Dr. Swansbrough in China
The J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board has chosen Dr. Robert Swansbrough, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences and professor of political science at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, to be a Fulbright Scholar in China. He will teach from February 2010 until June 2010, during the People’s Republic of China (PRC) spring 2010 semester.
Swansbrough will be teaching a class on American Government and another on U.S. Foreign Policy in Sichuan University, a campus of 60,000 students, in Chengdu, a city of 12 million in southwest China.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
Before I left for China, I was informed that few Christian churches exist in China, with missionary activity banned. The main Christian churches are large Catholic cathedrals built in “concession areas” that European powers seized from weak imperial China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The exploitation of China after the Opium Wars and the national humiliation when Western governments imposed unequal treaties created a Chinese view that often equated Christianity with Western imperialism. Despite such challenges, one American scholar I met estimated that today there are about 80 million Christians in China today–out of a population of 1.3 billion.
But religion arrived in China about the 2nd century A.D. Buddhism from India made inroads in China, especially later when a number of emperors embraced the religion. For example, the lovely Lama Temple in Beijing served as a palace of one of the Qing dynasty princes, but when he became emperor he converted it into a Buddhist temple. In visiting major Buddhist temples and monasteries during my travels—while delivering Fulbright Guest Lectures on U.S. foreign policy at various Chinese universities—it became evident that often wars and fires destroyed many of these historic wooden structures and their artifacts. However, the major ones have since been rebuilt.
To officially to become a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a prospective member must sign a form that he or she does not believe in a religion. Nevertheless, I have been taken to Buddhist temples and lit prayer incense sticks with Party members who, while they say they don’t believe in religion, seek good luck and fortune through Buddhist prayer. I’ve even been told that privately some of the top officials in Beijing practice Buddhism—to hedge their bets against Marx’s atheism dogma! Chinese people are very pragmatic.
During the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Chairman Mao incited the Red Guards to restore communist ideological purity, many beautiful religious temples, churches and relics were senselessly destroyed—as well as traditional Confucian teachings and statues. Zhou Enlai had to order his military forces to keep the Red Guards from destroying the Dalai Llama’s winter palace in Lhasa, Tibet, with its gold-gilded Buddha statues, religious paintings and scrolls of ancient sutras.
Since the 1978 Opening and Reform led by President Deng Xiaoping (after Mao’s death), CPC officials in all cities have grown to appreciate the ancient culture of China, no doubt recognizing its value for attracting tourist dollars. Also, I’m sure that the presence of Buddhist and Taoist temples in most major cities helps undermine Western criticism that China doesn’t enjoy religious freedom.
We Fulbrighters were warned, however, not to visit underground Chinese Christian churches or congregations. We wouldn’t be in danger, but the authorities would come down hard on the Chinese church members. Several students have told me that such underground Christian churches exist on their campuses and indicated that they are growing in popularity. One student, a committed Party member, even acknowledged that their appeal might represent a reaction to the forces of modernization, materialism and corruption so evident in China today.
The Chinese people primarily revere the traditional Confucian values and rituals built around filial piety and respect for government authority—then the Emperor. While Confucius was denigrated during China’s Cultural Revolution, the current national leadership has resurrected the important Confucian principle of “harmony” in society to discourage social dissent.
In My Country, My People (1943), Chinese writer Lin Yutang tried to explain China to Westerners. He asserted that for over 5,000 years the Chinese people have been more naturalistic, fatalistic and superstitious than religious. When Confucius talks about Heaven in the Analects, he refers to worshiping the spirits of ancestors, rather than the Greek’s conception of the gods on Mount Olympus or the Christian idea of Heaven. Chinese believe in lucky colors and numbers, propitious days for hanging prayer flags, turquoise amulets and jade jewelry to ward off evil and special Buddha statues that bring good fortune—particularly wealth in the new China.
During a recent visit to Lhasa, I learned about Tibet’s form of Buddhism, which adapted Indian Buddhism to their indigenous beliefs. I was intrigued by the Wheel of Life, which shows at the top a heaven for the enlightened good people and at the bottom hell. But for 49 days in hell the dead are evaluated for how many white stones they received in life (for good deeds, acts of compassion), as well as how many black stones they accrued (lust, greed). Lots of white stones could lead to heaven or rebirth on earth as a human in a better social status. Substantial black stones could lead to the next life as an animal or a “hungry ghost,” reserved for the greedy that showed little compassion toward the suffering of others.
