What has transpired in China over its 5,000 year history is amazing. The last thirty years have been both remarkable and universally acknowledged.
There once was a time when what happened in China had minimal impact on our lives. Those days are gone. What now happens in China no longer just stays in China. We not only feel the ripple effects; the tsunami wave of change will continue to wash upon our shores as the 21st century unfolds. How we adapt to and lead the changes that are coming will define our state and nation.
As large and powerful as is China, few in Michigan or America know much about the country -- its history, customs, geography, language, politics or people. This needs to change.
China punctured America's consciousness in many ways this past year – with the spellbinding Olympics, riots in Tibet, a devastating earthquake, poison in milk and toothpaste and lead in toys. The year 2009 is likely to be a year that China will make many more people, both within and without China, stand up and take notice.
The coming months are pitted with politically sensitive anniversaries that will focus China's and, depending on how their Communist leaders bent on quelling any dissent respond, the world's attention on the "Middle Kingdom."
In 1963, a great fourth grade teacher opened my eyes to China.
Why China? Looking back, I believe it was the juxtaposition of the "ideal" of what I was being taught about what America stood for against the reality I saw through my ten-year old eyes while growing up in our nation’s capitol with segregation and poverty abounding. That, along with the Chinese propaganda that espoused total equality of all in China, created in me a life-long fascination with the country.
At 10 years of age my developing mind wondered if China's ideals were any more or less real than the hate and inequality I witnessed between black and poor people in my small piece of geography between my grandma's house, a stone's throw from the nation’s capitol, and our working-class Maryland home. I have had my eyes on China ever since.
I am far from a China expert, or "Old China Hand." However, I love the Chinese culture and people and have read and traveled in China enough to know more than the average Westerner. My hope is we can build on what China's President Hu Jintao calls a "harmonious" relationship with China while staying true to our ideals as a nation. This will become increasing more difficult, as China is the largest holder of America's debt and holds $1.9 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.
Changing the course of the world
With a 5,000 year history, China is a kaleidoscope of complexity and change. Many people remember learning about China as a backward, communist county, with our parents imploring us to "eat your peas -- kids are starving in China." That was before China simultaneously modernized and opened to the world. Today, some would argue China is eating our lunch.
In December 2008, China marked the 30th anniversary of its opening to the world, something that transformed them into a global economic superpower. Today, thirty years after China's preeminent and ruthless leader Deng Xiaoping opened China, the nation has evolved into one of the world's largest trading partners and economies. In essence, China compressed hundreds of years of the Industrial Revolution, which they seemingly missed, into a few decades. At the same time they also fast-forwarded all the problems (pollution, social justice, and inequality) these seismic economic and political shifts bring as well.
By changing China’s course, Deng Xiaoping also changed the course of the world. Deng believed the criteria for success was determined by common sense and flexibility rather than by following Mao Tse-tung’s rigid political ideology. Deng and the Communist Party knew the old ways were failing the people and, without the support of the people, the Party could topple. Prosperity was the ticket to staying in power. In explaining this shift in thought Deng would utter, "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mice."
By moving away from Mao's ideological straitjacket and into the world of industrial growth and international trade, Deng began the process that has lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation in the world. At the same time, he is also the one that ordered the People's Liberation Army to crush the people/students in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Today we are living through disruptive, transformational, unpredictable, technologically-driven global change. China and the United States are major players. Some argue the 20th century belonged to America and the 21st century will ultimately be led by China. I do not know if their arguments will withstand the test of time. However, I do know that our destinies are linked and we must find ways to live, work and solve problems together or we will surely fall together.
There are many major milestones in the evolution of a modern, revolutionary China. Perhaps none is more significant than October 1, 2009. That date will mark the 60th anniversary of Mao Tse-tung proclaiming, at the gates of Tiananmen the founding of the People's Republic of China. With the takeover by the Communist party, it took decades before there was a thaw in relations between America and China.
China and the U.S. established formal diplomatic relations thirty years ago that ushered in a new era of exchange and cooperation. After many years of strained relations and the breakthrough of Nixon’s "ping pong diplomacy," the United States of America and the People's Republic of China agreed to establish diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979. The U.S. government acknowledged the Chinese position that there is but one China, with Taiwan a part of China. Both governments believed that Sino-American relations were not only in the interest of the Chinese and American people, but also to the cause of peace around the world.
Michigan's own Leonard Woodcock, former President of the UAW, was named by President Carter in 1977 to be chief liaison to China. Two years later, on March 1, 1979, Woodcock became the first ambassador to Communist China.
China has a very diverse ethnic population with over 55 distinct minority groups. Not all the ethnic groups believe they are part of “one China.” This is particularly true in Tibet. March 10, 2009, is the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising that prompted the Dalai Lama to flee to India in 1959. Last March, Tibetan anger exploded and spread to other cities with large Tibetan populations. While the protests were quelled, the anger and resentment toward what the Tibetan people call "Tibetan Genocide" has not subsided and could explode again.
