Richard Baum, 72, Dies; Connected China Watchers on the Web

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Richard Baum, who presided over Chinapol, an online discussion group about China that has become an essential forum for many experts, diplomats and journalists, died Dec. 14 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 72.

The cause was cancer, said his son, Matthew.

Dr. Baum, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, was an accomplished China scholar who wrote influential works on Mao Zedong and the period leading to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, as well as on the market-based policies promoted by Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping. He advised top United States leaders, including the elder President George Bush, and he was often quoted by the news media as it tried to assess pronouncements from Chinese Communist leaders.

But he had a particular affection for Chinapol.

In the 1990s, Dr. Baum spent parts of several years in Japan. He had a steady e-mail dialogue with several dozen other China experts, but keeping it going while he was overseas became increasingly expensive because of Internet charges, which were steep at the time. To save money, he started Chinapol, a Listserv group whose first members were mostly academics. The group steadily expanded to include ambassadors, business leaders and journalists -- all seeking insight and perspective as China rose as an economic and political power.

Participants had to be approved by Dr. Baum -- a recommendation from another member helped, as did an affiliation with a prominent news organization -- and advocacy, attacks and self-promotion were not allowed. Violators could be quickly culled, an intolerance that some joked evoked that of China's leaders.

"Rick was lovingly known as 'Chairman Rick,' " said Clayton Dube, a longtime friend and colleague who leads the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California.

The forum has been especially useful for journalists working in China. Although posts on Chinapol are confidential within the group, a reporter can contact a member separately to follow up on a post or to request permission to quote from it.

"Off-list replies welcome," a post might read.

Members can submit questions to the group, whether they are looking for articles on China's relationship with Iran or context for news at it develops.

Chinapol currently has about 1,300 members. Dr. Baum recently gave responsibility for moderating the forum to Mr. Dube and Richard Gunde, another longtime colleague at U.C.L.A.

"Online groups tend to burn out, burn up, become dominated by certain loud voices and in other ways eventually degrade," James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic who has written extensively about China, said in response to an e-mail about Dr. Baum and Chinapol. "Through his careful selection of members and infrequent but firm policing of what he considered inappropriate discussion, Rick Baum allowed people from a wide variety of interests to share news, impressions and questions about China, in a way that left nearly all of them better informed."

Richard David Baum was born on July 8, 1940, in Los Angeles. Besides his son, he is survived by his wife, Karin Joffe; his daughter, Kristen Baum Wilcox; three grandchildren; and a brother, Steven. His children are from his marriage to Carolyn Paller, which ended in divorce. A sister, Wendy Moloshco, died in 2011.

Dr. Baum made his name early as a China scholar. As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s, he gained rare access to classified documents that shed light on the inner workings of the Communist leaders there, and he went on to write extensively about them, including a 1975 book, "Prelude to Revolution: Mao, the Party and the Peasant Question."

Dr. Baum was director of the Center for Chinese Studies at U.C.L.A. He taught at the university for 44 years. Late in his career, he wrote and delivered "The Fall and Rise of China," a 48-part video lecture that was published in 2010 as part of the Great Courses series. He published a memoir, "China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom," the same year.

In 2008, Dr. Baum was among more than 160 prominent scholars and writers who asked President Hu Jintao to release Liu Xiaobo, a well-known intellectual and dissident detained that year. Dr. Baum circulated a petition on Chinapol.

"While I have always tried to maintain Chinapol's political neutrality," Dr. Baum told The New York Times in an e-mail at the time, "some violations are so egregious that I cannot, as a sentient being, remain neutral."

Mr. Liu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, remains in prison, serving an 11-year sentence for subversion.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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