The obvious parallel is the Christian story about St. Peter at the Pearly Gates judging our sins and good deeds in life—but St. Peter does not turn anyone into a goat or pig in the next life! Of course, Dante’s The Divine Comedy might be a closer match with souls in Purgatory before entering either Heaven or Hell.
I’m sure that Christianity will continue to attract more Chinese believers, but it faces serious cultural competition. Nevertheless, the break from old traditions caused by urbanization and modernization might make Christian beliefs more popular in the future, especially if the government loosens its religious restrictions.
I was advised that if I attempted to cross a street, I must steadily shuffle forward—not stopping or changing directions—and the swarm of motorbikes would steer around you. I saw on one motorbike five people: a father, mother and three little children. Motorbikes also serve in Vietnam as delivery vans carrying everything from chickens and ducks to clothing and huge bottles of distilled water to restaurants, retail shops and homes.
I visited My Tho in the Mekong Delta the next morning. We traveled across the wide Mekong River and then I carefully stepped into a small sampan, its hull barely above the water line, rowed slowly by a woman. The estuary was narrow, peaceful and lined with coconut and palm trees that provided shade. The experience was like stepping back in time.
When we returned to the main river, I suddenly recalled the fate of a fellow Navy officer, an Annapolis graduate, who left our destroyer after volunteering to serve on a Vietnam river patrol boat—like Senator John Kerry. Sadly, my shipmate Bill never returned home. One could easily imagine Viet Cong forces hiding in the heavy foliage along the riverbanks, ready to launch a rocket or mortar attack at the patrol boat.
My tour guide had briefly served in the South Vietnamese Army after he turned age 18. When the final peace agreement was signed in l975, the communists sent him to a “reeducation camp” for two years. He survived by follow two rules: one, don’t get sick (no medicine or doctors); and two, stay calm (don’t react to the guards’ abuse or provocations).
After those tough years, he was sent to work for eight more years on a collective farm growing rice. Sometimes the tide would go out in the rice paddy fields and fish would be left behind. He and others would secretly catch the fish with their bare hands, kill the fish out of sight under the water, and then hide them in their trousers to later eat for protein to bolster their meager rations. If caught, they would be severely beaten or killed, since the state owned the fish! Humor helped him survive. He still chuckles recalling how a friend caught a fish and put it into his pants—but the fish wasn’t dead and flopped around. As he admitted to me, his youth and will to live helped him to survive this ordeal.
In l976, one year after the Vietnamese communists gained power, Pol Pot’s Cambodian forces launched an attack on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta border area, hoping to regain what the Khmer Rouge claimed as historic Khmer territory. Border clashes between these two communist nations persisted for several years. When the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in l979, occupying Phnom Penh and toppling Pol Pot’s brutal regime, the Cambodians felt liberated. But when the Vietnamese army remained in Cambodia until 1989, setting up a new government, I was told that nationalist resentments grew against the prolonged occupation.
After Vietnam negotiated a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union, China invaded Vietnam in l979 on a brief but bloody “punitive” mission. The Chinese lost 20,000 men in less than a month of warfare, but achieved their strategic goal of demonstrating that the USSR would not militarily help Vietnam in China’s sphere of influence. Thus, despite the fact that all four states had communist rulers, nationalism, historic border disputes and power politics led to conflicts among these “socialist comrades.”
The major purpose of my trip to Saigon was to visit the city’s war museum. My next book project deals with interviews I conducted with crewmembers and officers of the USS Maddox (DD 731), attacked on August 2, 1964, by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats while on “routine” patrol off the coast. An alleged second attack two nights later is more doubtful. The incident led to Congress passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—followed by the massive bombing of Hanoi (Operation Rolling Thunder) and escalation of American troop deployments to over 500,000 that Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon claimed the Resolution authorized.
The War Remnants Museum (a non-descript title) currently documents the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident, but maintains the U.S. Army (not the Navy) fabricated the attacks. This denial surprised me, since the Vietnamese government and officials have previously acknowledged the first attack by their “patriotic defenders,” while vociferously denying the alleged second incident.
