I was invited to Chattanooga’s Sister City of Wuxi to deliver a Fulbright Guest Lecture at Jiangnan University. The expansive new campus—opened only five years ago on the outskirts of Wuxi—enrolls 20,000 undergraduate and 5,000 graduate students. Initially founded in l902, the central government’s push to expand higher education led to the sale of its downtown property to create the new “eco-campus.” Walking around the vast campus, you enjoy modern architecture, traditional pagodas, landscaped gardens and artistic bridges over flowing streams.
I lectured on American foreign policy to an attentive audience of about eighty undergraduates, whose thoughtful questions reflected both excellent spoken English skills as well as a keen interest in international affairs. I even fielded a question about why America allowed everyone to own guns. TV and newspaper stories often portray America as still the Wild West.
After my address I met with the director of Jiangnan University’s International Exchange Programs. She expressed a strong interest in establishing student-faculty exchanges with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Another advantage of such exchanges was Wuxi itself, a moderate-size city (by Chinese standards) of six million residents. Located only fifty miles from Shanghai, Wuxi has benefited from this proximity to China’s largest city (18 million). Wuxi historically became a commercial center because of its river location and the fact that the historic Chinese Grand Canal from Beijing passed through the city. Construction on the 1,100 miles Grand Canal began in 486 B.C.
I delivered a second Fulbright speech to Wuxi staff officials about how the United States formulates its foreign policy. Once again knowledgeable questions arose about U.S.-Sino relations, but also about the battle over President Obama’s healthcare plan. Many of these individuals were well informed about America’s politics, but worried about the impact of such political fights on U.S. foreign policy toward China.
In discussions with some very professional Wuxi officials, they articulated a clearly focused strategy to advance Wuxi’s industrial and high-tech enterprises. Wuxi currently ranks among China’s top ten cities in terms of GNP, a key economic indicator, underscoring its long-time business and industrial roots. It seeks to become a key Chinese solar city, with two large solar manufacturing companies already located in Wuxi. Wuxi also highlights the city’s ranking in a 2008 Forbes business magazine article as the third best business city in Mainland China. They sounded like our Chamber of Commerce advocates, with proud selling points for investors.
Local leaders also spoke to me about Wuxi’s targeted effort to bring “leading innovative overseas talents” to Wuxi to conduct research, develop cutting-edge technologies and start new companies. The city itself offers major inducements of housing assistance, risk capital and help in obtaining land, permits and labor. In a time of economic slump in the U.S. and Europe, such “carrots” may attract entrepreneurs from the West.
Wuxi also borders beautiful Lake Taihu. The day after my talks I visited one of the parks on its shore, crowded with Chinese families enjoying the blossoming cherry trees. It seemed every family or couple had a digital camera as they posed next to the delicate cherry blossoms, with pagodas, pavilions and the lake in the background.
My Wuxi hosts also took me to view the Great Buddha at nearby Lingshan. This eighty-eight meter bronze statue of Buddha, standing on a base of lotus petals, is one hundred feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. Completed in l997 on the site of an ancient Tang Dynasty Buddhist temple, private investors from Japan and Taiwan funded this major tourist site. The project includes a number of hi-tech attractions that appeal to the devout as well as tourists. A fountain opens its lotus leaves to reveal the baby Buddha, who revolves 360 degrees as sculptured demons spray water. Even Dollywood can’t match that extravaganza.
The recently built Buddhist Palace features beautiful artwork tracing the life of Buddha, a fascinating painted high ceiling with surrounding Buddhist angels and a gold-gilded Buddha. Another room has a huge revolving stage to watch performances as lights on a dome above change color. This room hosted a recent global conference of Buddhism scholars. Not surprising, local government officials emphasize the complex was funded without public funds.
As a postscript, I’d like to thank my friends who emailed their concern for my wellbeing after the recent earthquake in western China that killed between 800-1,000 people. The destruction in Qinghai province, northwest of Sichuan province, occurred over 130 miles from Chengdu. However, many Chengdu people I spoke with today anxiously recalled the devastating Sichuan earthquake of May 2008, which killed hundreds in a town about sixty miles away from Chengdu.