How I got here …

 

I took 25 Chinese government officials out dancing at a Chicago club called, ironically, the Funky Buddha.  Not everyone had brought their picture ID to gain entrance at the club.  So we pulled the old Chicago high school getting-on-the-bus-with-one-student-bus pass trick – passing the ID back to people in the back of the line.  In 2003,  the bouncer couldn’t read the names anyway.

I was their professor.  They were my students – 25 midlevel government officials from Zhejiang Province, in Chicago for a year to learn about markets and government management. 

So beginneth the lesson – for me.  In the next 15 years, I taught, learned, studied, and lived Chinese and China. 

 

A distant mirror – in space and in time – is the way I have thought about this book.   Barbara Tuchman was a serious writer on history, which I am not.  And this book is impressionistic, not academic – how my own experience in China illuminates research.  The experience was a little unique – in Party enclaves, at Party School, discussions about moving a bridge already under construction to satisfy a Party leader, teaching in a university (not one of the top five in China), meetings with real estate developers and fighting with policemen, and attending celebratory feasts in rammed earth, dirt floor farm houses.   Often, I could hear the voices of old China hands – Andy Nathan said that might happen, Susan Shirk would agree; Derk Bodde talked about the Chinese language that way; W.T. deBary saw that as a flaw in Confucianism.  Pettis was right; and Jim Chanos and Minxin Pei need to come for a visit, if they could.

Experience is the best teacher, and we can’t all spend years in China.  But there are daily news stories, and dozens of volumes on every aspect of Chinese life and economy.  I hope to put a little energy into the news stories and the more serious books by relaying my direct experience.  There are lots of references in this book.  Very little said here can be considered new.   Putting some ideas and sources in one place in an abbreviated and hopefully not too misleading way will allow the reader to explore questions that probably would have gone unasked and unanswered without some initial exploration here.  I cannot hope to fully explore many of the ideas here, and for some, that will be a flaw.  As I write, I encounter more and more fascinating sources of information, and remember that one writer’s fluff is another’s metier.  This is an odd book, not academic (though I hope accurate) and not recent history (although I hope useful).    I hope the book is a teaser, for more investigation.

There is no discussion about Chinese art, in any of its wonderful forms.  Or food.  Nor is there much direct discussion of Confucianism, or Taoism or Buddhism.   I have chosen to talk about things that seem to be more basic to understanding of our similarities and differences.

So, one can think, America used to be that way.  I wish America could do that.  I sure am glad we don’t do that.  Why can’t we do that, and why can’t they do this?  The distant mirror will tell us about ourselves, good and bad, and help us understand our new global neighbor.  Look at the newspaper stories about China, going back to about 1999.  Back then, there might have been a story a week about China.  Quickly, though, the pace changed.  By 2002, or 2003, there was a story a day, though still not on the front page.  By 2005 or 2006, China was front page news every day.  I told my Chinese government friends that America discovered China about 1999.  They told me that there were stories about the US in China long before that.

In 2003, we hosted the first cohort of Chinese government officials at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.  This was a group of midlevel government managers from two provinces, Zhejiang, adjacent to Shanghai, and Liaoning, adjacent to North Korea.   They stayed for a year, taking courses in public administration, management, real estate and evaluation.

Over a span of more than ten years, the school hosted more than fifteen hundred government officials, from just about every department of government and bureau of CCP – lots of vice-directors of departments in foreign affairs, technology development zones, district and county transportation departments, water departments, university deans, urban planning departments, the organization department zu zhi bu, the propaganda bureau xuanchuanbu, the development and reform commission, the discipline inspection bureau jiwei, police departments, finance bureaus, radio, TV, and film stations, medical doctors, lawyers, chambers of commerce, and overseas Chinese affairs.  Our students – some of whom already had master’s degrees, a few with PhDs and a few lawyers and medical doctors, were smart, hard working and attentive people, in class and out, and in the US and back at home.  I was honored to become the student when I lived in their homes in China and became part of their lives at work and recreation.

In 2009 I went to Hangzhou to teach economics and urban planning to university undergraduates at Zhejiang University of Science and Technology.  Over a span of eight years, I taught more than 1500 Chinese and foreign students, and became acquainted with students from what seemed like every country where China was doing deals for minerals, oil, farmland, infrastructure construction or real estate –  Zambia, Congo, Ethiopia, Yemen, Kazakhstan, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Myanmar and Pakistan.  Romania and Syria.  A couple students from India and quite a few short term students from Germany. A few from France and Spain.  Not one American, or Japanese.  A few Russians.   Going to university in China, learning about China and Chinese on scholarship, was part of Chinese soft power in every case.

Extended over a period of 15 years, this was a wild ride for me.  The Central Ministry of Education told us – before Xi Jinping – that the goal was to have government officials return to China and be able to think differently.  I think we accomplished that.  For my students in Hangzhou, the goal was to get them to think outside the Chinese box and see past the simple “positive energy” of Chinese development that was all around us.  I think that was accomplished as well.  In return, I received an education of inestimable value.

Some have asked me for the elevator ride pitch for this book.  Elizabeth Perry, head of the Harvard-Yenqing Institute at Harvard, tells us that culture is responsible for more about growth and change than we usually think.   In looking around the world, in the US, in Europe, in Africa, in China, we see that politics often trumps economics.  I see no reason to quarrel with either sentiment, and I hope to provide examples throughout the book.   This is about culture, and about politics, and how they combine to produce what I can see of Chineseness.

Many of my Chinese government friends are as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as any New Yorker might want to be.  Many of the officials have family and friends in the US and elsewhere in the world, and a year stay in Chicago was just one more stop in a career path.  Back home, they live upper middle class American lives – home, cars, moving to a different district for a better school for the (one) kid, movies and dinners out and shopping at the mall. For some, the perks of CCP or government employment (back then, before Xi Jinping) could be substantial. For these, their lives looked like those of corporate C-suite denizens, but under a lot more pressure.  Drivers and frequent trips abroad and pressure.  And yet … and yet.  They retain something a little different, a bit of being Chinese, that makes their thinking intriguing and their perspective refreshing. It is progressive and conservative, attentive and a little aggressive, respectful of family and a little mercantile.  In China, I could see the American past and future. The Gilded Age and Hobbesian taking advantage, and better cell phones and internet technology than we had in America.  And socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.   How to describe that?

This is what I came up with.

My dad was a budding journalist whose career was cut short by the Depression and then the war.  He spent the war in England, but his brother in law was in India, helping the Flying Tigers get over the hump to China.  My dad used to hum the 1940s tune, Far Away Places (written by Joan Whitney and Alex Kramer) –

“Going to China, or maybe Siam.

Far, away over the sea …

Those far away places with the strange sounding names
Are calling, calling me.”

 

I hope he can read this.