When the war museum opened in l975 it bore the dreadful name, The House for Displaying the War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government (of South Vietnam). The name was shortened in l993 to The Museum of American War Crimes. The current ambiguous museum name reflects the restoring of diplomatic relations with the United States in l994, followed by the Vietnamese government’s efforts to attract American tourist dollars and foreign investment.
Despite the less inflammatory name change, the museum’s so-called exhibits still focus on atrocities committed by the United States and our then-South Vietnamese allies. Displays highlighted the My Lai Massacre, mutations resulting from spraying Agent Orange in the countryside, the devastations from napalm bombs and the tiger cages torture methods used in the South Vietnamese Phu Quoc Prison.
The museum also reflects the old adage, “The victors write history.” No reference was made to the torture of Senator John McCain and other downed American pilots in the Hanoi Hilton. Nor was there any acknowledgement of the use of terrorism, torture and violence against South Vietnamese civilians by the Viet Cong.
In the last five years Vietnam, by permitting entrepreneurial business endeavors, returning ownership of land to the peasants and welcoming of foreign investment, has achieved greater economic growth—and hope for a better future. A terrible famine in l991—in this normally rice-exporting country—served as a wake-up call. Vietnam is still run by the communist party, but economic growth, urbanization and modernization have unleashed powerful social and economic forces only beginning to be felt. Vietnam’s development appears to follow the Chinese model, but lags far behind.
I sometimes scratch my head at how rural collectivization under Stalin, Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Pol Pot’s brutal removal of Cambodia’s city populations to rice paddy fields and the Vietnamese collectivization campaign all led to economic failure—and horrendous human suffering and the deaths of millions of people. If they had read Karl Marx more carefully, they would note he recognized the conservative nature of the peasantry who simply wanted to till their own land. The grim cliché about how history tends to repeat itself is all too true!
Some years ago I heard about the intriguing UNESCO Heritage site of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat lost temples. I flew to the capital of Phnom Penh from Hong Kong to view the famous ruins before I returned home. Although it was the monsoon season, I was fortunate to encounter sunny days, making a great background for interesting pictures of life in Cambodia today—and 800 years ago.
Cambodia is a developing country with a very low wage scale. Sometimes people from the countryside come into the city to work in construction jobs paying three dollars for an eight-hour shift. The rural areas are lush, with rice paddy fields everywhere; farmers plant other crops wherever there is fertile land. Free education exists only at the elementary school level—but just four hours a day. Families must scrimp if they want their children to get a good education. My guide lived two years in a Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh, doing chores in return for free housing and food while he studied for his high school diploma. The lack of resources dedicated to education will clearly limit Cambodia’s economic growth.
I visited the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, built by King Norodom in 1866, a bright- yellow complex of temples and the royal residence, designed in the Khmer tradition of many tiered roofs and tall towers. Although Cambodia today is over 90 percent Buddhist, some of their artwork and architecture reflects the early Hindu impact on the culture, such as a cobra with seven heads and the sacred naga snake. The Silver Pagoda in the palace compound contains 1,500 pure silver tiles on the floor and features a 17th century Buddha made of baccarat crystal, covered with emeralds and other precious stones.
That afternoon, after viewing Cambodia’s historic splendor, I was shown Cambodia’s recent horror. I visited an infamous high school, which the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison (S-21) for torture and murder. During the brief period of Pol Pot’s communist rule (l975-1979), the Khmer Rouge regime killed about 2 million Cambodians, about one-fifth of the country’s population. While this prison was only one scene of such atrocities, the same “killing fields” occurred throughout the nation, resulting in mass genocide.
The perverted ideology of the Khmer Rouge considered anyone who was educated, a teacher, monk or city dweller a threat to their new order. The Khmer Rouge literally emptied the cities, creating ghost towns, forcing the people to work—or die—in the rural rice paddy fields so the government could sell more rice to purchase weapons. All Buddhist monks were defrocked and forced to work in the countryside. According to one Buddhist monk, who initially was reluctant to talk with me about this harsh period, the severity of the repression depended upon individual Khmer Rouge officials.
