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The Chinese ’SCentury

“What’s that got to do with the price of rice in China?” You don’t hear this expression much anymore. It used to be the standard comeback after someone made a non sequitur. Only these days, the “China price” has everything to do with just about every aspect of American life.

Being disinterested in or ignorant about China isn’t an option anymore. The Asian juggernaut is no longer an exotic delicacy on the world cultural menu: it’s a basic ingredient. Sinologists have long understood this, but growing numbers of non-specialists are starting to see it too. “A lot of people are getting the ‘China religion,’” says Clayton Dube. “From my perspective, it’s long overdue.”

Nowhere is it more pronounced than at USC.

On a July morning, Dube, who is associate director of the university’s newly created USC U.S.-China Institute, is seated at the conference table in vice president Elizabeth Garrett’s first-floor Bovard suite. Also taking part in the top-level planning meeting are Stanley Rosen, Daniel Lynch, C. Anderson Johnson and Howard Gillman. A stranger walking in might be understandably perplexed by the absence of any Chinese names or faces in the room. Why would USC launch a major university-wide China initiative � underwritten to the tune of $30 million in projected philanthropy, plus unspecified start-up costs “generously funded” by the provost’s office � with nary a native Mandarin-speaker in sight?

A few others arrive. Geoffrey Garrett (no relation to Elizabeth). James Ellis. And, at last, a Chinese name: Guofu Tan.

Strange. But think again, and it starts to make sense: USC’s China initiative isn’t just about China. It’s about America � and about redirecting our attention to the big picture.

Six years into the new millennium, political leaders, economists and futurists are consistently calling this “the Chinese century.” As surely as the 18th and 19th centuries never saw the sun set on the British Empire, and the 20th century was “made in America,” experts agree that the near future belongs to China and its neighbors.

Consider: One-fifth of all humanity now lives in the People’s Republic, where an economic miracle is going gangbusters. At the current rate of growth (about 10 percent a year), China’s economy will outstrip America’s by mid-century. Mandarin, already the second-most prevalent language on the Internet, is expected to overtake English within a decade. Now consider this jaw-dropping statistic: more people in China are studying English today than there are Americans speaking it!

How many Americans are studying Chinese? Pathetically few.

“It’s about time we started to focus on this,” says Dube. By “we,” he means Americans in general and American academia in particular. The UCLA-educated historian recently left his alma mater’s respected Asia Institute, where he had worked for over a decade, for the chance to be at a university that has � as Dube puts it � “bet big on China.”

What does that mean? First and foremost, it’s an attitude: that China � and particularly America’s many-faceted relationships with the region � is no longer an “area” study. Rather, it’s a university-wide theme transcending traditional boundaries. Like nanoscience, multimedia literacy and a handful of other important themes earmarked as “provost’s initiatives,” a deep understanding of China � in Provost C. L. Max Nikias’ world-view � is a cornerstone of what will define excellence in the 21st-century research university.

Had top administrators been thinking along these lines in the 1920s, they would have rallied across disciplines to form a USC institute on U.S.-Soviet relations, says associate vice provost Howard Gillman, one of the Yankees at Beth Garrett’s conference table. That’s how critical the American-Chinese relationship will be in the next century. We ignore it at our peril.

The “chinafication” of USC didn’t happen overnight. The seeds were sown 30 years ago, almost immediately after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping announced his revolutionary plan for market-based economic reforms. Seizing on the welcome thaw, in 1978 USC made history as the first American university to visit Beijing during the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two powers.

Since then, under USC President Steven B. Sample’s watch, trustees and top administrators have made two formal trips to China: one in 1995, another just last spring. This is in conjunction, of course, with numerous official visits to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tokyo, Jakarta and other Asian capitals, as well as three international conferences which brought out local alumni along with business and government leaders.

