Saturday, December 9, 2006

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Lincoln with Chinese characteristics

Three years ago, I wrote the following:

As a regional actor in Asia, Beijing can not and should not be ignored. As a global actor, its profile remains relatively small, even compared with the Unitred States a century ago.
Today, the
New York Times has a front-pager by Joseph Kahn
demonstrating that a lot has happened since then:
In the past several weeks China Central Television has broadcast a 12-part series describing the reasons nine nations rose to become great powers. The series was based on research by a team of elite Chinese historians, who also briefed the ruling Politburo about their findings.

Until recently China’s rising power remained a delicate topic, and largely unspoken, inside China. Beijing has long followed a dictum laid down by Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who died in 1997: “tao guang yang hui,” literally to hide its ambitions and disguise its claws....

With its $1 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, surging military spending and diplomatic initiatives in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Beijing has begun asserting its interests far beyond its borders. Chinese party leaders are acting as if they intend to start exercising more power abroad rather than just protecting their political power at home.

“Like it or not, China’s rise is becoming a reality,” says Jia Qingguo, associate dean of the Beijing University School of International Studies. “Wherever Chinese leaders go these days, people pay attention. And they can’t just say, ‘I don’t want to get involved.’ ”

Itself a major recipient of foreign aid until recently, China this year promised to provide well over $10 billion in low-interest loans and debt relief to Asian, African and Latin American countries over the next two years. It invited 48 African countries to Beijing last month to a conference aimed at promoting closer cooperation and trade.

Beijing agreed to send 1,000 peacekeepers to Lebanon, its first such action in the Middle East. It has sought to become a more substantial player in a region where the United States traditionally holds far more sway.

At the United Nations Security Council, China cast aside its longstanding policy of opposing sanctions against other nations. It voted to impose penalties on North Korea, its neighbor and onetime ally, for testing nuclear weapons.

Officials and leading scholars are becoming a bit less hesitant to discuss what this all might mean. The documentary, on China’s main national network, uses the word rise constantly, including its title, “Rise of the Great Powers.” It endorses the idea that China should study the experiences of nations and empires it once condemned as aggressors bent on exploitation.

“Our China, the Chinese people, the Chinese race has become revitalized and is again stepping onto the world stage,” Qian Chengdan, a professor at Beijing University and the intellectual father of the television series, said in an online dialogue about the documentary on, a leading Web site.

“It is extremely important for today’s China to be able to draw some lessons from the experiences of others,” he said.

Kahn reviews the documentary series [Hey, PBS, how about purchasing its rights and broadcasting a version with subtitles here in the states?!--ed.]. This part stands out: "In the 90 minutes devoted to examining the rise of the United States, Lincoln is accorded a prominent part for his efforts to “preserve national unity” during the Civil War. China has made reunification with Taiwan a top national priority."

It will be interesting to see how and when China translates its growing economic power into ideational power. This, intriguingly, is (kind of) the topic of Jeffrey Garten's op-ed in the NYT about higher education in Asia:

At a summit meeting of leaders next week in the Philippines, senior officials from India, Singapore, Japan and perhaps other countries are scheduled to discuss the revival of an ancient university in India called Nalanda. It is a topic unlikely to receive much mention in the Western press. But no one should underestimate the potential benefits of this project to Asia, or the influence it could have on Asia’s role in the world, or the revolutionary impact it could make on global higher education....

At the Asian summit meeting next week, a consortium led by Singapore and including India, Japan and others will discuss raising the $500 million needed to build a new university in the vicinity of the old site and perhaps another $500 million to develop the roads and other infrastructure to make the institution work. The problem is that the key Asian officials are not thinking big enough. There is more talk about making Nalanda a cultural site or a center for philosophy than a first-rate modern university. The financial figures being thrown around are a fraction of the endowments of Harvard, Yale or Columbia today. A bolder vision is in order.

