Spence and Chin Offer Insights Into China
The next generation of Chinese leaders could be MBA holders rather than drawn from the ranks of engineers, who dominate the current leadership, one of the world’s foremost China experts said Thursday.
That the world’s largest Communist Party could be led by business school graduates is one of the paradoxes of modern China that fascinate Yale professors Jonathan Spence and his colleague and wife Annping Chin. The scholarly duo came to Occidental Nov. 1 to discuss what Spence called “a lifelong passion” in a visit sponsored by Diplomacy and World Affairs and the Office of Global Affairs.
Spence, recognized as one of the foremost scholars of Chinese civilization from the 16th century to the present, first gave a talk entitled “The Next Superpower: U.S.-China Relations From a Historian’s Perspective.” He said that he was drawn to the study of China because of its “extraordinarily rich history with stunning surprises.” However, he balked at the emerging superpower label. “There’s no doubt that China is a major factor in world affairs, but that’s very different from a superpower. What we are witnessing in China is a transition period of tremendous growth.”
He said that for much of the last 250 years, the United States considered China “trivial,” neither a threat or rival. “The dawn of respect” for the country’s powers occurred following the Nationalist Revolution in 1912, followed by a significant shift in attitude when then-President Nixon visited China in 1972. It was at this point, Spence said, that a “mixture of grudging respect and nervousness” on the part of Americans emerged.
Later in the day, Chin, a senior lecturer in the history department at Yale and author of three books on China, joined Spence for an informal talk, “Understanding China in the 21st Century,” in the Jeffers Reading Room of the Mary Clapp Norton Library. Seated in two armchairs, the pair discussed how China has changed since they first began visiting the country in the 1970s. When Spence first went to China in 1974, bookstores were “entirely filled with the works of Mao,” he said. But by the 1980s, Mao Tse-Tung’s works were being boxed up and replaced by western authors such as Sinclair Lewis, Albert Camus and Emile Zola. By the ’90s one could find works by Kafka, Lacan, Heidegger, and Derrida, he said. Today books by self-made millionaires like Bill Gates and Lee Iacocca are popular, he said. There is an attitude of “whatever material gains you can get at the moment, take it,” Chin said, adding that today Beijing’s bookstores “are the best in the world.”
This intellectual revival, however, is being accompanied by large-scale destruction, Spence said. A redevelopment craze is destroying old, beautiful homes with traditional Chinese architecture, which are being replaced by Western-style “McMansions” in gated communities. “Enormous areas of major cities are being bulldozed to the ground,” Spence said. “It’s so sad when you see the pollution and destruction that’s being done for the sake of progress,” Chin added. It is ironic that during a time when many Chinese are trying to understand their past by reading ancient texts, old buildings and landscapes are being demolished, Chin said.
The country is “so exciting and so innovative, and at the same time it’s so trapped by the population and environmental problems,” Spence concluded. “In the long range you can’t help but think that this is going to lead to enormous changes. The [Communist] party is going to split. I think they’re going to have a lot of room to change the direction” of the country, he said. However, speaking as a historian who takes a long-range view, he added, “It’s a gradual process. People have to have the courage to let it be gradual.”