In 1994, USC adopted a new strategic plan calling for internationalization westward as a top priority. “Our sons and daughters will face much, much tougher competition during their lifetimes than most of us have had to confront,” Sample wrote at the time. “In particular, they must learn to shed their insularity, broaden their horizons and work more effectively with their peers in other countries. Therein lies a major challenge for all levels of the American educational system.”

Even as Japan was in economic decline and the 1997 currency crisis threw Thailand, Indonesia and the so-called East Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore) into a tailspin, Sample tenaciously kept his eyes trained toward the Pacific. “USC has a unique opportunity to emerge as the first truly global American university,” he wrote in a President’s Page column for USC Trojan Family Magazine (“New Horizons,” Winter 1996). Southern California, he insisted, “is the American gateway to the Pacific Rim, which is emerging as the dominant economic zone of the next century.” Two years earlier, he had convened at USC a meeting of 20 university presidents with the goal of forming an international network of Pacific Rim schools. In 1997, the APRU (Association of Pacific Rim Universities) was born, with Sample as its founding chair.

Today APRU boasts 36 member institutions, including the top six Chinese research universities, the National University of Taiwan, and West Coast powerhouses like USC, Stanford, Caltech and six UC campuses. Sample continues to serve on the APRU’s governing board, as does USC Marshall School of Business professor Richard Drobnick. Both men attended the 10th annual APRU Presidents Conference last summer in Sydney, Australia.

Around the same time, USC elected to its Board of Trustees Hong Kong business tycoon Ronnie C. Chan MBA ’76 and Japanese media mogul Toshiaki Ogasawara. They joined an elite group of internationalists that included Herb Klein ’40, who as White House director of communication had accompanied President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on their historic 1972 trip to China.

In the 1990s, USC opened international offices in six major Pacific Rim capitals, including Hong Kong and Taiwan. When the university held its first-ever International Alumni Conference in 2001, the location was Hong Kong. About 250 high-powered Asian Trojans attended. Few American universities have been reaching across the Pacific in this way, claims Dube.

Meanwhile, the campus has evolved in ways that make it the nation’s preeminent magnet for international study. In 2000, the university broke ground on a 400-bed dormitory complex designed to get American and foreign students living together, eating together and routinely communicating in many languages. Plans called for residents to be evenly divided between American and foreign students. “The International Residential College [at Parkside] represents USC’s commitment to giving our undergraduates … an education that will equip them to navigate in a world where national boundaries matter far less and cultures intermingle far more,” Sample said in his keynote address at the facility’s 2002 grand opening.

There has been no shortage of students to fill these berths. Four years in a row, USC has topped the ranks of American universities in terms of international enrollments (6,881). The lion’s share, not surprisingly, come from economic engines of the East: India (1,083), China (904), Taiwan (958) and South Korea (807). Fold into the mix Hong Kong (243) and the tally of ethnic Chinese attending USC stands at 2,105 � nearly a third of all foreign students, and more than one in every 200 USC students overall. (The New York-based Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that tracks study-abroad figures worldwide, traditionally counts Hong Kong separately.) That sum doesn’t reflect enrollments from places like Singapore, Macau and Malaysia, where sizeable percentages of the population are also ethnic Chinese.

USC’s sustained leadership in this area is especially noteworthy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The tightening of U.S. security checks and new red tape associated with foreign student visas has dealt American higher education a collective blow. Rising competition from universities in other English-speaking lands (Canada, Britain, Australia) also has hurt foreign recruitment. Research universities have been particularly hard hit: foreign applications to American graduate schools fell 28 percent overall in 2004 � and a whopping 45 percent from China, specifically. None of this has affected USC, which in 2006 retains its title as No. 1 American university in terms of foreign-student recruitment.

With the bulk of foreign enrollments now coming from the Pacific Rim, one would perhaps expect colleges in the American West to enjoy a geographical advantage over schools in the East and Midwest. “Yes, we have an edge. And it’s incumbent on us to take advantage of that edge,” says USC Global Initiatives director James Ellis, who takes nothing for granted. Curiously, of the next 24 universities behind USC in foreign-student enrollments, not one is on the West Coast.