If China responds with force, Western media and politicians will likely react negatively, resulting in the Chinese viewing them as "interfering with their internal affairs." The Chinese reaction to Western behavior could spark, if not egg-on, an anti-West, nationalist uprising among the Chinese people.
Another anniversary, June 4, 2009, marks the day when, twenty years ago, the People’s Liberation Army turned on the Chinese people. I stood with the students in Tiananmen Square in May, 1989 during the last major act of civilian defiance of communist rule as they demanded greater freedom, democracy and an end to corruption.
On June 4, 1989, "The People's Army" snuffed out the protest and hundreds, if not thousands, of lives -- and hope for change -- were postponed or eliminated. In the Square, in 1989, a student asked me to "describe democracy, describe freedom;" perhaps he never lived to have that question answered firsthand.
Deng Xiaoping and a majority of the Chinese leadership made it clear that day that certain freedoms to "grow rich" would be encouraged but political freedom – the freedom from total party control -- would not be tolerated and would be forcibly suppressed. Perhaps it is to be expected that a country struggling to overcome the horrors of Mao's reign, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, would be convulsive as it transforms itself -- but it should not repulsive and repressive.
The anniversary of Tiananmen Square will not be the Chinese equivalent to a Hallmark holiday of celebration. The Communist leaders will do everything in their powers to assure this day passes without dissent as their greatest fear is losing control.
Nor will Chinese officials acknowledge the horror of May 12, 2008, when a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan Province. According to Chinese government officials, the 8.0 magnitude earthquake left more than 88,000 dead or missing. More than 10,000 children were crushed and killed as some 14,000 schools in 159 counties either collapsed or were severely damaged. Grieving parents have filed a lawsuit against the municipal government, school officials and the companies that constructed the schools.
Will the Chinese government suppress the rights of the people for a comprehensive investigation into why many other government structures stood while schools collapsed, punish those responsible, and adequately address the demands of grieving parents? The people of China and the world will be watching for transparency, the rule of law and fairness in how this tragedy is ultimately addressed. It will say a great deal about how far China has come since opening up to the world.
Another date that few from the West will recognize, but will be recognized by the reported 70 million Falun Gong in mainland China and an estimated 100 million members worldwide, is July 20, 1999. Following seven years of rapid growth, the spiritual discipline of Falun Gong, often described as a quasi-Buddhist sect, was banned on this date by the Chinese government.
Falun Gong practitioners, sympathizers and Human Rights activists have reported systematic abuses of Falun Gong followers. The alleged abuses have included false imprisonment in psychiatric facilities and prisons, torture, forced labor and, perhaps the most egregious, alleged systematic organ harvesting from living practitioners.
The Falun Gong believe the Chinese Communist Party wants total control over all Chinese society and is threatened by any group that is capable of independent thought and action. It is anticipated that the Falun Gong followers will continue their secret practice of their faith and attempt to draw attention to their cause and persecution.
Trading economic growth for less freedom
Since Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world, the Chinese have experienced an average annual economic growth rate of nearly ten percent for the past three decades. China, by attracting nearly one trillion U.S. dollars in direct foreign investment, is the third biggest player in international trade. It is the largest holder of U.S. debt in the world. Over the past 30 years, while the U.S. has been borrowing and spending, China has been expanding and saving..
The 2008 Beijing Olympics helped China celebrate its 21st century coming out party and burst into the world's consciousness. The Olympic theme, "One World-One Dream," will be put to the test as we collectively address the world's growing problems.
I have traveled throughout China numerous times since 1989, to cities many have heard of such as Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Lasha, Tibet, and others less familiar such as Beichuan, Bengbu, Changchun, Mianyang, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Turpan, Urumqi, and Wuhan. During my travels I have seen the ultramodern as well as scenes that would take you back centuries.
Despite the economic success story that is unparalleled in world history, China remains a developing nation. It has rampant air and water pollution, income inequity, a rapidly aging population and religious and minority repression (especially the Falun Gong and the Tibetan and Uyghur people). These issues pose major enviromental and social challenges to its continued long-term harmonious development.
It is reported that China has boosted more than 300 million people out of abject poverty during the period following the 10-year Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Despite all the progress, China's per capita income remains well below the world average and far behind the income levels of many developed countries.
Perhaps at no time since the demonstrations in Tianamen Square nearly twenty years ago are the people ripe for demanding their government become more responsive to the needs of ordinary Chinese citizens. It is reported that there is growing social unrest as the world economy slows down and thousands of Chinese factories close and shed workers.
China's economy, along with the world's, is faltering. The China Daily, the Communist party's largest English newspaper, recently reported that 7,000 companies in the Pearl River area of southern China have gone bust or moved elsewhere in the first nine months of 2008, throwing hundreds of thousands of migrants out of work. As Americans stop spending and consuming and the world economy stumbles, many of China's "factories of the world" have gone bust.
