The University must adapt to China’s rise

By Dan Michaeli

“Remember this year’s protests against Japan? China will go to war with Japan within the next two decades,” a young Chinese graphic designer told me confidently over dinner in Beijing this summer. “China is rising—and soon we will become as powerful as the United States.” This comment provoked a great deal of discussion and disagreement among that evening’s guests; whether China’s rise will be peaceful remains a hotly disputed topic not only in the United States but in China as well. Yet no one at the table even thought to dispute China’s status as a rising power.

Indeed, few would question that China has become a formidable economic power and that its foreign policy is becoming increasingly strategic and comprehensive. China, which recently surpassed the U.S. as the largest exporter of technology goods, has become so successful at its diplomatic efforts that it nearly convinced the European Union to lift an arms ban imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Foreign leaders from countries as diverse as Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom are jostling for photo ops with China’s president, Hu Jintao, who will be visiting the United States this month. Much has changed in the post-Mao years.

Many Americans have finally begun to pay attention to China. Unfortunately, this is often done for the wrong reasons. The news media and many politicians portray China as a country “stealing the jobs of hard-working Americans” to finance a growing military power that threatens the United States. In fact, Americans benefit from China’s economic rise and the “outsourcing” of jobs to China and India. According to Morgan Stanley, low-cost Chinese imports saved consumers in the United States approximately $100 billion since China’s reforms began in 1978. Furthermore, studies show that with adequate training, substantial room still exists for the creation of new American jobs.

China’s growing military is indeed a serious concern. But as Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill explains, “we can ill afford not to move toward expanding common interests” with China; failing to engage with China will encourage the country to circumvent the international system instead of working with it. Regardless of political ideology, one thing is crystal clear: We cannot afford to ignore China.

Some University of Chicago students are beginning to develop curiosity about China, but many are still disregarding it. Chinese language class enrollments have increased each year for the past five years, with nearly 80 students beginning the first-year Mandarin Chinese sequence this year despite the fact that beginning Chinese classes meet five days a week at 8:30 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. Some 1.3 billion people speak Mandarin Chinese while 800 million speak English, natively or not. Learning the Chinese language will be a great advantage—or even a requirement—for students interested in countless fields from international business to international relations and journalism.

The College is finally beginning a “Civ. in Beijing” study-abroad program this autumn. It was entirely filled by students who had requested it as their first choice among the University’s 11 civilization studies programs. This makes sense; I gained a far richer experience in terms of my understanding of China while studying and backpacking there this summer than I could possibly have encountered in the classroom. To even begin to understand Chinese civilization or to appreciate the challenges facing Chinese society, listening to media reports about maneuvering U.S. politicians is clearly insufficient. We should encourage the University administration to do more to build up our China programs both here and in China.

It is critical for the next generation of Americans to seek to understand China because its future and America’s are interdependent. The news media has made us well aware that the United States imported some $243 billion in Chinese goods last year and that China owns over $260 billion of the U.S. national debt. Any substantial change within China, for whatever reason, will be sure to have profound consequences for the American economy. My advice: At Chicago Society’s upcoming conference on China, listen closely to Hill and the Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations, Wang Guangya, when they speak about their views on China’s future. Inundate the Chinese language program with requests for additional faculty and greater resources. And most important of all, take serious notice of the emerging superpower on the other side of the world. China is rising.