Touring the S-21 prison you enter the small cells, view the torture apparatus and photos of the resulting Khmer Rouge barbarity. A movie presented a grim documentary on the extent of the inhuman actions of Pol Pot’s often-young thugs. Several locations displayed collections of the skulls and bones of the victims later dug up from the killing fields.
After those depressing sights, I was eager to visit Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, which I reached after a six-hour bus ride. Between 802 AD and 1220 AD the Khmer kings built the city of Angkor Thom with its many temples, including Angkor Wat,. During the peak of their power, Khmer kings ruled most of Southeast Asia. Then the Khmer empire declined and after 1432 AD their impressive capital, temples and culture disappeared, leaving only rumors of the fabled city. In 1860 a French botanist re-discovered the 800 years-old city, which amazed the world with over 100 Khmer stone temples, statuary and artwork.
Angkor Thom, the lost walled city of the Khmer kings, encompasses about 24 square miles, which you can visit with a guide and driver, tuk-tuk (motorbike rickshaw) or travel on an elephant. The imposing temple of Bayon, with 37 towers (originally 49} and 216 carved Buddha stone faces, creates an imposing stone mountain, whose face towers’ features aren’t recognizable until one gets closer. Friezes of dancing girl asparas adorn the columns and walls, as well as representation of various demons and guardians. Bas-reliefs depict major battles and daily life under the Khmer kings. In the Ta Prohm Temple, tree roots force large stone walls to fall, standing as a monument to the power of nature. As you walk between temple ruins, you see the elephant terrace where Khmer kings reviewed their troops.
Angkor Wat stands out for its superb architecture and the condition of the bas-reliefs along its long galleries depicting historical events. On the bas-reliefs you can identify generals and kings riding elephants in battle, their rank distinguished by the number of umbrellas above them. Hinduism dominated in the Khmer Empire until the end of the 12th century, when Mahayana Buddhism briefly gained supremacy under another Khmer king, so many of the reliefs depict Vishnu, Shiva, and other figures and scenes from Hindu mythology.
France, Japan, Australia and the United States have agreed to take on individual temple restoration projects, a process that will take many years to reconstruct from the numbered—but scattered—stone blocks. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see the world pitching in to restore this incredible world heritage monument. Constructed during the Dark Ages in Europe, these impressive stone temples survived nature and even the Khmer Rouge.
It has been over forty years since I visited Hong Kong, then as a naval officer on the destroyer USS Braine. At that time there was the popular saying aboard the ship that you “went broke saving money” in Hong Kong. The low prices for tailored clothing, stereos, cameras, jade and ceramics in this tax-free city encouraged you to spend heavily to take advantage of the bargains. That is no longer the case! While Hong Kong still carries a great variety of products, the prices in major shopping areas are similar to the United States, although less expensive than if purchased in Europe.
I don’t want to over-glamorize the bargains of the past. In my Navy days I recall going into a small tailor shop in Kowloon. The owner promptly offered me a drink as he began showing me fabrics. He must have showed me quite a few fabrics, because soon I was being fitted for a Madras sport coat, then popular in the United States. Several days later a package arrived at the ship containing my “tailored” sport coat. I must have been listing to starboard (right) while be measured for the fit, because my right sleeve was about two inches shorter than the left sleeve! Not a great bargain….
This trip, instead of arriving by ship, I landed at Hong Kong’s international airport where I took a swift, modern train to downtown Hong Kong. The harbor is still full of ships and junks, while huge cranes along the docks unload large containers with goods from around the world. When I arrived in downtown Hong Kong, I felt that I had gone back in time, with the familiar crush of people in the narrow streets with shops, banks and bars (The Old China Hand) on either side. Double-deck buses and trams appeared everywhere.
That night I had dinner on the 33rd floor of my hotel and admired Hong Kong’s magnificent skyline of lighted skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings, with the mountains and dark sky providing a stark backdrop. Hong Kong’s reputation for wonderful international cuisine has not changed; meals were as superb as I recalled—just pricier.
I had some banking difficulties in Chengdu, but in dealing with a Hong Kong bank teller who spoke excellent English, the withdrawals and currency exchanges went smoothly. Being a former British colony, I found people in stores fluent in English and quite helpful. Signs referred to trams and lifts in the British manner. I also found more respect for traffic laws, people queuing for buses and less pushing and shoving than on the mainland.
