22 months ago, China was still an anomaly to me. As I packed my bags in preparation to spend four months in Beijing, my mom read articles with ominous titles about China, such as “Beijing’s air pollution: Blackest day” (The Economist, January 14th, 2013) and “China’s Toxic Sky” (The Atlantic, January 30th, 2013), to me. With pollution at a record high, so were my nerves; but, I set off to China nonetheless and found myself welcomed by dark skies—not full of hazardous gases, as the media portrayed—but rather, full of fireworks and sounds of the New Year. The following four months, I explored Beijing from north to south and east to west; practiced Chinese and Spanish; worked in a Chinese state-owned enterprise and volunteered with an American founded non-profit; ate food from Xinjiang and Côte d'Ivoire; had drinks in Sanlituan and Nanlouguxiang; watched Transformers and 中国合伙人 (American Dreams in China); bought clothes at the silk market and Walmart; and made friends with people from China, America, and all over the world. My first taste of China was as mesmerizing and addicting as the foods that they show on 舌尖上的中国 (Taste of China). At the age of 21, my exploration of China in the 21st century began.
Some may find it strange that the next stop in my exploration of 21st century China was Nairobi, Kenya; however, it was there that I discovered China’s international scope and impact. One day, I was walking with a team of youth volunteers through a market place on the edge of Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. There were hundreds of stalls in rows occupying a space the size of a football field, and in nearly every other stall, I glimpsed the edge of garment bags or discarded boxes, upon which “Made in China” was written in bold Chinese characters. “What that say?... and that?,” the middle school and high school students would ask… They too were mesmerized by the prevalence of Chinese influence in a place that was so different from China. Even out in the city, gates enclosing construction areas proclaimed the names of different Chinese companies in Chinese characters. Kenya was my first glimpse of how Africa—what had always been portrayed as the land of zebras, lions, and elephants—was now home to an increasing population of Chinese entrepreneurs and workers.
This summer in Guangzhou, I realized that the China-Africa relationship was far from unilateral. In fact, anytime of day, I could board the train to Xiaobeilu and step out of the station on to—what appeared to be—a busy street back in Nairobi. Street vendors from all over the continent of Africa sold clothes, jewelry, shoes, electronics and electronic accessories, and food. Alongside them were migrants from northwestern China, selling bread and handcrafted goods. In Guangzhou, like in Nairobi, I was mesmerized by how large of a community African immigrants had established in China. Instead of Chinese, it was the sound of French or English that filled the air. Women walked around adorned in their traditional headdresses and skirts, bearing children on their back—the only thing different about them here than those in Africa was the location. I found myself pulled toward this community, interviewing them about why they were in China. The one word that rung out frequently in those conversations was “opportunity”. Global commerce and trade occurred each day along the streets and in the shops of Xiaobeilu, and with it, new opportunities for international exchange were realized and produced.
During the past twenty-two months, my short life and the long history of one of the world’s most powerful nations have intertwined. In the end, I have realized that nation states and humans, alike, are influenced and moved by the tides of the same season—the 21st century—a time of change, growth, exchange, and opportunity.
Omega studies Human and Organizational Development and Asian Studies (Chinese Concentration) as a senior at Vanderbilt.