China's three decades of growth, opening up to the west, official corruption, and now the economic decline that is exacerbating social instablity, have made Chinese leaders vulnerable to demands by the people for internal political and social change. Chinese leaders have demonstrated they are more than willing to stoke nationalist fever, usually against the U.S., Japan or Taiwan, as a means to divert attention from internal problems to help maintain political control. As we have seen in the past, they have also been willing to use brute force against their own people towards this end as well.
Chinese history is rife with citizens becoming more open and brazen in their demand for change, only to feel the heavy hand of the Chinese government crack down on those bold enough to speak out.
Recently, more than 300 Chinese activists have signed a manifesto, "Charter 08,” demanding greater political freedoms. Charter 08 takes a harsh swipe at the ruling Communist Party for "disastrous denigration of freedom, equality and human rights." that impact the Charter 08 will have on the Chinese government, and how the government reacts to its supporters, remains to be seen. Will the government address the concerns or will it use traditional tactics and means to suppress its citizens to keep total control?
All politics are local
L. Brooks Patterson and Robert Ficano, the county executives from Oakland and Wayne counties respectively, have been visionary leaders when it comes to China.
They both have concluded that they could sit back and complain about the "China problem," "currency manipulation" and "unfair trade practices" or, instead, find ways to make the China wave work for Michigan families.
Patterson has pushed Chinese investment in Oakland County and the teaching of Chinese in all Oakland Schools.
Ficano has established trade offices in China and recruited Chinese businesses to locate, appropriately, in Canton Township, Michigan.
Their respective vision and leadership has been beneficial in opening more eyes to the potential opportunities with China.
Both executives have set out to build the necessary "guanxi," or social capital and relationships, critical in China for long-term success.
They understand the old Chinese sayings that the longest journey begins with a single step and society grows great when people plant trees whose shade they will never sit under. Their efforts are beginning to pay off and will be economic magnets for Chinese investment in our communities in the future.
Into the future
What is missing here at home is a statewide, comprehensive, global strategy to benefit from China's rise. It is absurd that we are nearly a decade into the 21st century and no statewide elected leader has been to China to develop the relationships, "guanxi," necessary to cultivate investment and jobs for our citizens. This error should be corrected -- soon.
WWJ-TV, under the direction of Detroit Free Press Columist and Editorial Director at WWJTV/ CW 50, Carol Cain, produced an Emmy Award winning documentary "Building Bridges -- From the Great Lakes To The Great Wall" as part of the station's "Eye On The Future" series. This two-hour documentary should be required viewing for all who are serious about thriving in this global economy. (See the documentary at www.wwjtv.com, click on the "community" tab, and click to watch this stunning film).
Writing about China typically generates a visceral response from readers on both sides of the world.
Some of my Chinese colleagues feel I should not point out the blemishes in China and are quick to highlight U.S. flaws (many with which I concur) in defense of their country. Many Americans, on the other hand, have been conditioned to believe China is the root of all evil and a significant factor in what ails our country and believe we should put trade shield around the U.S. to keep out the Chinese.
Given the economic anxiety gripping our state and country, there is a growing trend to become more isolationist, xenophobic, and protectionist. While good for political pandering, history has demonstrated these moves hurt the American consumer and will prolong and worsen the global economic downturn.
Our national leaders should pursue not only free trade, but also fair trade. It is unfortunate when large-scale economic change gets dragged into political gamesmanship to garner votes at the expense of real solutions. The tendency to spend time casting blame, seeking a scapegoat or bogeyman would be better spent searching for solutions that benefit American families and communities.
Corssing the river by feeling for stones
The past 30 years in China have been like a roller-coaster on steroids. I suspect the next 30y will be like a bumper car ride during an earthquake.
Together, the U.S. and China should follow the cautionary approach embodied in Deng Xiaoping's phrase, "Mozhe shitou guo he" or "Crossing the river by feeling for stones."
My hope is we will continue to build the educational, economic, scientific, governmental, and people-to-people bridges between the U.S. and China that will enhance the friendship and trust that is necessary for our two countries to prosper. An unstable China, makes for an unstable world. We need to keep in mind our destinies are inextricably linked and that how we manage the upcoming issues, tensions and problems will impact not only our children, but all of humanity.
There is a reputed Chinese curse which says, “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, cursed or not, we live in interesting times...and they will become more interesting in the months and years ahead.
Let's move forward with our eyes wide open, building bridges between two great nations with the clear understanding that digging moats or building Great Walls have never been a successful long term strategy.
Tom Watkins is a freelance writer who has written extensively about China. He is an education and business consultant in the U.S. and China who was Michigan's superintendent of schools from 2001-05 and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Fla. from 1996-2001. He can be reached at: email@example.com.