Taking on Sinophobia through education

Updated: 2013-08-12 10:56

By Michael Barris (China Daily)

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Taking on Sinophobia through education

In the midst of the chatter over China's trade data report Thursday, there it was: Sinophobia.

"For better or worse, China has become the new linchpin of the global economy," Investing Daily.com analyst Benjamin Shepherd wrote. Summing up the trade numbers, he said: "The old saw used to be that as goes the US, so goes the rest of the world. With China poised to become the world's largest economy sometime in the next decade, that US-centric preconception will have to be revised."

Shepherd's characterization of China's economic power as a "better or worse" proposition brings to mind Stephen Schwarzman's comments to a New Yorker magazine reporter this spring, when the chairman and CEO of the private-equity firm Blackstone Group discussed the "hard-core, real anger" that exists toward China in the United States - sentiments that sparked his decision to launch a $300 million college scholarship for study, not here, but in China. Schwarzman, the New Yorker reported, was "hoping that familiarity with the world's rising superpower" would "blunt growing American anxiety about changes in status."

Schwarzman, the magazine said, first started thinking about offering the scholarship fund in 2010 when the juxtaposition of the US' economic calamity and China's then 9 percent annual growth rate stirred "negative attitudes" in the West toward China. "I was convinced that would create frustration in the West, and frustration would lead to anger," Schwarzman was quoted as saying, "and that anger can lead to trade problems, and ultimately to military confrontation."

At a certain point, he said, "it seemed logical" that "really bad things" would begin to occur. "We had to find a way to stop or ameliorate that situation."

By establishing the scholarship fund, Schwarzman said he aimed to produce individuals who would understand China.

An effort is underway to teach the US about China. In 2006, a survey by the Modern Language Association - the organization for scholars of language and literature - showed that some 51,600 students at roughly 2,800 US institutions of higher learning were studying Mandarin - a 51 percent jump in comparison with a similar study four years earlier. The enrolment jump, MLA said, was mainly due to China's increasing prominence on the world economic stage. For the record: Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, and more people speak English in China than speak it in the US.

But deeper obstacles can get in the way of attempts to change deep-seated attitudes about China. That's the view of Tom Watkins, the former Michigan state schools superintendent and frequent China visitor, who has advocated stronger US-China ties for three decades.

"The biggest challenge is convincing people that the world has changed in profound and fundamental ways," Watkins said in an interview. "We are living in a fast-paced, disruptive, transformational, technologically-driven, global, knowledge economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the world instantaneously."

In the years to come, Watkins said, "China, its history, culture and language will be front and center in all world decisions. The individual, city, region, state and nation that adapts to this new reality will prosper as the 21st century unfolds - others will fade from the scene."

Another view of the issue comes from Dan Redford, the Beijing-based director of China operations for Wisconsin fund management company FirstPathway Partners. Redford said the biggest challenge in teaching Americans about China is "distance, both cultural and physical."

"Because China is so far away, it is difficult to deliver that experience to most Americans," he said. "So, our country will have to rely on individuals who have gone out of their way to get that experience to provide expertise and guidance on China." He said there are "relatively few true China experts who understand China's rise and how it has grown as a nation."

Redford recalls being in a meeting with a local official in Michigan who claimed "he'd rather go to India on a trade mission than China because he preferred to deal with democracies, not communists".

"That is so narrow minded and inaccurate," he said. "I think that our education system has failed to produce effective leaders in government that can change the rhetoric and the narrative on the conversation with China."

Unlike the analyst who saw China's rise as a "for-better-or-worse" proposition, Redford believes the US will help its own cause by educating citizens about the changing of the guard that is well underway.

"It is widely accepted that China will have a bigger economy than the United States within the next 20 years...and perhaps sooner," Redford remarked. "Enough said."

Contact the writer at michaelbarris@chinadailyusa.com

(China Daily USA 08/12/2013 page2)