I am what many consider a third culture kid, having been born in Hong Kong, brought up in New Zealand for 15 years and currently living in Shanghai. Being exposed to vastly different cultures, customs and practices has led me to feel that I do not truly belong with any one cultural identity. Yet, when Occupy Central took off in September last year, I felt an unusually powerful connection with the movement, and when my friends asked me what I thought about how Occupy Central was unfolding in Hong Kong, I could not help but feel a passionate sense of responsibility to making them aware of the political objectives as something more than a simple, all-for-democracy, rights-for-everyone movement. I am continually surprised at the faces that turn pale and aghast when I mention that in the context of Hong Kong, I am not always a supporter of democracy. A common response is “You’re a communist!”, after which no more constructive debate or intellectual conversation could be had. I would then attempt, with little or no success, to argue that communism is not necessarily the polar opposite of democracy. My primary argument as I have realised through discussing this issue with many people is not an issue of democracy, but an issue of practicality. Beijing has many reasons not to cave in to the voices of Hong Kong people, especially now that Occupy Central has placed even greater pressure on Beijing diplomatically. One of these reasons is largely historical, and often this reason does not receive enough weighting and credibility. People cannot talk about China in the context of politcial freedom without talking about the idea of revolution and dynasty. With the millions of people that have perished in its long two-millenial history and with rebellions still fresh in the minds of the Chinese – the Taiping Rebellion, Nanjing Massacre and of course the Tiananmen Massacre, a characteristic that has slowly weaved into Chinese culture is stability, even if it compromises the self-efficacy of the individual. Combine that with a precarious party reputation and discontent in small regions such as Xinjiang, the Communist Party treads a fine line with maintaining that sense of stability. Hence, the demands for democratic nomination and election procedures is very unlikely to be met. My uncle would argue very strongly in favour for the Occupy movement, his argument being that if dialogue does not work to move the government to reconsider, Hong Kong must find other methods to do so. I support democratic elections in the long run for Hong Kong, but only knowing that right now, the political situation is not as simple as a communist superpower devouring a liberal metropolitan power-house. While we may have little idea of what to do in the short term about Hong Kong, we definitely should not approach the issue without considering historical and cultural reasons why China may not budge on Hong Kong and without putting aside the inclination to dismiss the situation being one-sided and dominated by a power-hungry communist party.
Henry is a biomedical engineering major at the Pratt School of Engineering.
Living in a world that is becoming more and more globalized, with English seemingly deemed as the “Global Language”, many Americans think it unnecessary to study any foreign language. But when the likeliness of working with a Chinese partner in some aspect of one’s future career increases daily, the best tool one can have is cultural competency: the ability to adapt in any variety of situations, which people can only truly learn by living in a foreign country. It is evident that each culture has its distinctions, its language, its food, its lifestyles, and motivations. These nuances are impossible to learn out of a textbook, and nowadays, the most lucrative experiences future generations can have is a few months of pure cultural immersion.
Many aspects of a culture can only be understood through the language, and Mandarin is a prime example. From a culture that has over 5,000 years of history, each character, or Hanzi, is inscribed with full symbolic meaning. With even just a rudimentary understanding of Mandarin and Hanzi a cross-cultural relationship becomes much more meaningful. Think, for a moment, how Americans react to a foreigner who stumbles over their English pronunciation (how on earth do you pronounce “enough”?), garbles their tenses, and rolls their “L’s”? Quite often with impatience, and once in a while an under-the-breath “Go back to where you came from.” Yet, within reversed roles, if an American was struggling with Mandarin (or almost any foreign language), forgetting the necessary tones (pronounce “bi” with a flat first tone instead of an undulating third tone and you’ve got the difference between “pen” and “extremely-vulgar-word-for-vagina”), Americanizing the grammar, or disregarding all lessons on proper pronunciation, and they immediately have five or six Chinese surrounding them, praising how well they speak Chinese. What is wrong with this picture? Within the self-proclaimed “melting pot” of the world we certainly have some of the lowest cultural tolerance, yet in a country where foreign truly holds its original definition, there is extreme curiosity and unceasing interest in anything unfamiliar.
It seems that the bulk of the responsibility for fostering this new, budding relationship lies on the shoulders of Americans. Not only is cross-cultural exchange necessary for an improved, mutual understanding, it is also one of the most life-changing experiences any American could undergo. Very rarely does a student come back from time abroad with their eyes still shut, and their experience deemed as nothing more than a waste of time. Any culture, in any other location of the world, has something it can teach a person. That experience can come in the negative or the positive, but the end results, and the changes within a person, are invariably for the better.
The greatest gift we can give our future generations is the gift of knowledge, of understanding. And how better to do that than to live within a home, a city, a country that teaches them without requiring a textbook? That opens their minds and challenges them every day to find creative new ways to communicate, to see through their eyes, and to build relationships with the people in a country that will doubtlessly be an important partner in our future?
