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Aileen Baviera, Leading Philippines Scholar of China, Dies at 60

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This obituary is part of a series about people who died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

As a young university graduate in the Philippines, Aileen Baviera was among the first foreigners to receive a Chinese government scholarship to study in Beijing. She arrived in 1981, five years after the end of the Cultural Revolution and as the country was beginning to open up.

It was at the start of a 40-year academic career in which she became a formidable expert on China and one of the Philippines’ leading scholars. She became a professor at the University of the Philippines, where she served for several years as the dean of its Asian Center.

Dr. Baviera died on March 21 at San Lazaro Hospital in Manila from complications of the coronavirus, the university said. She was 60.

She was exposed to the virus earlier in the month at a conference in Paris. On her return to Manila on March 12, she recognized that she was ill and went directly from the airport to the hospital.

The university praised her as “the country’s foremost Sinologist” and said that she was much sought after for her expertise on China and its long-running dispute with the Philippines over the South China Sea.

Fellow academics noted her support of younger scholars and her ability to bring together people of different views.

Richard Heydarian, an author and academic, pointed to the “sad irony” that her death had come from a virus that originated in China, the country she had spent her life studying.

“Her passing has sent shock waves across our community,” he said. “She was one of the greatest scholars in the Philippines and had an uncanny ability to work with groups across the political spectrum, even in the most geopolitically polarized and divisive moments.”

Born Aileen San Pablo in 1959, she was drawn to leftist thinking as a young student during the years of the Marcos dictatorship. But her studies in China changed her views.

“‘Bombard the headquarters!’ was Mao’s call to the Red Guards, calling on them to challenge authority,” she wrote in a 2019 article for Tulay Fortnightly, a publication in the Philippines. “But exciting as that sounded to me, I was by nature too much of a bookish and quiet loner to do any real bombarding, and so found other, more boring ways to ‘serve the people,’ so to speak.”

“It also didn’t take too long before I learned to recognize and shun the shallowness of political propaganda when I saw it, Mao’s as much as Marcos’s,” she wrote.

Access to news was limited in Beijing, and she jumped at the chance to work part time in the news bureau of The Chicago Tribune, where she clipped and filed articles on China from Western newspapers. Reading China coverage in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and other papers helped inspire her own studies, she said.

“The more I read, the greater the fascination for the remarkable history that was unfolding,” she wrote.

She learned Mandarin in Beijing and later earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of the Philippines. She served as dean of the university’s Asian Center from 2003 to 2009.

In addition to her professorship, she was president of the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, which seeks to bring about peace and cultural understanding through international dialogue and cooperation.

“She was an exacting but generous mentor to the next generation of social scientists and strategic thinkers in the country and in Southeast Asia,” the foundation said in a statement posted online.

She also served as editor in chief of Asian Politics and Policy, a quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal.

A widow, she is survived by her three children.

The university praised her for quarantining herself immediately on her return to Manila, saying, “Her actions made the campus remain Covid-19-free.”

In a 2016 article in The Straits Times newspaper of Singapore, Dr. Baviera ruminated on the folly of efforts by governments to impose borders on the South China Sea, which connects half a dozen nations.

“I envy the free creatures of the sea,” she wrote, “for we creatures of the land have become captive of our own illusions of conquest and control.”


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