China at the Crossroads: One Professor's First Hand View

Dr. Stuart A. Varden
Pace University
Professor of Information Systems

Click here to see me in China (105K)

Napoleon Bonaparte was said to have remarked that "China is like a sleeping bear. Let her sleep, for when she wakes the Earth will move." Nearly two hundred years have passed since Napolean's prediction, and it may be about to come true. China, with a population of 1.3 billion and a highly developed civilization going back some 5,000 years, is poised to embrace wholesale changes toward a free enterprise economy. Yet it is likely to have a distinctly Chinese flavor as the leadership is reluctant to relinquish control.

In the midst of these developments, Dr. Roy Girasa, Professor of Business Law with the Lubin School and I had an opportunity to witness first hand some of these trends as they are unfolding. For two weeks in December we represented Pace University on a trip to China as part of an exchange program sponsored by the World Bank.

Our primary task was to visit a small college, the Jingsha Educational College, in central China where we would give lectures in our respective fields. Jingsha - its name was changed to Jingzhou while we were there - is a medium sized city (by Chinese standards) of about 700,000 population in Hubei Province on the Yangtze River.

Roy had prepared presentations on topics such as the world trade system, international letters of credit, and intellectual property rights, while I came prepared with overheads in hand to discuss relational database technology. We had been led to believe that our audience would be half government officials, and half college instructors and advanced students. It seemed that our mission would be a rather straightforward one, but what we were to experience well exceeded our expectations.

Prior to our arrival in Jingsha, we spent three days in Beijing where we took in a number of the traditional tourist sites such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and Temple of Heaven. Although attractive and historically significant, these are mainly the stuff of travel logs and guide books which are rather predictable.

Of greater interest to me, are the small unplanned observations that taken together build a pattern in one's mind about a country's people and what is taking place there that makes a lasting impression. There was the new highway that connected the airport to the downtown area and our driver who had mortgaged much of his future to purchase his own limo to support his family. There was the Santa Claus and Reindeer display that dominated the hotel lobby when we arrived, and the Dunkin' Donuts around the corner. There was the crew of men at a site of a demolished building who were chipping cement off old bricks so that they could be reused. And there was the large digital clock prominently displayed in front of the Museum of the Chinese Revolution that was counting down to the nearest second when Hong Kong would revert back to Chinese control. We saw hardly any severe poverty, no evidence of crime, and a very industrious workforce.

On the other hand, air pollution is a serious problem in Beijing as coal continues to be the fuel of choice for cooking and home heating in China. And there was the student we met who was interested in learning more about Pace, but declined to give me a copy of his resume in public for fear that "someone might see this and suspect me of passing government secrets." A chilling moment.

On the day of our departure from Beijing, we met Mr. Sun who was to be our translator and travel companion through much of our stay in China. "Sunny", as he asked us to call him, was one of those people that one encounters from time to time who is hard to forget. He was a worldly and resourceful man in his mid-fifties who saw to it that we would avoid all the pitfalls that accompany travel in an unfamiliar country.

We flew first to Wuhan, an energetic, fast growing, dusty industrial metropolis of nearly seven million, and proceeded by car to Jingsha and the campus of the host college. We were greeted by the Deputy President of the college, Mr. Lee, and the Director of Teacher Education, Madame Chung. We saw lots of teenaged students, mostly women, and wondered whether there might be a high school nearby the college. They seemed to take great interest in us, but were very shy. Interestingly, their dress was very much like teens in the West.

Following breakfast the next morning, we found ourselves as the guests of honor at a formal but friendly "opening ceremony" which involved remarks from college and government officials. Roy and I also made brief statements on how pleased we were to be there.

When we arrived at the classroom after lunch for the first lecture, we discovered that about ninety percent of the group of fifty students was indeed the teenagers that we had seen earlier. We were to learn later that undergraduate college students in China are normally in the sixteen-to-nineteen age range. There was a handful of more mature students and a couple of government officials, but how would our lectures work with the rest of the students?

I spent the afternoon rethinking my material, while Roy gave his first of four three-hour lectures. Fortunately, I had brought a laptop computer onto which I had downloaded several World Wide Web sites about China. The Web was not yet available in Jingsha, but I had been able to locate a photo of Beijing Road, the main street of Jingsha, on a Web server in the U.S. So, I refocused my lectures on the Internet and the Web. Later when I passed around the laptop with the image of downtown Jingsha on the screen, the reaction of the students told me that I had made the right decision. It was not a particularly great image, but they were delighted.

View of Biijing Road, Jingsha City, Hubei Province, China

The classes were well received by the students and college officials were genuinely pleased with our performance. What could account for this when the material was so unsuited to the background of the bulk of our audience? After a couple of days, it dawned on us what was going on; we had traveled 12,000 miles so that a group of fifty students could listen to us speak English! Indeed, many of the students were preparing to be English teachers. It didn't seem to make much difference what we said; the students conscientiously took it all in while Sunny translated as best he could. We never did learn how much of the material they really understood.

As the days passed, the students' shyness wore off. Soon we were receiving impromptu visits in the evening from groups of students who just wanted to talk, sing songs, and share something of their lives with us. We talked about our families, our favorite music, what our homes were like, Pace University, and Michael Jordan, but we made a point of avoiding controversial topics for fear of embarrassing the students.

On our final evening in Jingsha, we were invited to a banquet in our honor at a local restaurant. We were ushered into a private dining room. There were eleven of us altogether including the limo driver who was treated as a full member of the group. There was a large round table in the corner and a keraoke or KTV setup in the middle of the room. "Keraoke", a Japanese "sing along" invention, has swept China by storm. Suddenly, the President of the college grabbed a microphone and broke into song. Others took their turn. It was a very festive evening in which we sampled many Chinese delicacies. The strong wine flowed freely and toasts were offered at the slightest provocation.

The next day we left Jingsha, stayed a night in Wuhan, and flew to Hong Kong where we spent two days before returning home. Hong Kong is a shoppers paradise and one of the great economic success stories of Asia. It is, however, under the cloud of the Chinese takeover on July 1, 1997. The people we spoke to expressed no alarm at this, and quoted the slogan "One country, two systems." But of course we spoke only to those who still remain in Hong Kong.

China appears to be at a crossroads. On the one hand, there is a great desire among the people to improve their material standard of living, and many people are working hard to this end. And the influence of Western popular culture is very strong, especially in the major cities. On the other hand, a free enterprise economy will accentuate differences in people based on economic success, and this would undoubtedly undermine the strong sense of community that exists throughout China. For this and other reasons, China has elected to proceed cautiously with its reforms. Perhaps this is a wise choice. I don't want to imagine a China in which the limo driver would not be welcome at the banquet table.