Academics and Research / Current Issue

China on the Rise

“If people can learn from each other’s history and culture, if they work together, we will see peace and prosperity,” says Suisheng Zhao, DU professor and director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “If they don’t, it will be a disaster not just for the two countries, but the whole world.” Photo: Wayne Armstrong

In August 2008, just prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the United States, China stunned the world with the opening ceremony to the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Through the magic of technology and stagecraft, China showcased its contributions to modernity — the compass, gunpowder, moveable type and paper — reminding the world of its glorious past while dramatically illustrating that it’s a contemporary superpower to be reckoned with.

This juxtaposing of the past and present is emblematic of a China that views itself as a once-great empire struggling to regain the global prominence it lost more than 100 years ago during the waning years of the last dynasty.

“China has a very different history from Western countries,” explains Professor Suisheng “Sam” Zhao, director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “China bears the psychological burden of a century and a half of humiliation when China declined and was beaten down by Western imperialist powers. The central theme in Chinese politics — in the national psyche — is the dream of great power again.”

Arguably, China has achieved some of that great power. In a relatively short period of time since initiating market reforms 30 years ago, the country has gone from being very poor to possessing the world’s second largest economy. Entrepreneurship has exploded, and increasingly the Chinese people are enjoying higher standards of living, better health care and more mobility.

Not to say that China isn’t experiencing challenges related to its rapid expansion (pollution and income disparities among them), but watching China’s spectacular rise from a distance, Americans have developed their own insecurities: the loss of manufacturing jobs to the country and the lackluster state of their own economy.

American fears about China’s rise, coupled with China’s distrust of Westerners, conspire to make the relationship between these two great nations delicate at best and potentially dangerous at worst.

Zhao, who received DU’s Distinguished Scholar Award this fall, is uniquely positioned personally and professionally to help explain the Chinese national psyche to the United States. Having lived half his life in each country, he has spent his academic career studying Chinese foreign policy and politics.

“I try to provide a more balanced understanding of China,” he says, “especially in the context of China rising as a major power in the world.”

Through his work, Zhao, who was born in China and is a naturalized American citizen, has helped illuminate the rise of modern Chinese nationalism in a way only someone with intrinsic and historical understanding of the country could. Plumbing primary Chinese-language sources, Zhao has articulated a nuanced, full-blooded vision of a country challenged by the embarrassment of a past when Western powers, particularly Great Britain, forced it to accept the opium trade in the mid-19th century.

Conflicts with Britain, along with internal unrest, ended imperial rule in the country, catapulting China into a period of instability that didn’t end until after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

To understand China, Zhao says, is to understand the country’s 150-year-old suspicion of the West.

“I think Suisheng brings a unique sense of balance and perspective to the analysis of U.S.-China relations,” writes Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, in an e-mail. “Because he grew up in China and travels there frequently, and because he has the confidence of Chinese leaders and scholars, he is able to represent and interpret their thinking well. He is one of the most astute observers in the United States of China’s politics, foreign policy and national mood. At the same time, he has an acute understanding and appreciation of the U.S. and its interests and concerns. From these multiple perspectives he is always able to generate fresh and independent insights.”

Read by sinologists and policymakers all over the world — his book A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism (Stanford University Press, 2004) is a standard in Chinese studies programs worldwide — Zhao’s writings explain the rise of Chinese nationalism through the lens of social science theory.

According to Zhao, China’s ardent nationalism presents complex challenges to China and the world. It is a “two-edged sword” that can fuel expansion or foment civil unrest should the government not perform. With regard to the United States, Chinese nationalism presents its own set of challenges. On the diplomatic stage, Western actions often are viewed with mistrust by Chinese leaders. This makes China an obstreperous and potentially volatile partner.

“China is trying to find its rightful place in the world,” he explains. “China is very suspicious of Western interests. They feel like, ‘[Westerners] humiliated us in the past.’ This can appear very militant.”

A political activist in his youth in China, Zhao settled at DU nine years ago after having spent much of his career as an academic nomad. He has served as a research fellow for the Economic Research Center of the State Council of China — the cabinet of the Chinese government — and has taught at the Chinese National University of Law and Politics, Peking University, the University of California, San Diego, Colby College and Washington College. In 2000 he completed a postdoctoral Campbell National Fellowship at the Hoover Institution.

He is the author or editor of 10 books in English and one in Chinese, dozens of journal articles and book chapters in both languages, and a raft of policy essays.

His work has gained credence on both sides of the Pacific because of the trenchant insights he brings to Chinese studies and the balanced approach he takes; he is at once laudatory and critical of both his homeland and his adopted country.

Considered a dazzlingly productive scholar, Zhao also is the founder of the Journal of Contemporary China, a publication he started while finishing graduate school. Now almost 20 years old, the journal is considered required reading by scholars and policymakers.

“His creation of the Journal of Contemporary China is a major contribution to English-language readers’ understanding of China and comprehending how Chinese analysts understand China,” says Edward Friedman, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It is a great journal that publishes top-rank work.”

Intrigued by Coloradans’ interest in China and lured by the chance to grow the nascent Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at Korbel, Zhao came to DU intent on building bridges between the East and West, particularly the Rocky Mountain West. Since taking on the executive directorship of the center (when he arrived it was staffed by one graduate student), he has raised more than $1 million for its activities and deepened relationships with Chinese institutions including Beijing Foreign Studies University, the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, the China Institute of International Studies and Peking University School of International Studies. These relationships have led to a steady influx of visiting Chinese scholars and students to DU and additional graduate applications from prospective Chinese students.

More recently, Zhao has helped establish a DU graduate center at his alma mater Peking University, where DU students will be able to participate in internships, take seminar classes and enroll in Chinese language courses.

As to why China and the United States need to find common ground, Zhao tells this story: This summer he was giving a seminar at the University of International Relations in Beijing. A graduate student asked him whether the U.S. financial crisis was a conspiracy on the part of the United States to drag down China. “He asked this of me very seriously,” Zhao says. “I had to explain how the U.S. is so decentralized, what the government is like and what the business world is like to put the puzzle together so he could understand it. They are so suspicious.”

Conversely, he says, Americans tend to “think China is like Nazi Germany. That a rising China will challenge the U.S. and that the people are suffering from the authoritarian government.

“China never had a history of human rights or democracy,” he says. “We cannot impose American values and political assumptions on understanding Chinese history and government. We can’t use a Western standard to understand China.”

Zhao sees China eventually adopting more democratic principles, but in its own time and in its own way. Though China is authoritarian, it’s much less hard-lined than it used to be, he says. Zhao is regularly invited to speak in China, and increasingly his work is housed in Chinese university libraries. In the meantime, he urges both countries to collaborate, to transcend the challenges inherent when an incumbent superpower — the United States — must learn to work with and accept a rising one.

“These are the two greatest countries on Earth, the two largest powers in the 21st century,” Zhao says. “They are complementary to each other. China needs us for economic growth and technology, for our knowledge of management styles and to market. The U.S. needs China to resolve global issues and to aid in the American economic recovery.”

Academic and cultural exchanges, tourism and business relationships can help create a critical mass of Sino-American goodwill.

“If people can learn from each other’s history and culture, if they work together, we will see peace and prosperity,” Zhao says. “If they don’t, it will be a disaster not just for the two countries, but the whole world.”

Watch videos of last year’s Bridges to the Future lectures about China’s rise.

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