author of five books, including “Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping” (1994), considered a definitive work on the transformation of China in the decades immediately after the communist revolutionary leader’s 1976 death.

During an academic career spanning four decades, Baum traveled to China more than three dozen times, including for a period leading up to the violent clashes at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Earlier that year he had been among a small group of scholars consulted by President George H.W. Bush before his first presidential visit to the country.


In the 1990s, building on a small email network of professional contacts, Baum launched Chinapol, a private, Web-based discussion group that has become required reading for China watchers around the world. With more than 1,300 members in 27 countries, including China, it has fostered debates on hot topics like China’s economic recovery, spurred news coverage of human rights cases and provided early information on fast-breaking events like the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Chinapol’s admirers include New Yorker correspondent Evan Osnos, who described it as a “peerless” resource for professionals interested in Chinese affairs. “I’m one of the many who rely on it as a sort of continuous kaffeeklatsch with knowledgeable people around the globe,” he wrote in a 2009 blog post for the magazine.

Baum was “somebody who from a very early point understood the potential networking power of the Internet,” said Clayton Dube, executive director of USC’s U.S.-China Institute, who knew Baum for 25 years and now will help moderate the electronic forum with Richard Gunde, a retired UCLA China expert. “What is taught in so many places and also what is read, heard or seen about China has been profoundly impacted by Chinapol.”

The former director of UCLA’s Center for Chinese Studies, Baum was a popular media commentator whose insights on the intricacies of Chinese politics were often heard or seen on CNN, the BBC, Voice of America and National Public Radio and in newspapers from the South China Morning Post to the Los Angeles Times.

Born in Los Angeles on July 8, 1940, Baum was the son of a film technician and a seamstress. Growing up, he wrote in his 2010 memoir “China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom,” his closest encounters with Chinese culture involved Saturday matinees featuring Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu and “the egg rolls at Madame Wu’s Cantonese Garden.”

He stumbled into his life’s work while a UCLA senior, when he took a class on Chinese government and politics to fulfill a major requirement. He wound up teaching that class years later after joining the faculty in 1968.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA in 1962, Baum went to UC Berkeley, where he received a master’s in 1963 and a doctorate in 1970, in political science.

While working on his doctorate, he spent a year in Taiwan to study Mandarin, his mastery of which he soon found was sorely deficient. He, his then-wife, Carolyn, and their infant son spent their first night in a brothel, which Baum had mistaken for a hotel.

The highlight of his Taiwan sojourn came at a Taipei think tank, where he discovered a “dirty books” room reserved for intelligence reports on the Chinese Communist Party. The documents that he found most riveting described struggles at the highest levels of the party over Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Realizing the potential for original scholarship, Baum “borrowed” the documents without permission, made copies and returned them before the librarian noticed they were missing. He launched his scholarly career with a paper analyzing the conflicts detailed in the reports.

In 1994, Baum was teaching a course in Japan when he created a small email network of about 30 China scholars in various countries. Within a year the network had 100 members. He converted it to a listserv in 1999.

Members were admitted after careful screening and were kept in line by what Kenneth Lieberthal, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who worked in the Clinton administration, called Baum’s “strong whip hand” — rules that require users to keep Chinapol discussions confidential and refrain from personal attacks.

To maintain civil discourse, Baum “often handed out ‘yellow cards’ and ‘red cards’ to those who violated the rules,” said James Mann, a former Times correspondent and author of three books about U.S.-China relations. “His obsession was to make sure that, amid the intense arguments about China, everyone was polite to everyone else.”

Xiao Qiang, a MacArthur Award-winning human rights activist and founder of China Digital Times, a bilingual news aggregator based at UC Berkeley, said Baum’s vigilance helped Chinapol thrive. “I have seen disputes and conflicts on other lists that have become very disruptive and the quality of information goes downhill. But Chinapol has been kept useful for more than 15 years. That’s amazing.”

Baum’s first marriage, to Carolyn Paller, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Karin Joffe, whom he married in 2008; two children from his first marriage, Matthew, of Boston, and Kristen, of San Diego; a brother, Steven, of Los Angeles; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at UCLA’s Faculty Center at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19.