Doing his best impersonation of Willie Nelson, Eugene Cooper hitches his guitar a little higher and begins to sing a raspy, country-western rendition of “Lift Up Your Veil,” a Chinese folk song about a husband’s first encounter with his bride. No, this isn’t an episode of American Idol. It’s actually much, much bigger than that. The USC anthropologist has traveled to Beijing as a finalist in the hit series, Arts of Our Land � a televised talent show featuring non-Chinese people performing Chinese arts. The show’s ratings are enough to give a Nielsen executive palpitations: More than 100 million people (well over the average American Idol viewership) will tune in for the finals, broadcast live on the 2005 Lunar New Year.

Cooper, who takes second place, might well be the poster-prof for what the future will bring: a world of Western-surnamed Mandarin speakers moving comfortably between two cultures, studying and understanding both. An expert in Chinese folk tradition and popular culture, Cooper is currently working on a book about the market temple fairs of Jinhua. His earlier books have dealt with China’s artisans and rural light industry, the political economy and Chinese family and kinship.

USC’s faculty is dotted with many such culture-crossing mavericks. One of the pre-eminent Chinese historians of our age is professor emeritus John Wills, whose epic Mountain of Fame (1996) crystallizes 5,000 years of Chinese political, intellectual and artistic grandeur through vivid portraits of 20 statesmen, philosophers, poets and rulers who shaped it. The New York Times Book Review calls Wills’ oeuvre “a splendid reflection on the nature of the Chinese relationship to history, culture, and morality.”

A closer look at the faculty-administrators with the Western names seated around Beth Garrett’s conference table that July morning gives a taste of USC’s stunning potential. Political scientist Stan Rosen is a world-famous China expert and director of USC’s respected East Asian Studies Center. Keck School professor of preventive medicine Andy Johnson leads the longitudinal China Seven Cities Study on tobacco use and obesity; he also heads an advanced training program for Chinese public-health officials. With faculty appointments in international relations, business, communications and law, Geoff Garrett is president of the USC-based Pacific Council on International Policy, a West Coast partner of the elite Council on Foreign Relations, the nation’s premier foreign policy forum. Last year alone, the Pacific Council hosted five top-level meetings focusing on China. Jim Ellis, as head of USC’s Global Initiatives, oversees six international offices scattered across the Pacific Rim. International relations professor Dan Lynch’s most recent book deals with democratization in China and its relations with other Asian countries. And Guofu Tan (the one with the Chinese name) is an authority on microeconomic theory, industrial organization and the Chinese economy. A professor of economics, he consults regularly for the World Bank.

Many of these people also serve on the USC U.S.-China Institute’s steering committee. Others include molecular pharmacologist Jean Shih, a leading researcher on mood-regulating MAO brain enzymes, also founder of the Society for Chinese American Neuroscientists; linguist Audrey Li, an expert in Chinese language acquisition in Chinese-English bilingual communities and the linguistic properties of Mandarin and Cantonese; Keck School of Medicine scientist Anna Wu, an expert in cancer-risk patterns of Asian Americans, focusing on changing diet; School of Social Work researcher Iris Chi, who studies long-term care, chronic mental illness and community service systems for the elderly in America and China; geographer Carolyn Cartier, who works on a variety of issues, including the impact of globalization and tourism on China; and economist Erik Heikkila, who focuses on urban development in East Asian cities.

An external board of scholars adds its intellectual heft to the institute’s sterling bone fides. The 18-member board reads like a who’s who of China study, headlined by Harvard emeritus professor Ezra F. Vogel, the acknowledged father of the field; former Clinton administration China policy advisor Susan Shirk; UC Berkeley journalism dean Orville Schell, author of nine books on China and a leading expert on the nation’s human rights record; and high-level Chinese government economic advisor Justin Yifu Lin, also on the faculty of Peking University.