I took the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak, where one enjoys an impressive view of Kowloon, Hong Kong and its large harbor, surrounded by islands and mountains. The cable cars are pulled upward by steel cables at a very steep angle; looking out the windows it appears that buildings lean at about a 45 degrees angle.
I also visited the Buddhist Man Mo Temple, surprisingly dedicated to Man (literature) and Mo (martial arts). Speaking of martial arts, hawkers everywhere sold T-shirts with pictures of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, two Hong Kong icons. Jackie Chan owns a large home overlooking Hong Kong bay near the Stanley Market. I enjoyed a Cantonese-style dim sum lunch of many small dishes aboard a large floating restaurant that could feed 450 people in Aberdeen. I recall eating at a similar large floating restaurant in the l960s, surrounded by fishing boats and junks. Some good things don’t change.
In Stanley I noticed a large, very modern apartment building with a hole through it that must have lost at least four apartments on two floors. I don’t know if this was the advice of a feng shui expert, who recommended this accommodation to appease the spirits. The apartment was propitiously located between a desirable mountain (in mythology, inhabited by a dragon) and the sea. Perhaps the feng shui required such a drastic change so the dragon could reach the sea, thus bringing good fortune to the owner of the apartment building. I’ve heard of such construction changes after accidents in other cities; many Chinese are quite superstitious.
One key change has occurred since my visit in 1964. Since the British turned over Hong Kong to the Chinese government in l997 as a special Administrative Region, the Chinese flag—not the Union Jack—flies everywhere. For 50 years the agreement specified “One country, two systems.” Democratic elections, a vigorous free press and the racetrack still operate in Hong Kong. The transition has been closely watched in Taiwan, but appears to be going smoothly.
My daughter Christy, who visited me for two weeks, and I rode the 25-hour overnight train from Xining, China, to Lhasa, Tibet. The slow train ride to Lhasa (not a “bullet” speedster) offered a spectacular view of the landscape along the route—snow-tipped mountains, peasants toiling in fields and herds of sheep and yak grazing on the arid land. I didn’t recognize the yaks at first, which look like small buffalo. However, before we returned we had eaten lots of yak meat—and tasted yak butter and yak butter tea—not our favorites.
The train’s slow climb to Lhasa, about 12,000 feet above the sea, helped to acclimate our bodies to Lhasa’s altitude—and its reduced oxygen level. We also began taking Diamox tablets twenty-four hours before our departure. This approach to the altitude problem worked, although we still experienced some minor symptoms the first two mornings in Lhasa.
Our Tibetan guide began our visit by taking us to the Potala Palace, the winter residence of the 14th Dalai Llama until he fled to India in l960. The magnificent palace, the former center of government, dominates a huge hill overlooking downtown Lhasa. It consists of 13 stories and over 1,000 rooms. Visitors view the Dalai Llama’s formal reception room, meditation rooms, Buddhist statuary and temples.
Tired after climbing so many steps in the palace, while gasping for air, we visited the downtown 1,300 year-old Jokhang Temple, described as the spiritual center of Tibet. The temple complex featured a revered golden Buddha and impressive monk assembly prayer rooms with beautiful embroidered decorative hangings to ward off demons.
We learned that Tibetan Buddhism incorporated symbols of the Five Elements on religious tapestries and prayer flags: sky (blue), clouds (white), earth (yellow), fire (red) and water (green). Small prayer flags in these colors have Buddhist scripture teachings written or printed on each flag. You often see long strings of such prayer flags hung on large trees or strung like spider cobwebs on the surrounding mountain slopes, crevices and boulders.
The following day we visited the Dalai Llama’s summer palace, full of beautiful gardens and ponds, stone bridges, meditation retreats and temples. The current 14th Dalai Llama only enjoyed it for two summers before he sought asylum after a failed 1959 uprising.
