I began this final blog as I prepared to fly to Shanghai (to visit the World Expo) and then home to Tennessee. For five months I’ve taught Chinese undergraduate and graduate students, delivered Fulbright Guest Lectures at eight campuses throughout China and enjoyed countless informal discussions about China today and its future.

China Pavilion, Shanghai World Expo

Today China rides an economic tiger, which bounds forward with impressive double-digit economic growth (11.9% 1st quarter 2010 and 10.3% the 2nd quarter). China’s communist leaders have embraced capitalism, foreign investment and international engagement to boost job growth, foster modernization and enhance China’s global clout. After traveling around China and noting all the new construction of apartments, office buildings and factories, I’ve suggested to Chinese friends that the building crane should become China’s new national symbol. Unfortunately, the focus on economic development has devastated China’s environment, with blue skies and clean rivers absent in most cities. Nevertheless, almost all the people I’ve met seem hopeful about their future and China’s prospects as a rising world power.

Building Crane, China's New Symbol

The negative aspect of the economic tiger metaphor occurs if there is an economic downturn (housing bubble bursts), social unrest (reaction to the huge income gap) or another global recession (deep cuts in China’s exports). A slowing Chinese economic tiger could turn and bite its leaders for failing to fulfill the rising expectations of the “China Dream” that appeals to young people, the growing urban middle class and rural migrants. Renewed ethnic violence, provoked by the large influx of Han Chinese into Tibet or Xinjiang province, could also pose problems for the regime.

Another observation concerns education in China today. Before my Fulbright trip to China, I never realized the extent of the damage to China’s educational system caused by the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Essentially, higher education disappeared during that turbulent decade under the assault of the Red Guards. Professors were killed, beaten, humiliated and often sent to the rice paddy fields to “learn from the peasants.”

China lost many of its “best and brightest” minds that could not pass on their hard-earned knowledge to the next generation. Working in a muddy rice field doesn’t prepare one for the modern world that requires science, math and an understanding of the world. Even in high schools, rival gangs of Red Guards terrorized teachers and fellow-students, with armed battles occurring among Red Guard factions. Today Communist Party officials repudiate this period of disruption and violence, blaming the “gang of four” for misleading the venerated Chairman Mao Zedong.

Growing University Enrollment

Since l999 the Chinese government has tried to overcome the educational deficiencies from that lost decade with impressive increases in the number of students attending college and the expansion of universities with new, large suburban campuses. The national and provincial governments have also enacted generous programs to entice successful overseas Chinese entrepreneurs and scientists back to the mainland. Such inducements partly reflect a concern over whether the present educational system (K-12 as well), with its Confucian emphasis on rote learning, fosters creative and innovative minds.

On the technology front, although China has jump-started its economy, it now seeks to establish its own signature hi-tech brands and industries. As a rising power, China’s leaders recognize that reliance on an export-driven economy, based on providing cheap labor for foreign firms, limits its economic growth prospects. China seeks to attract multinational firms to locate hi-tech factories in China. Paul Otellini, the chief executive of America’s microchip-maker Intel, with a plant in Chengdu, noted that China offers foreign investors a combination of lower construction expenses, expansive tax breaks and access to the vast local market, not simply lower labor costs.

Intel in China

However, the industrialized nations hesitate to facilitate China’s jump over the technology chasm because of the perceived advantages Beijing already enjoys in global competition through its centralized direction of the economy, huge trade surpluses and cheap labor. China now tries to buy foreign technology companies, or product lines with technological advances like IBM’s ThinkPad, to quickly bridge the gap. The lack of protection for intellectual property rights, like patents and numerous “knock-offs” of Western companies and products, provide cause for concern in the developing countries.

Defense issues represent another potential source of conflict. During my lectures at Chinese universities, I was asked on a number of occasions why the United States didn’t share more of its military technology. I emphasized that such a development required greater trust-building measures between our nations. While the Obama administration appears to have improved diplomatic cooperation with Beijing, United States-Sino military relations have chilled. At a May 24, 2010, joint meeting in Beijing, the Peoples Liberation Army’s Rear Admiral Guan Youfei bitterly attacked the U.S. for its Taiwan arms sales and its “encirclement” of China with strategic alliances.

The mainland government’s nationalistic response to U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, which the Chinese view as a core sovereignty issue that Washington should respect under its “one China” policy, continues to plague United States-China relations. I heard Chinese negotiators emphasize that the mainland’s approach of economic development and “peaceful” reintegration of Taiwan into the People Republic of China (PRC).

Chinese Sailors

Indeed, every year more Taiwanese businesses invest in the mainland and increase their exports to this massive market. Unwilling to anger a rising China, other countries have terminated their diplomatic ties with Taiwan, creating further isolation. The Taiwan issue can be peacefully resolved over time, but not by prodding the tiger with provocative, mainly symbolic arms sales that play into the hands of militants on the mainland, Taiwan and the Pentagon.

The issue of America’s “encirclement” of China represents a thornier issue. The Obama administration’s May 2010 National Defense Strategy emphasizes improved military relations with India and continued close cooperation with Japan and South Korea. China’s alliance with the unpredictable North Korean communist regime, recently accused of sinking a South Korean warship, increases prospects for clashes. The current naval maneuvers of the U.S. with South Korea, scheduled to include operations in the Yellow Sea, have already drawn Chinese protests. Chinese officials particularly oppose the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington and its task force entering the Yellow Sea, which Beijing views as the historic “gateway” of foreign invaders into China’s heartland.

USS George Washington

America’s improved relationship with India partially reflects a U.S. response to Beijing’s plan to develop an aircraft carrier for power projection, particularly to protect its key sea lanes as China becomes more dependent upon imported natural resources—and not just oil. Tensions have also risen between China and its neighbors over border disputes that some analysts depict as China’s bid for hegemony over the South China Sea and its offshore resources.

Rumors of the mainland’s development of a maneuverable anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), capable of threatening 7th Fleet carrier task forces operating far from China’s shores, also alarm American naval strategists. The dangers of misperceptions, misunderstandings and distrust, aggravated by hardliners in Beijing and the Pentagon, could lead to conflicts.

China’s youth offers the best chance for improved Sino-US relations. They are hardworking, ambitious and eager to achieve the Chinese Dream, the counterpart of the American Dream—a good job, family and home. But as the competition for good employment opportunities gets more intense in this nation of 1.3 billion people, frustrations will grow.

While the Chinese Great Firewall attempts to limit access to the Internet and social networks, these young people are remarkably adept with technology through their omnipresent cell phones and lap top computers. Students become almost instantly aware of protests and scandals throughout this vast nation despite efforts to “harmonize” dissent and embarrassing revelations.

The issue that could spark social unrest might emanate from the widespread corruption in China. Young idealist Communist Party members are acutely aware of how much the avowed goals of the government differ from the self-interested behavior of many officials. While many young people have joined the Party to pragmatically enhance their job prospects, they often believe in the ideals of Marxism; they also prefer greater freedom. Democracy, well understood by young people, exerts an influence on their values that may surge once they establish themselves in society. Such a democratic vision, of course, will manifest itself with unique “Chinese characteristics,” just as the current generation proclaims a government of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

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