More intellectual resources can be found in USC’s 32-year-old East Asian Studies Center. Based in the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the center is a second campus home to nearly 100 scholars of Asia distributed across 30 disciplines, including the 13-member faculty of the department of East Asian Languages and cultures. China specialists are sprinkled across many departments of the College: a half-dozen in economics alone; another half-dozen in linguistics; a score more in history, international relations, political science, anthropology, art history and religion. The center is also headquarters for the USC/UCLA Joint East Asian Studies Center, a powerful magnet for federally funded cross-town collaborations.

Of course, plenty of American universities have impressive rosters of Far East experts. So what prompts Clay Dube, late of UCLA � which boasts the nation’s highest Chinese-language enrollments and one of its finest East Asian library collections � to say, as he unequivocally does, that “USC has made a commitment to Asia that exceeds that of any other university?”

Part of the answer lies in Sample’s decade-long drive toward the Pacific Rim. Another part lies in Nikias’ damn-the-torpedoes, full-steam-ahead optimism. And a third part lies in the truism � never truer than in the case of Troy � about the sum of the parts being greater than the whole.

Look beyond the arts and sciences at USC’s unparalleled breadth of professional schools � as Nikias charged Beth Garrett to do more than a year ago, with an eye toward Chinese expertise � and the mind boggles.

Nearly all of USC’s academic units are engaged in ongoing collaborations, study abroad programs, curriculum review or research in China and Taiwan. The USC Viterbi School of Engineering has joint educational programs with Tsinghua University, the so-called MIT of China. The USC Thornton School of Music has a teaching partnership with Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The USC Marshall School of Business runs its global executive MBA program in tandem with Shanghai Jiaotong University; this spring the 21-month joint effort awarded its first 45 degrees to mid-career Chinese managers, and 104 more are in the pipeline.

Scores more faculty members have close professional ties with one or another Chinese university. Nearly 50 of them � social scientists, engineers, physicians, business experts � are currently conducting or collaborating on research involving China and Taiwan. Their topics run the gamut from early fossils to elder care, earthquake science to corporate management, environmental changes to the film industry, to name but a few.

And that’s just the self-described China specialists. A lot more USC scholars have the potential to contribute deeply to complex, interdisciplinary matters concerning Chinese-American interdependence. The number of untapped researchers who are interested in China but have yet to make contacts is potentially huge.

“Many scholars on campus � I’d be in this group � focus on the United States,” says Beth Garrett, who accompanied the USC trustee delegation to Shanghai in May. “But I can see how my work could immediately translate into research relevant to U.S.-China relations.”

In her academic life, Garrett is a distinguished law professor with expertise in tax and budget policy, administrative law, the study of democratic institutions, and direct democracy through initiatives and referenda. The only thing preventing her from contributing to serious China-related research is a wrongheaded notion that only China scholars have something to offer. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

“What the institute can do is spark new work from people who haven’t thought about how their scholarship impacts U.S.-China relations,” she says.

It bears repeating that this institute isn’t about China per se, it’s about the intersections between America and China, which increasingly � some might say alarmingly � means just about everything we see, hear and touch today.

Some Westerners see in China’s global ascension cause for fear. Former Reagan administration trade official Clyde Prestowitz, for example, forecast an “economic 9/11” inflicting great hardships on America in his 2005 book, Three Billion New Capitalists.

“China-bashing is in vogue in Washington these days, with strong parallels to the Japan-bashing of the 1980s, when that nation’s economy also threatened the United States,” wrote USC international relations expert Geoffrey Garrett in an L.A. Times op-ed. “… An unholy political alliance in the U.S. among protectionists and security hawks has painted a bull’s-eye on China… [But] treating China as a rival rather than a partner would be a self-fulfilling prophecy with very dire consequences,” he warns.

It’s important to remember that Chinese prosperity and global leadership is the paradigm, not the anomaly. For most of the last millennium, China was the world’s largest economy and the hub of science, technology and culture. The gradual slide from economic dominance to extreme poverty (by 1975, China’s per capita income was a mere 7.5 percent of Western Europe’s) can, in part, be explained by a succession of disastrous policy decisions starting with the Ming dynasty’s turn inward in the 15th century and culminating in Mao Zedong’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, in the 20th century.