That afternoon we visited the Sera Monastery of the most influential yellow hat sect of Buddhist monks. Of particular interest were the afternoon theological and philosophical “debates” among monks attending the monastery’s university. They assemble at 3 pm daily in a pebble courtyard in their dark red robes, many wearing sneakers on their feet. The monks pair off and one monk aggressively throws a question at the other monk—emphasized through body motion, finger thrusts and hand claps—demanding an immediate (and correct) answer to a spiritual or philosophical question. The pairs switch inquisitor roles every week, as spectators try to follow the debates from the outer edges of the courtyard “classroom.”
Lhasa is an historic Tibetan city that confronts great physical changes in the near future—much like the rest of China. A new train station and modern bridge will bring more and more tourists to Tibet’s capital city. Around the train station four-lane divided highways branch out into undeveloped areas, as the modernization process hasn’t yet begun building the new businesses and apartments.
At the other end of the city construction cranes create what our guide called the “new city.” Personally, I’ll miss the crowded downtown with its narrow streets and bazaar shops surrounding the main temple. When visiting these vendors you must always walk clock-wise in religious respect. You frequently see older Tibetans spinning their hand-held prayer drums in a clock-wise direction.
If you plan to visit Tibet, start your preparations early. The Chinese government requires a Tibet travel permit (after submitting a copy of your passport and China visa), the use of an approved travel agency and a licensed guide. One cannot take off on side trips. The Beijing authorities carefully review who they allow to visit the province after the 2008 demonstrations prior to the Beijing Olympics. But despite these difficulties, Tibet remains a fascinating and colorful culture to visit.
Over the three-day Dragon Boat Festival national holiday (June 14-16), one of my students took me to visit his hometown in Sichuan Province. We then drove to the nearby city of Hanwang, struck hard by the disastrous 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Hanwang is located about 50 miles northwest of Chengdu, the provincial capital where I’ve been teaching. The earthquake killed about 70,000 people in this western province of China, with 18,000 still missing—presumed buried under the twisted steel and concrete rubble.
The Hanwang city leaders decided to leave parts of the ruined city untouched as a memorial to those who died. The site poignantly highlighted to me and other visitors the devastating damage of the May 12, 2008, earthquake, measured at 8.0 on the Richter scale. The clock on the city’s bell tower eerily stopped at the exact moment of the tremor—2:28 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. Students were in classrooms, businessmen in their offices and mothers and grandparents home with young children when their lives dramatically changed.
This rural Sichuan city, while not affluent, was a sizeable city by Western standards, with many six-story apartment buildings and a busy business section. A military factory producing turbines, destroyed but later rebuilt miles away, provided many jobs. Government office buildings caved in, apartment buildings pancaked downward, and hospitals and clinics buckled from the powerful quake.
But most tragically, about 7,000 schools in Sichuan Province collapsed. In one Hanwang school, 700 students died in their classrooms. Initially, the executive vice governor Wei Hong confirmed that 19,065 schoolchildren had died. The Reuters news service estimated that about 9,000 children were killed by the earthquake. However, on May 7, 2009, a year later, the Chinese government officially declared that 5,446 students died in the Sichuan earthquake.
The number of schools fatally damaged by the earthquake created an emotional and political firestorm, fueled by parents questioning why more public schools collapsed than nearby businesses, government structures and apartment buildings. Indeed, they blamed the fate of the schools on so-called “tofu construction”—school buildings privately built at minimal cost without regard for safety. Parents charged that corrupt local government officials had failed to inspect and insist that the construction comply with national earthquake-resistance regulations.
On Thursday, the day after the quake, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited the region to express the central government’s sympathy and financial support. President Hu Jintao came the next day. The scale of the destruction and the question about corrupt local officials ignoring school safety construction standards, made the situation politically sensitive—especially on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The tragic loss of children was magnified by China’s one-child policy. Hanwang parents were offered compensation totaling $8,800 and a per-parent pension of nearly $5,600. However, grieving parents had to agree that they would not press legal claims or engage in political actions. Subsequently, family planning centers surgically helped some parents reverse sterilization procedures.
The government has now built a “new city” for Hanwang, with showcase apartment buildings, a police station, post office and—a tax office. New trees have been planted. Large red banners thank the government and party for their assistance. The city of Beijing made a major financial commitment toward Sichuan reconstruction, with new schools and roads being funded and named after the capital city.
