For China scholar, the Far East is never far away

June Teufel Dreyer is working on the 11th edition of her book on China's political system, which is taught around the world. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami
By Maya Bell

June Teufel Dreyer is working on the 11th edition of her book on China's political system, which is taught around the world. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

For China scholar, the Far East is never far away

By Maya Bell
During her more than four decades at the University of Miami, political scientist June Teufel Dreyer has earned her place as a world authority on the communist powerhouse.

With China’s escalating tensions with Taiwan, June Teufel Dryer, the University of Miami’s renowned China scholar and defense expert, doubts she’ll be able to return to the increasingly authoritarian nation she began studying, almost by default, more than a half century ago.

“I haven’t been to China in three years—mostly due to the pandemic—and I’m afraid if I go now, I would be arrested because I don’t say what the government wants me to say,” said Dreyer, the president of the American Association for Chinese Studies and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies who once set out to be a chemist. “They suppress human rights, and their prisons are very, very cruel places.”

There’s little question that, under President Xi Jinping’s iron rule, China’s vast censorship and surveillance forces know Dreyer attended Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s historic 2016 inauguration—after the island that China claims as its own elected its first female president. And they vehemently reject Dreyer’s position that Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the People’s Republic of China, is a sovereign state and should be unambiguously recognized as such by the United States. 

But Dreyer has no problem keeping an unblinking eye on China from her office in the Campo Sano Building on the Coral Gables Campus, where she maintains an extensive reference library of government reports, global newspaper articles, and other open-source materials on the communist powerhouse and the rest of East Asia. Known for her original scholarship, prolific writing, and courses on China, U.S. defense policy, and international relations, the professor of political science can be found there seven days a week, writing articles, perusing global newspapers online, working on the 11th edition of “China’s Political System: Modernization and Tradition”—which is taught in universities around the world—and juggling requests for her expertise. 

Fluent in Chinese, Japanese, and her parents’ native German, she is quoted almost weekly by global news outlets—from the BBC to Al Jazeera—and is often sought by government agencies, the military, think tanks, and diplomats. In October, the Congressional Research Service cited the article she wrote on “Global Warming and Heated Politics in the Arctic” for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where she is a senior fellow. Last month, Japan’s new consul general in Miami paid her a visit—five years after her 2016 book, “Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations Past and Present,” was named the top book in Japan by a prominent think tank. 

And last Tuesday, she participated in a private roundtable discussion on the future of Indo-Pacific geopolitics hosted by the Wilson Center, a key nonpartisan policy forum. The panel focused on Taiwan, the subject of her most recent book, “Taiwan in the Era of Tsai Ing-wen: Changes and Challenges,” which she edited with the director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania Casey Law School. Published in April, just as Beijing launched its unprecedented military incursions into Taipei’s air-defense zone, the book assesses the forces that led to the 2016 election and 2020 reelection of Tsai, who Dreyer has known for years and deeply admires.

“She has a very calm demeanor, which was thought to be a disadvantage on the campaign trail because people want to see politicians pound the desk and promise this or that,” said Dreyer, who has served as an election observer in the prospering democracy she began visiting in the 1980s. “But she leads with cool competence. And feminists take note: She surrounds herself with equally competent women. Her ambassador-equivalent to the U.S., and her digital minister, who represented Taiwan last week at President Biden’s Democracy Summit, are both women.” 

The daughter of a surgical instrument maker and a discontented homemaker, Dreyer grew up on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue at a time when women in the workforce, much less politics, raised eyebrows. “You were expected to marry, have kids, and follow your husband around and, if you worked, it was assumed your husband couldn’t provide for you,” Dreyer said, recalling that her mother eventually took a job in a nearby sweatshop over her father’s objections. 

But Dreyer had bigger dreams, and no qualms about eschewing societal expectations. In 1958, she went off to Wellesley College to study chemistry, thinking she would work in industry. But that plan was derailed by an affliction she shared with her father—in cold weather their fingers cracked and bled. “It was really messing up all my experiments,” she recalled. “They were cracking and bleeding into all my titrations, so I figured I’d never be a chemist.” 

After taking a course on China, Japan, and India, she thought about becoming an India specialist—until “someone pointed out that India has like 248 languages. So, I thought, ‘Well, that won’t do. I’ll just study China,’ thinking everyone there spoke Mandarin.’’ 

That decision would prove propitious because, at the time, the U.S. Department of Defense was offering language fellowships to study Chinese and Japanese. So off Dreyer went to Harvard University, where her Ph.D. dissertation on China’s ethnic minorities would become her first book, “China’s 40 Millions,” and where she met her husband, Edward Dreyer, in the Harvard-Yenching Library. He would become a renowned historian of military and Chinese history—and, at the time of his 2007 death, one of the University of Miami’s most beloved professors. 

Before joining the University’s faculty in 1970, Edward Dreyer accompanied his wife to Japan, where she studied Japanese and conducted research—but wasn’t taken seriously. “When I started, men were amazingly chauvinistic,” she said. “I had to take my husband with me to ask the questions. They wouldn’t answer a woman because what could I know?”

Intent on establishing her expertise, she waited nine years to follow her husband to the U. Through the births of their two children and her first three jobs, two of them faculty positions elsewhere, they maintained a commuter marriage. When her husband convinced her that it was time their family lived together, she reluctantly left her post as the senior Far East specialist at the Library of Congress—but not before carving a niche as a defense specialist, which she did under a bit of duress. 

She still remembers her dread when, on her first day on the job in Washington, D.C., she was informed she would also serve as the library’s China defense analyst. She found her way to an obscure office filled with books on the world’s military uniforms, ranks, insignias, and weapons. Borrowing every volume on China, she studied them on the subway on her way home every night. “Too bad I was already married,” she quipped. “It was a great way to meet guys.” 

It wasn’t long before men in power were seeking her expertise. After joining her husband on the University of Miami faculty in 1979, she served as Asia advisor to the chief of U.S. naval operations and began touring 14 Asia-Pacific states as a lecturer on American defense policy and security commitments for the United States Information Agency. She also served as an adjunct professor of Asian-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School and on the U.S.-China Security and Economic Review Commission established by Congress. 

Now, more than four decades later, the pandemic has curtailed her travel, but not her joy of teaching. “I love the kids,” she said. “They are what makes teaching fun.”

And her students love her, too. “Without a doubt, she’s been my favorite teacher,” said senior Andres Torres, a political science major who is taking Dreyer’s China class this fall. “A lot of people know a lot about something, but she knows something about everything. My Christmas reading is going to be great. I plan to read everything she’s written.”