Azuraye is a senior International Affairs and Chinese major.
The US is at a strategic crossroads in the Asia Pacific. Rising Chinese military spending, coupled with a declining US defense budget, has begun to shift the balance of power. Faced with this changing strategic landscape, US allies are being forced to choose between two poor options: (1) switching sides and bandwagoning with China, or (2) internal balancing – that is, increasing their own military power to prevent Chinese hegemony while hedging against US decline. Neither option is in the interest of the US, as both would lead to increased regional uncertainty. The US must provide a credible alternative to these two options that reduces regional uncertainty.
It is time for the US to externally balance and build a coalition against China.
Since the late 1990s, China has undertaken a massive effort to modernize its armed forces with little transparency. For over a decade, it has maintained an 11% year-over-year increase in defense spending. This investment has transformed the People’s Liberation Army into a modern military with a limited, but growing, number of platforms capable of projecting power beyond its shores. China’s ramp-up has occurred at a time of fiscal constraint for the US. After the global recession, the US mandated about $1 trillion in defense budget cuts over the next decade under the Budget Control Act, also known as “sequestration”. The US’s two expensive wars in the Middle East have compounded this issue. As a result, the US military today is stretched thin, even as the number of threats increases. Although the US’s $496 billion defense budget dwarfs China’s $132 billion budget, there has been a shift in the balance of military power. For example, China is close to outstripping US naval power in the region. The US fleet contains 284 ships. But, because it is deployed globally, only about half of the fleet is in the Pacific. In comparison, China has about 356 ships, of which 140 are major combatants. Thus, while Chinese spending amounts to about a quarter of the US budget, it faces a US fleet that is similar in size and relatively declining in capability. The US still maintains a distinct qualitative advantage in naval power, but Chinese advancements in asymmetric capabilities are eroding the US navy’s qualitative edge in this domain as well.
The net effect of rising Chinese and declining US defense expenditures has been growing regional uncertainty. The cause of this uncertainty is twofold. First, policymakers in China have left the purpose of its buildup unsaid. The Chinese Communist Party has not defined an official mission for the PLA since 2007, and continues to allude to a strategic opportunity in the region. Second, US allies increasingly doubt US commitments. Although the US has positioned an additional 10% of its naval assets in the Pacific as part of the “rebalance” strategy, US allies believe the response is insufficient. In response to this growing uncertainty, US allies are faced with two strategic alternatives to the status quo. They could switch sides and bandwagon with China. Or, they could internally balance and take more of their security into their own hands. No country has yet pursued the former option, but at least Japan is experimenting with the latter. The US must prevent both outcomes. The first case portends the acceptance of a foreign-dominated Asia Pacific, a strategic risk unknown since 1945. The second case would share the security burden more equitably, but the tradeoff would be disastrous for regional security. First, an imbalanced and uncoordinated military buildup by US allies would further drive regional instability. Second, stronger US allies, able or emboldened to operate independently, could drag the US into an unwanted war. Instead, the US should externally balance to shape the environment in which China’s rise will take place. External balancing will restrain and discourage weaker US allies from internally balancing and acting provocatively, while also providing an alternative to bandwagoning with China. Faced with such a coalition, China would have to continue an increased pace of military expenditures to maintain parity, a difficult resource tradeoff given China’s increasing focus on internal stability and slowing economic growth.
As US policymakers consider strategies to counter China, they should do so with the three potential outcomes of bandwagoning, internal balancing, and external balancing in mind. It is true that pursuing the last option could increase tensions with China. Yet, if the US wants to reassure its allies, maintain its position in the region, and reject Chinese ascendency as a regional fait accompli, then it must externally balance.
Alex is a senior at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
This year, as part of the application process, we asked delegates to submit an op-ed, academic analysis or creative piece on China or US-China relations. The editors at the Duke East Asia Nexus have selected some of the best ones to publish here in hopes of generating intellectual discussion before, during and after the conference. These are very short and not meant to be groundbreaking. Take them as conversation starters!