Decoding the economic boom

Updated: 2011-11-25 07:37

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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 Decoding the economic boom

Orville Schell says people in the US and China should understand each other better. Chen Weihua / China Daily

Prominent scholar stresses that it is time for US, China to work together

For more than 50 years, Orville Schell has been explaining China to Westerners. Much before his maiden visit to the Chinese mainland in 1975 at the age of 34, he had already written three books on China.

During that trip when China was still in its last years of the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), Schell worked with a group of American youngsters for a month in Dazhai, a model agricultural brigade in North China's Shanxi province. He also worked at the Shanghai Electrical Machinery Factory located in the city's western suburbs of Minhang.

Describing his experiences in the 1977 book In the People's Republic: An American's First-Hand View of Living and Working in China, Schell says most of the Chinese then were cold, reserved and scared to talk to foreigners, something that he fully understands now but did not quite know what to make of then.

In his nine books on China so far, Schell has tried to make sense of the China he has studied and experienced over time. Currently he is busy trying to make sense of China's rapid economic growth and how the nation has arrived at this moment by tracing the country's history for the last 150 years in terms of the themes that, after so much failure, finally culminated in such dynamic growth.

In this period of history, Schell has found much failure and frustration starting from the Self-Strengthening Movement in the late half of the 19th century up through the abortive republican revolution of people like Sun Yat-sen and many others. "If you look at Chinese history over the past 150 years, it's one failure after the other, and it's one unsuccessful revolution, one political movement, and one great leader after another," Schell says.

"I see China repeatedly striving to reinvent itself to regain the position that it used to have 150 years ago. The history of the 19th and 20th century is the history of China trying to find new ways to develop and to govern itself. Part of that process was to find a new culture and a whole new identity."

Schell, currently the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, describes his work as an "archaeological expedition into China's past".

In his view, China's economic boom did not come "out of the head of Zeus," it evolved. History does not work that way. History always adds up and makes sense, at least in retrospect, he says.

At the Asia Society, Schell and his colleagues launched a multimedia China Boom Project in 2008 focusing on a group of diverse people - from businessmen and diplomats to academics and journalists to understand "why did China boom now?"

He says Westerners often tend to think of history as something moving in a certain way and certain direction. The direction in a Westerner's mind is usually presumed to center on openness, more democracy and more freedom.

"When I look back into Chinese history, I see something very different evolving. That China may ultimately become more democratic, or even a democracy, is possible," he says. But, in the last century, what mattered most to Chinese intellectuals, leaders, reformers and writers is a real yearning for China to gain fuqiang, wealthy and powerful," he says.

"I think the impulse toward democracy and openness was also there. But what was really driving China in the 20th century was a more primary urge to restore the nation's greatness," he says.

Schell has not finalized the title for his new book, but hopes it will be something on China's quest for wealth and power.

While praising China's economic dynamism, Schell does not want to diminish the problems China confronts. "Chinese don't diminish their own problems," he says.

According to Schell, China's economic success doesn't mean that the nation has found the answer to a successful model. "It only means that up till now, it has found a successful interim model, not one that will serve it in good stead forever," he says.

Schell foresees challenges like environmental degradation, the tough task of creating jobs for tens of millions of people moving into the cities, and most of all, whether China is prepared for the kinds of economic cycles or downturns that are inevitable for every economy.

At the same time, the 71-year-old author also sees a bigger challenge in educating people in both China and the US about each other, especially at a time of China's rise and America's decline. He believes the good part is that greater equality means that the two countries can look at each other more objectively and see what is worth learning.

He believes China and the US should try to work together. "We are very different, we don't agree on everything, but we need to be partners. It doesn't matter who is No 1 or who is No 2, we are stuck with problems that we cannot escape solving together."

Comparing the two nations to a married couple, Schell says that though China and the US disagree with each other on many things, the reality is that divorce is not an option. It's not an option in any of the areas in which the two countries have to deal with each other, whether it's on nuclear proliferation, trade, energy or climate change. "Like it or not, we are in this together," he says.

But the former dean of the journalism school at UC Berkeley says he is deeply worried about the ignorance in the US about China and the world. "I am worried about America's ability to get along with China because our media is failing and our education system is not improving. These are two of the most basic ways that a democracy keeps its people informed and intelligent," he says, adding that there is, of course, also a lot of ignorance in China.

"Without these informational tools, it's going to be very hard for the majority of Americans to understand what their real interest is in relations with a country like China, which is complicated," says Schell.

But Schell remains optimistic that through the programs like the ones he runs at the Center for US-China Relations at the Asia Society he will be able to help people in the two nations understand each other somewhat better.