The Penn Symposium on Contemporary China

The first Penn Symposium on Contemporary China was held February 24, 2013 on Penn’s campus, featuring presentations of graduate student research on contemporary China and discussion of trends in Chinese politics, public health, and society. The Symposium, organized by Penn undergraduates, is part of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China’s effort to engage a wide community of China researchers. As the CSCC’s deputy director, Jacques deLisle, noted in his opening remarks, this year’s event is expected to be the first in what will be an annual part of the CSCC’s program. Professor deLisle introduced the Symposium’s keynote speaker, Professor Harry Harding. Harding is the Dean of the Batten School of Public Policy at the University of Virginia, vice chairman of the Asia Foundation, and an authoritative voice on Chinese politics and foreign policy. He is the author of highly regarded books about Chinese politics and foreign policy—including Organizing China.  Harding brought the perspective of a seasoned “China hand,” recounting the normalization of China’s relations with the United States, the arrest of the Gang of Four, the Democracy Wall Movement, the handover of Hong Kong – all watersheds in contemporary Chinese history. He drew on his experiences to give the audience perspective on the striking differences between studying China today and when he was a young scholar, remarking that thirty years ago he and his colleagues were like the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, working with few sources,  unable to do much research in the closed country, and able to buy and read every book in English on contemporary China, yet comparatively influential in U.S.-China relations because those outside the circle of academic China specialists knew even less. There was, at that time, no significant U.S. foreign service, business, journalist, student or even tourist presence in China. All that changed after the China’s “opening and reform” initiated in the 1980s, when Harding and others began the work of rebuilding the Sino-American relationship and interpreting China’s emergence as a global power. Considering the question of what the world can learn from China today, Harding noted that it will be “a case study for many theories” and may be a “confirming or deviant case.” Interest in many specific questions about China is at an all-time high. Is there a “China model” that can be implemented by other countries? Will Taiwan and China’s growing interdependence improve their relations? Will China develop a “social science with Chinese characteristics”? These questions, as yet unanswered, will engage researchers in the field for years. Harding also provided some tips for the many aspiring China experts in the audience. He advised them to become fluent in Mandarin, to live in the country as much as possible, and, most importantly, to cast a broad net in terms of interests and perspectives: “We need China generalists as much as we need China specialists,” he said. The Symposium’s first panel focused on politics, including new insights into the priorities of China’s politicians as well as the objective factors shaping the political system itself. Adam Grimm, graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, explored the changing nature of legitimacy for China’s rulers. Before the economic reforms of the 1980s, China’s Communist Party relied on a Maoist interpretation of Marxist revolutionary ideology to justify its rule. Today, however, the Party mainly relies on a combination of performance-based and culture-based indicators as the bases for its right to rule. The CCP emphasizes its role in providing economic goods and services while also presenting itself as the vanguard of China’s unique culture and history.  One way in which the CCP does the latter is sponsoring construction projects designed to preserve or glorify historically significant sites. Researching how the Chinese media typically frames such projects, Grimm spent years in the city of Kaifeng observing the reactions to renovations of the local Drum Tower, one of the city’s proudest historic places. Generally, Grimm found two opinions about the effort-- one depicting it as a source of economic growth and thus a source of modernity, the other focusing on the value of preserving an ancient artifact. With regard to the latter, however, Grimm noted that preserving one site may lead to destruction of others. “In preserving this…” Grimm mused, pointing at the blueprints for the Drum Tower renovations, “…you lose this, “ then moving to a picture of the once-crowded Night Market that occupied the area before renovations began. John Chin, Ph.D. candidate from Princeton University, questioned a popular  thesis about the chances of China’s becoming a democracy. Optimists about China’s future democratic transition often assume that its growing prosperity will lead to political freedom, citing countries like Korea and Taiwan that became freer as their citizens became richer and more educated. Chin questioned that hypothesis, marshaling some convincing statistics that showed democracy isn’t nearly as well correlated with growing wealth as some suggest. And, he noted, China could just as easily develop a system of managed politics similar to Singapore’s as it could a democratic one like Taiwan’s. “The relationship between economic development and democracy has gotten weaker,” said Chin, as he displayed global data showing the number of autocracies has risen along with the number of democracies, even as global GDP has increased substantially. In fact, given China’s current level of income per head and education system, its level of democracy should be higher than it is now. “China,” Chin concluded, “still faces a long march to democracy.” Wendy Leutert, PhD student at Cornell University, peered beyond the veneer of Chinese political language to see what Party leaders actually view as “China’s national interest.” Arguing that previous studies of political discourse often used ambiguous or dubious sources, Leutert examined official Communist Party documents from the past thirty years. She addressed the question of whether the discussions of national interest in China have been domestically or internationally focused –  that is, whether national interests are expressed more in terms of domestic or international objectives. Common opinion says that China has taken a more international perspective as it has become stronger economically and militarily. To test this conclusion, Leutert conducted a systematic search of CCP documents, looking for words linked with each of the two types of discourse. She found that China’s leaders have indeed come to focus more on the international