The rebuilt university should strive to be a great intellectual center, as the original Nalanda once was. This will be exceedingly difficult to achieve; even today, Asia’s best universities have a long way to go to be in the top tier. In a recent ranking of universities worldwide, Newsweek included only one Asian institution, the University of Tokyo, in the world’s top 25. In a similar tally by The Times of London, there are only three non-Western universities in the top 25....

Today, Nalanda’s opportunity is to exploit what is lacking in so many institutions of higher education. That includes great medical schools that focus on delivering health care to the poor, law schools that emphasize international law, business schools that focus on the billions of people who live on two dollars a day but who have the potential to become tomorrow’s middle class, and schools that focus intensely on global environmental issues. Can Asia pull this off? Financially, it should be easy. China’s foreign exchange reserves just broke all global records and reached $1 trillion. And Japan’s mountain of cash isn’t that far behind.

But the bigger issue is imagination and willpower. It is not clear that the Asian nations are prepared to unite behind anything concrete except trade agreements, either for their benefit or the world’s. It appears doubtful that with all their economic prowess, and their large armies, they understand that real power also comes from great ideas and from people who generate them, and that truly great universities are some of their strongest potential assets. I would like to be proved wrong in these judgments. How Asia approaches the resurrection of Nalanda will be a good test.

I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that Garten is focused too much on regional initiaties and not enough on national ones -- but this seems like enough to chew on for the weekend.

posted by Dan on 12.09.06 at 09:08 AM


The official policy of the United States government, reflected in budget outlays and the time devoted to foreign affairs by senior government officials, is that the rise of China and the future of the region of south and east Asia are far less important than the future of one, mid-sized Arab country.

And that's where we are in mid-December, 2006. Whatever happens in Asia, or Europe and Latin America for that matter, the United States will have to observe. Having made the commitment in Iraq, and having been unwilling to assign any limit to the time that commitment will be maintained, the Bush administration has ensured that observing is about all we'll be able to do.

posted by: Zathras on 12.09.06 at 09:08 AM [permalink]

The Bush administration decided that the Arab issue could be settled easily. A quick war, then democracy. It was a huge bet -- if it works, then on to other challenges, including China; if it doesn't, the world's up for grabs.

The 2006 world-according-to-Bush should be one in which democracy progresses unbounded in the Arab world and a new, if different, "cold war" confronts the rest of the non-democratic world. Those old curmudgeons North Korea and Iran would be dealt with in turn, then on to that pesky China.

Alas, no. Perhaps we needed a conservative president.

"Unitred States" Funny.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 12.09.06 at 09:08 AM [permalink]

The pivotal strategic relationship of the 21st century will be between the US and China, with India gaining importance as the century ages. I worry about how little we are preparing today's students to deal with these relationships. Our educational system obsesses about math tests scores and graduation requirements while giving scant attention to the foreign language proficiencies of our students. Does any state have even one percent of it high school graduates with two years or more of Hindi? Or five percent with two years or more of Mandarin? Does any state or local district have a program which sends a significant number of students to China or India to study? Not only are we throwing money away in the wrong part of the world (the Middle East), we are throwing it away on the wrong activity (the military instead of education). The 21st century will not be kind to us unless we wake up and change our priorities.

posted by: Dave Porter on 12.09.06 at 09:08 AM [permalink]

Good discussion of this series/issue at the China Law Blog on December 5.

Link is

posted by: Jason on 12.09.06 at 09:08 AM [permalink]

Dave Porter,
Do you seriously think any HS has Hindi or Mandarin classes? Outside of the general issues, our education system is more messed up than one knows. The basic analogy is how the FBI has dealt with its people learning Arabic. We only have six people out of one thousand at the embassy in Iraq that know Arabic? And Tony Snow is an idiot. His answer the other day about the Arabic speakers shows how messed up this country is.

posted by: Ghost of Tom Joad on 12.09.06 at 09:08 AM [permalink]

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