As in any natural disaster, many acts of courage and sacrifice occurred, motivated by a compassion for the victims of the earthquake. I’ve heard stories of Sichuan University students and other students from around China rushing to the area to help in the rescue and aid work.
My visit to Hanwang came two years after the May 2008 disaster. I particularly admire and respect the resilience of the survivors. Many residents still live in temporary housing or make-do shelters as the government tries to meet the needs of millions of Sichuan people made homeless by the horrendous earthquake. Small businesses operate under tarps, attempting to restore what was a thriving market area.
Foreign governments and many non-governmental organizations have worked with the Chinese authorities to help rebuild the area, but the challenge persists. The reconstruction will probably take 2-4 more years with much more Chinese government investment to restore this western China city—only one of those devastated by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
But the Chinese people have survived over 5,000 years from other natural disasters, famine, wars and invasions. I have great confidence in their resiliency after this terrible tragedy. They grieve, express anger, work hard and fatalistically accept the ups and downs of fate—as they have for millenniums.
All Chinese high school students hoping to attend college next fall take the National College Entrance Exams (gao kao) on June 7, 8 and 9. The first day assesses their knowledge of Chinese, the next day mathematics and the third day English (written, not oral), plus a second subject of their choice—such as Chemistry, Physics, History and Politics. The Ministry of Education estimates 9.57 million students will take the National College Entrance Exam, with overall college enrollment next fall growing by 7 percent.
These students, and their parents and grandparents, recognize that how well they do on the exam impacts their admission to a better university, future course of study, and their subsequent career success—measured by a good paying job. The hopes and destiny of the entire family rests upon their young shoulders. Their scores on the national college entrance exam become the major determinant of their future, not high school grade point average, letters of recommendation, extra-curricular activities or special skills, which play a role in American college admissions.
Many parents have sacrificed much to enroll their children in the most prestigious schools in their villages or sending them to a larger city to stay with relatives for a better education. During their senior year in high school they may attend classes 12 hours a day to prepare for this one critical exam, although from a tender age their parents and teachers pressed them to constantly study harder. Students complain that from primary middle school to senior middle school (high school), all they did was prepare for the college entrance tests.
The outcome of their National College Entrance Exam scores determine if they can study a particular popular major, like engineering or business, which may offer good paying jobs. Likewise, attending the highest ranked colleges in China is the goal of China’s “best and brightest.” The competition is keen, pressures intense.
In the United States, if a student is admitted to a university, his or her SAT/ACT score doesn’t limit them from majoring in a difficult subject. For example, they get the opportunity to declare a pre-medicine major, with the tougher required courses in chemistry or biology determining whether they can achieve their goal. If Chinese college students want to change majors, they have to take another exam through that department and gain the required higher score to study that subject. In the U.S. students can easily change majors, although they may have courses to make up.
Several weeks ago I showed my students the movie “The Candidate,” starring Robert Redford, on a Sunday night at the new Sichuan University campus. I was surprised at the number of students attending Sunday night classes in the classroom building. When I asked about this, I learned that students can take courses for a second major (to improve job prospects), but these courses are only taught on weekends.
Therefore, Chinese college students might be taking 14-16 classes in their major, plus 4 or 5 classes on the weekend for a double major. Sichuan University students in their first three years may thus enroll in 20 classes a semester, seven days a week! They take this heavy load, with the approval of the faculty, so that they have a lighter class load in their senior year when they seek a good job in the very competitive work environment. Of course, in China “guanxi” (connections) helps in their job quest.
To visiting Fulbright faculty like myself, this system seems to continue the Mandarin emphasis on rote memory. Professors lecture, students assiduously take notes and repeat those facts on the final exam. The American emphasis on critical thinking, challenging student opinions in a Socratic manner, and collaborative projects through teams and simulations isn’t, as one official told me, “the Chinese way.” Who can argue with 5,000 years of history!
When I discuss this issue with administration officials and faculty, while delivering Fulbright guest lectures at different Chinese universities, I am often told that they are trying to reform this educational approach. Some faculty members, particularly those who have studied in America or another Western nation, try to engage students more. There is also an effort to provide what in America we call a General Education for all college students, requiring courses in a variety of disciplines to create a more broadly educated graduate.