dimension of national interest since the 2000s began. Before then, China’s leaders had almost exclusively connected the national interest to domestic concerns. Leutert also researched the frequency with which other issues and topics were tied to the national interest. Corruption and culture, for instance, have come to be connected more and more with the national interest in recent years, while the importance of economics and other topics have fluctuated in response to national and international events. The next panel focused on health and society. Overturning some conventional wisdom about China’s socialist system of health, Rachel Core, PhD candidate from Johns Hopkins University, demonstrated that even as China was dealing with the disastrous effects of the Anti-Rightist Movement and Great Leap Forward in the 50s and early 60s, a real “Great Leap Forward” was occurring in public health. Using the anti-tuberculosis campaign run by the Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s as a case study, Core showed that the socialist health system was expanding care to everyone and “providing medical research to the grassroots.” In the cities, where society was organized into work-units and workers received a wide range of benefits, governments pushed for citizens to make use of state-of-the-art health procedures. Shanghai, for example, heavily promoted BCG vaccinations for preventing TB and, after 1953, began requiring them in infants. Mass radiography and TB treatment were available to workers in factories. Most importantly, infection-prevention videos and literature were shown and distributed throughout the population.  These policies led China’s rate of infections to plummet between 1949 and 1978. This progress might have been durable, but Core found was that TB infection rates have rebounded since the 1980s, indicating that the end of the socialist system of health care also spelled the end of its benefits – universal prevention and treatment. A more recently emerging health problem – AIDS – was explored by Samson Lin of Johns Hopkins University. Taboo subjects until recently, the twin issues of homosexuality and AIDS have come to confront China’s conservative society as the disease spreads further and faster among the population. The diffusion of AIDS has in turn encouraged the growth of homosexual organizations in China, as more and more homosexual men have formed advocacy groups for those affected by the disease. Since homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, these groups have become more open about their activities, although they still have not been sponsored by the state, a necessary precondition for organizing as an NGO in China. Lin predicted that China’s increasing urbanization will offer more opportunities for organization and so increase the number of gay and AIDS advocacy groups. Roy Chan of the Boston College’s Lynch School of Education spoke about China’s progress in higher education. Since the turn of the 21st century, improving China’s higher education has become a top priority for the Chinese government, which has poured resources into tertiary schools in order to make them good enough to attract world-class talent. Yet while China has doubled its number of colleges and universities, adopted Western style-liberal arts programs, and invested heavily in research and development, it still lags behind the US, Europe, and East Asia in education competitiveness. What more needs to be done? Chan moved beyond the macro-factors ordinarily used to assess universities in order to explore “environmental factors” and how they can attract foreign students. Chan surveyed students from the University of Hong Kong and Shanghai Jiaotong University, asking them about their overall satisfaction, how controlled their degree program was, how much financial difficulty they had, and how many opportunities they had to express their views in class. Chan found that universities in China had made progress in improving teaching and learning focusing more on the quality of education rather than the quantity, and moving from institutional management to self-management on the part of students. He concluded that a general strategy for Chinese universities was to create an environment that nurtured creativity, competitiveness, critical thinking, discovery, innovation and dependence,” the criteria for a “world-class academic culture.” “China,” he said, “must promote brain gain, not brain drain.” The Symposium concluded with a speech from Rachel Wasser, co-founder of the international non-profit organization Teach for China (TFC). Inspired by reading about the pervasive inequality between Chinese rural and urban education, Wasser set out to build on the successful models of programs like Teach for America by recruiting fellows to spend two years teaching in rural Chinese schools. She described China’s rural poverty and its consequences as “one of the world’s biggest problems” and one those attending the Symposium were “uniquely positioned to solve.” She used the audience to illustrate the problem, making them all stand as representative of “the rural children who will enter primary school” and then slowly eliminating rows of people, until only two remained. “You are the rural children who will make it into university,” she said grimly – a paltry 3% of the hundreds of millions of rural children who never finish their education. Wasser contended that Teach for China, with its emphasis on developing leadership among students, would create a generation of young Chinese who could succeed in spite of the problem of educational inequality. She shared poignant stories of success to illustrate TOC’s effect. One described an American fellow who led his English class to achieve the highest final exam scores in their middle school. Another described a Chinese fellow who brought his class from second-to-last in his school to first in the county. Chinese students are not the only beneficiaries of the program.  TFC experiences have also inspired the fellows who teach in the program.  Wasser noted that one-third of the fellows continue to work for TFC after finishing the program, remaining dedicated, as she put it, to the ideal that someday “all children will have access to an excellent education.”

From differing perspectives—political, social, theoretical, and practical - the speakers at the 2013 Penn Symposium offered a stimulating exploration of the current state of China studies and of China itself. Professor Harding began the Symposium by asking, “what could the world learn from the case of China.” The day’s events served as a rich primer on the subject, offering a multifaceted view of a country in the midst of transformation.

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