MSSU China Semester

Why China?

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Dr. Allen H. Merriam
Professor of Communication
Missouri Southern State University

In the next three years China will witness three major events: the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the scheduled completion in 2009 of the Three Gorges Dam, one of the largest civil engineering projects in human history, and EXPO 2010, a World’s Fair in Shanghai. These developments illustrate the vibrancy of modern China. For its sheer size, economic power, and rich cultural heritage China deserves and, indeed, demands our attention and study.

One of every five human beings on the earth today is Chinese. With 1.3 billion people, China has the largest population of any nation. With 3.6 million square miles, it occupies the second largest land area (after Russia).

China’s economic power is no less dramatic. In 2005, China generated a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $8.86 trillion, the second highest in the world (after the United States at $12.36 trillion). American consumers may feel overwhelmed by the number of products “Made in China.” The U.S. imported goods from China valued at $243 billion in 2005, resulting in the largest U.S. trade deficit ($201 billion) with any country. This huge trade imbalance forms a major irritant in Sino-American relations.

China’s rapid economic development over the last three decades stimulated a corresponding surge in energy consumption. The nation’s use of primary energy jumped 54% from 2000 to 2004, when over 59 quadrillion Btu were consumed, second only to the U.S.

Eight of the world’s ten tallest buildings are in Asia, and five of those are in China. Currently the tallest skyscraper, Taipei 101, is in Taiwan which China considers a breakaway province. The TV Tower at Guangzhou, scheduled for completion in 2009, will be the tallest free-standing structure in the world at 2,001 feet.

China became a nuclear power in 1964. It has the largest standing army in the world with 2.25 million active troops. China’s foreign policies sometimes clash with U.S. goals, as in relations with North Korea and Taiwan. Strategic issues thus form another motivation for understanding China.

In 2003 China became only the third nation (after Russia and the U.S.) to successfully send a human into space. That feat continued a long record of technological achievement including the invention of paper (2nd century) and gunpowder (3rd century) and Su Song’s astronomical clock (11th century). The late British scholar Joseph Needham’s monumental Science and Civilization in China, an on-going project of Cambridge University Press, covers more than 20 volumes. With over 100 million Internet users China is now the world’s second biggest broadband market (after the U.S.).

The fine arts have flourished in China. For example, the 8th century poets Li Bo and Du Fu, and the 18th century novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, have enriched world literature. A musical tradition spans ancient efforts to derive pitches from bamboo pipes to theatrical performances of Peking Opera. Landscape painting, calligraphy, and exquisite porcelain are legendary. Majestic architecture was highlighted in “The Last Emperor,” winner of the 1987 Academy Award for Best Picture. China is home to 33 UNESCO World Heritage sites, trailing only Italy (41) and Spain (39).

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Traditional Chinese thought found expression in the philosophical triad of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. The philosopher K’ung Fu-tzu (Confucius, 551 B.C.-479 B.C.), who taught social harmony through proper relationships, exerted a profound and enduring influence. The popular Daoist symbol, Yin-Yang, suggests a need for balance between continuously interacting complementary opposites: male-female, active-passive, light-dark, day-night, wet-dry, hot-cold, speech-silence, health-disease, good-evil, etc. Aspects of each element exist in its counterpart, and the circle implies that everything in the universe is ultimately interrelated.

Heir to a 4,000 year-long dynastic history, the People’s Republic of China was declared into existence October 1, 1949 by Mao Zedong. That event climaxed a tumultuous period of humiliating Western imperialism, brutal Japanese occupation, and a civil war between the Guomindang (Nationalists) under Chiang Kai-shek and the victorious Communist forces. The charismatic Mao then sought to transform the nation according to his unique interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, punctuated by convulsive upheavals such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-69).

Following Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping took a more pragmatic approach in promoting the “four modernizations” of agriculture, industry, science, and technology. Subsequent leaders have continued market-oriented reforms. The opening of a stock exchange in Shanghai in 1990, the return to Chinese control of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macao in 1999, and entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 accelerated China’s leadership in globalization.

Like all societies, China faces some serious challenges. Environmental degradation, pollution, poverty, and disease (including HIV/AIDS) are major concerns. Earthquakes and floods pose perennial threats. International film crews have documented widespread brutality against animals.

The status of women remains contentious in a land where foot-binding was practiced for 1,000 years. Female infanticide produced a disproportionate number of males. Appropriately, the United Nations held its Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, at which Hillary Clinton declared “women’s rights are human rights.”

Issues of religious persecution persist in light of the nation’s official endorsement of atheism. In 1999 the government banned the quasi-religious sect Falun Gong. The exiled Dalai Lama, recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, asserted in his autobiography that more than a million Buddhists died in a Himalayan “holocaust” following the Red Army’s invasion of Tibet in the 1950s.

Probably the most notorious infringement of human rights in the post-Mao era occurred on June 4, 1989 when the military opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The World Almanac estimates that about 5,000 people were killed and 10,000 wounded. The ruling Communist Party clearly values collective order over individual liberty.

A central issue for the 21st century will be how China can reconcile dramatic economic development without a corresponding political liberalization. It is not clear if any society can sustain long-term prosperity absent accountability and transparency in its civic institutions. Are authoritarianism and modernization compatible?

2007 corresponds with the Year of the Pig in the Chinese lunar calendar. “Pig” personalities are associated with loyalty, honesty, intelligence, and inner strength. Such qualities make this an auspicious time to investigate one of the world’s most complex and fascinating civilizations.