Since students spend 10 to 12 hours every day listening to lectures, which are the basis of tests, very little outside reading or research is required. This especially astonishes American faculty who feel assigned texts and readings provide additional information, case studies or simply different viewpoints on issues. Chinese students who have studied in the U.S. tell me they are most surprised by the amount of required reading and research reports, although they take about one-third the course load they would in a Chinese university.
Perhaps the impetus for top-down reform of China’s educational system will be launched because of economic reasons—to develop more creative and innovative graduates to compete in the global economy. Confucius never had to worry about a technology-driven society or globalization!
In l979, as many Americans know, China launched a one-child policy to slow the growth of its huge population in order to foster economic development. In the early years, rural officials sometimes ruthlessly enforced the new policy. The traditional Chinese preference for male children—to continue the family line and provide for their parents in later years—led to sex-selective abortions and placing female children up for adoption. Many Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, have adopted a Chinese-American daughter.
In my classes the students predominantly come from one-child households. The female students in private often tell me how they wished they had a brother or sister to discuss and commiserate with concerning the pressures they felt in school and as teenagers. They often expressed loneliness at not having a sibling, talking to their dolls when they were small girls or treating a cousin as a brother or sister.
However, the one-child policy mainly impacts urban families and government employees (such as city workers and teachers), approximately 36 percent of the population, who face being fired or fined for non-compliance. But because of a growing labor shortage in some first-tier cities like Shanghai, exceptions are granted if both the husband and wife come from one-child families.
In rural areas a second child is allowed five years after the birth of a couple’s first child, especially if the first child is a girl. In ethnic minority communities and under-populated areas a third child is permitted.
In a March survey by the China Youth Daily in Beijing, almost 78 percent of the 6,183 respondents described having two children as the “perfect” family. Only 18 percent preferred a single child. But the increasing pressures of modernization, with both husband and wife working long hours to afford an apartment, car and a good education for their child, contributes to an increasing preference for only one child in such upwardly mobile families. Over two-thirds in the survey said their economic situation was the most important factor in deciding to have children, not unlike trends in the United States. The “China Dream” of a better life requires many sacrifices.
China’s population of 1.33 billion today reflects a fertility rate (mean number of children born to women) of 1.7, with 2.1 births needed to keep the population stable. These figures are not dissimilar from other East Asian countries without strict laws: Singapore 1.04, Japan 1.38 and Hong Kong 0.91. It appears that as societies become more urban and the pace of economic life increases, couples voluntarily reduce the number of their children to improve their standard of living.
These changes place more pressures upon Chinese families, since only government employees and workers at large corporations receive pensions after reaching the compulsory retirement age, 55 for women and 60 for men. Therefore, 70 percent of elderly citizens, receiving no pensions or government assistance, must depend upon the support of their children. Most couples increasingly find themselves supporting one child, as well as the parents of both the husband and wife.
I visited a Chengdu kindergarten and saw the care offered to very young children, which was quite impressive. But at the end of the school day the boys and girls were generally met at the gate by a grandfather or grandmother, since both parents worked until much later that evening.
But the law of unintended consequences also impacted China’s one-child policy. Because of the preference for male children, the ratio of live births of males to females has increased. Some blame sex-selective abortions, even though illegal, as well as poorer healthcare for female babies. A Shandong University professor calculated that men of a marriageable age will outnumber women by 50 million by 2020. Others estimate a 30 million gender gap. I heard a 31-year-old tour guide lament how hard it was for him to find a wife because of this gender imbalance—aggravated by the rising price of city apartments, demanded by many a potential mother-in-law!
China also confronts an aging society. The former director of the China Population and Development Research Center estimated that in 2009, 14 percent of China’s population was over age 60. That trend peaks in 2040, when one-third of the nation’s population will be above age 60. The need for a larger labor pool might lead to further relaxation of the one-child policy in the coming years.
China has long been a nation with a strong culture of frugality and saving, but medical costs and the limited availability of good nursing homes threaten many seniors. Many years ago China sent observers to examine America’s social security system, but the costs were prohibitive to a government focused on rapid economic development. Nevertheless, the changing demographic figures and pressures from the growing urban middle class might compel the government to implement some badly needed reforms to benefit their older citizens—and allocate sufficient resources—in the near future.