NEWS

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May 2, 2006

Experts gather at I-House to discuss China’s role in world

Academics, politicians, diplomats, and businesspeople from across China and the United States convened at I-House this weekend for a Chicago Society conference entitled “China and the Future of the World.”

The two-day event drew hundreds of attendees to hear speakers and panelists discuss the impact of a China that is steadily rising in the modern world.

The conference, which garnered attention from both American and Chinese media and governments, addressed Chinese economic growth, domestic politics, foreign relations with the U.S., and military and international security implications.

The conference began with a panel discussion on the response of U.S. business and government leaders to China’s growing role in the world.

Representative Mark Kirk (R-IL) tackled the frequent misunderstandings and misgivings of the China–U.S. relationship. Warning against American “cultural arrogance,” Kirk urged a greater understanding and exchange with China, especially in Chinese language education.

Kirk particularly emphasized cooperation and dialogue to bring China into the world system and ensure its peaceful rise. “A poor and isolated China is a dangerous China,” he said.

Tony Lorusso, director of the Minnesota Trade Office, discussed the state’s developing relationship with China.

“There are tremendous opportunities for American manufacturers to export to China should we choose to pursue them,” he said.

Theodore Schaffner, senior vice president of corporate development at Motorola, said he “noticed a change over time” in China’s attitudes toward foreign companies. Previously, the Chinese government was afraid domestic companies would not be prepared to compete and also fearful of a new form of colonialism. Their “fears have been proven false,” he said.

In a panel discussing globalization and the economics of China’s current growth, Zhang Jun of Fudan University opened with an analysis of the factors behind China’s boom. Comparing China’s growth with that of India, Zhang explained that China’s centralized control allows for consolidation of resources and makes it “unusually trade-dependent.”

Theodore Fishman, author of China, Inc., also discussed China’s political change. In China, “ideology is substituted with nationalism,” Fishman said.

Characterizing China’s development as “the development of the world,” Fishman said that China-related job loss in the U.S. may be balanced by new job development elsewhere in America.

Merle Goldman, a history professor at Boston University, discussed the impact of China’s past on its present situation. She noted that the Chinese economic revitalization was the product of an entrepreneurial tradition and the creation of a “literate, healthy population…ready to respond” to reforms. The resulting middle class and historical focus on education offer the prospect of an eventual transition to democracy.

“As China becomes more educated…we will begin to see major political changes,” Goldman said.

Following her speech, panelists addressed some of the critical issues facing modern China. Lei Guang of San Diego State University said that growing rural inequality has become one of the most pressing and difficult issues for government leaders.

Professor Wang Hui of Tsinghua University discussed the current intellectual climate in China. He noted that although media freedoms have been suppressed, academic critiques of the government have been permitted and often incorporated into public policy.

“We need to imagine some new categories for the democratized process,” Hui said.

Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, gave a speech on the growing amount of cooperation and partnership between the United States and China.

The U.S. is “increasingly looking to Asia and the Pacific,” he said, pointing to a common interest in ending North Korean nuclear proliferation. Though he noted the many common interests and responsibilities between the U.S. and China, Hill urged Chinese leaders to increase domestic freedoms.

“If there is no democracy,” then China’s modernization will not be complete, Hill said.

Wang Guangya, Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, also addressed China’s growing prominence and the hope for U.S.–China cooperation. He echoed Hill’s sentiments on China’s compatibility with the U.S. He emphasized China’s growing openness and the certainty of its peaceful intentions.

“Peace will make winners of us all,” while “conflict will make all of us losers,” he said.

Still, Wang noted that although China will “do its utmost” to ensure peaceful development, China’s rise will have an impact on the current international configuration. Even the best relationships have disagreements, he said.

Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of defense, spoke on the implications of China’s rise in international security. He pointed to increased cooperation between the American and Chinese militaries, noting, “China can be a contributor to international stability.”

However, he said the current Chinese military buildup and lack of transparency disturbs the U.S. government.

Strategically, American interests lie in preserving the status quo, and the U.S. opposes any efforts by a growing China to alter the present situation, particularly concerning Taiwan.

“We must be realistic,” Rodman said. “We hope for a good outcome, but we hedge against other possibilities.”

In the panel discussion that followed, U of C political science professor John Mearsheimer drew audience reaction by arguing that a U.S.–China war is very likely in the next quarter century. As a result of the desire for regional power and security, “China cannot rise peacefully,” he said.

Wu Jianmin, a former Chinese ambassador, disagreed. He pointed to the extensive economic relationships between the two countries that create a need for stable collaboration.

“The Chinese are not stupid [enough] to shoot themselves in the foot,” he said.

Former U.S. ambassador to China James Lilley took the middle road. “It’s been rocky,” he said, characterizing the U.S.–China relationship. Still, he saw the gains from international business as the key to peace and a positive future.

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” Lilley said.

Those interested in transcripts of the event can find them at http://chicagosociety.uchicago.edu/china/coverage.htm.