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Everything we know about China is wrong
Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry
"Everything that you think you know about China is wrong."
In March 2001, I wrote this statement as the opening line of a report for my colleagues when I returned from my first trips to Beijing and Shanghai.
Seven years later, and particularly in the light of Tibet, earthquakes, the Olympics—and a spate of new books, both fiction and non-fiction—the amount of available information about contemporary China has increased substantially.
Yet, the statement still holds.
That's because China is a moving target. And therein lie both the intrigue and the charm of the place.
Seen over the long haul, many years from now, what will a meager 200 years of rest mean…now that China is awake?
In terms of Chinese scholarship, I am not even smart enough to be a dilettante. I am not an informed student of Chinese Studies, History or Culture; I am a professor of chemistry who is involved in academic collaborations with some chemistry professors at Peking University, in Beijing. Over a dozen or so trips, I have also had the opportunity to visit a number of places outside Beijing: Shanghai, Xi'an, Nanjing, Wuhan, Hefei, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guilin… If my ability to speak Mandarin improved substantially it would be merely pathetic, at best. Still, I am an enthusiastic global citizen who is, well, intrigued and charmed by the place; and I admittedly pay attention when tour guides do their thing, which usually inspires me to learn more.
In writing "everything that you know is wrong," I was searching for a way to say that many of my stereotypes about China needed to be thrown into the heap after that first trip.
As American scientists, my colleagues and I have been accustomed to thinking of the United States as the destination for scientific training for the past 60 years. The caricature of science in China is what we disparagingly call doing "turn the crank" experiments: no invention, perhaps not even a strong sense for the fundamental theory behind the buttons being pushed on the equipment, and the generation of experimental data without a strong critical sense to sort out the wheat from the chaff. In fact, this was neither universal nor the norm. Placed in the context of history, the progress made by Chinese science was spectacular. Especially when you consider that it effectively did not exist from 1949-1980, a time during which Western science grew enormously. In twenty years' time, 1980-2000, much of science had rebooted to levels that were in places only about a decade behind us, and in other places right up to date. In the past eight years, this gap has narrowed.
Politically and socially, I was not prepared for the openness I found. As an elementary school kid in the 1960s, I learned how to crouch under my desk to protect myself from the fallout from Commie bombs. I think I still had lingering impressions of what life in a Communist State would look and sound like. I had lots of frank questions for my hosts and guides, and the candid answers surprised me. I recall being particularly curious about the one-child policy, and the endless array of exceptions to it. The provision that mixed marriages were excluded, for example, seemed at least consistent with the obvious number of young Chinese girls on the arms of Western boys.
Many contrasts were stark. Histories that are written by the victor usually recast what they can in their favor and then eliminate the rest. For recent history, this seemed quite true: wikipedia still cannot be accessed regularly, and internet searches on the word "Tiananmen" still, in one or two hits, result in blocks flying up. On the other hand, Deng Xiaoping's popular assertion that Mao's rule was "7 parts good and 3 parts bad" well characterizes to me the way the Chinese people are able to embrace so strongly some parts of history while not needing to accept the whole. University students still take a required course in Mao's thoughts, and the Chairman's three-story portrait still looks down onto Tiananmen Square from the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
In contrast, I was surprised to see such a strong and relatively positive memorial to Chiang Kai-shek at the Hua Qing Hot Spring, the main site of the Xi'an Incident, which ultimately led to the truce between the Nationalists and the Communists during the second Sino-Japanese War. In the city of Chongqing, you can find an enthusiastic memorial to WWII U.S. General Joseph Stilwell, who served as the commander of the China Burma India Theater. It is clear from the English-inscribed photographs on the wall that there was a relatively warm relationship between the U.S. and Mao's communists, while it is equally true that Stilwell took all sorts of political heat from the Roosevelt administration by openly reporting and criticizing Chiang's corruption involving the Lend-Lease aid program in China.
Contrasts were everywhere. Along many main roads in Beijing, the trappings of steel, concrete and glass towered over familiar storefronts: Starbucks, Häagan-Dazs, Pizza Hut, and KFC. Along the road and in the stores, the signs were all bilingual, and ordering a "decaf venti non-fat latte" for 28 RMB (about the same 3 dollars as in the US) was no problem. Yet, often only half a block away, I could have an entire steamer of pork baozi for 3 RMB by pointing to a picture on a menu. Despite this highly compressed spectrum of significantly different standards of living, there was no sense whatsoever of class envy, only a sense of a rising tide that was floating all of the boats.
Is China a utopia? Of course not. Can individuals own land? No. Is there repression? Yes. Are there general human rights violations? Yes. Is every individual open? No. Is there a net export of baby girls to Western adoption? Yes. Is every scientist an independent thinker? No. Is change happening? Absolutely. In other words: no matter where you look in the world, you find problems, and change does not happen overnight. On the other hand, less than 100 years ago, China ended an uninterrupted 2200-year history of Imperial Rule. Everything I think I know about China is wrong because it is fundamentally impossible to keep up with this kind of change.
Recently, historians have begun to remind us that an unbroken chain of Chinese civilization ruled the world for thousands of years, as transient cultures in the West rose and fell. In its relative isolation, China missed the hundred years of industrial and economic development of nineteenth century Western Europe, then again when the United States moved to the center during the twentieth century. Seen over the long haul, many years from now, what will a meager 200 years of rest mean…now that China is awake?
It is still nearly impossible for me to understand the sense of scale that exists in China, in everything from population to history. But a few sobering anecdotes stand out. As I see consumerism increase in China, patterned deliberately after the standards of perceived success the U.S., the oft-quoted statistics come to mind: the United States, which comprises 5% of the global population, consumes 25% of the global resources. China is home for 25% of the global population, some fraction of which aspire to the U.S. standard. Do the math.
In fact, in 2001, one of my hosts gave me a math lesson I will never forget: "Remember, this is China, if you are one in million…" he paused, "there are 1300 of you."
Brian P. Coppola is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Michigan. He contributes to Michigan Today's Talking About Science column, and he co-directs a bilateral undergraduate research exchange program in chemistry between the University of Michigan and Peking University.