Beginning in 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put China back on course for economic development, a course, ironically, that was built on capitalism. In the past 30 years, a series of dramatic market-based reforms fueled the fastest economic growth rate ever seen in a major economy, and culminated in China’s formally joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. “I don’t know how many Chinese actually ever bought a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book,” quips New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in his book, The World Is Flat, “but U.S. Embassy officials in China told me that 2 million copies of the Chinese-language edition of the WTO rule book were sold in the weeks immediately after China signed on to the WTO.”

With Deng’s rise to power, China simply resumed the course it had charted more than a millennium ago: to be, in the words of Jeffrey Sachs in his 2005 book, The End of Poverty, “the world’s most successful economy.” Since then, the average person’s income has doubled every nine years. Poverty has been falling just as fast: In just the last 20 years, the percentage of Chinese living on less than a dollar a day went from 64 to 17 percent.

World leaders for the most part “get it.” George W. Bush has paid state visits to China three times during his presidency, most recently in November 2005. Earlier that month, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger led a trade delegation to Beijing. Russian premier Vladimir Putin paid a two-day visit in March 2006; it was his fifth meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in little more than a year.

There’s an object lesson in all this, if we Americans can only get past our fear and knee-jerk resentment at the thought of being upstaged by the great empire of the east.

“The United States suffers severely when it fails to accurately understand China and its domestic condition.” That was the conclusion of “The Chinese Future,” a 1997 group study published by the USC-based Pacific Council on International Policy and co-authored by China expert Daniel Lynch. “To be sure, accurate estimates of China do not guarantee a wise China policy,” the study noted. “The Chinese, after all, must also “get the United States right.’”

Writing a decade ago, Lynch might just as easily have been spelling out the impetus behind USC’s U.S.-China Institute: an all-out push to get China right, and help China get us right.

China’s economy might be unstoppable, but all is not lotus petals in the land of Confucius. Hardly a day goes by when major news outlets don’t warn of some deeply troubling trend. Miracle aside, today 140 million people in China live in desperate poverty. As UC Berkeley journalism dean and USC U.S.-China Institute faculty affiliate Orville Schell noted in an expos� for, China must find a way to maintain one-quarter of the world’s population on 7 percent of its arable land. It contains 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities; it is in grave danger of both deforestation and desertification. Its environment is a looming disaster: acid rain falls over one-third of its land mass, while 75 percent of its lakes and rivers are seriously contaminated. Half the water from its seven major rivers is unfit to use even in agriculture and industry.

Last November an explosion at the Jilin Petrochemical Company’s plant in Manchuria underscored the contradictions that bedevil China’s economic miracle. As more than 100 tons of highly carcinogenic benzene and nitrobenzene flowed into the Songhua River, officials and the state-controlled media lied about what had happened. “Only after the downriver city of Harbin (population 9 million) was forced to turn off its municipal water system for more than four days, putting the city on the edge of urban panic, were the rough outlines of the disaster revealed to the public,” Schell reported. On the other hand, an MSNBC report told how officials in Fujian province had helpfully sent millions of text messages to residents of coastal Jinjiang warning of the impending landfall of a powerful typhoon and providing evacuation instructions.

Public health is on shaky ground, and not just with the mismanagement of SARS and bird flu scares. An Associated Press story in August reported that “killing teams” of police in China’s Yunnan province had clubbed to death 50,000 dogs in five days after a rabies outbreak. “Only 3 percent of dogs in China are vaccinated against rabies,” the wire story explained, “and more than 2,000 people die of the disease each year.” On the cultural side, not long ago the Los Angeles Times reported a move by the central government to curb the Chinese appetite for “unhealthy” (read: sexually suggestive) songs by censoring playlists at ever-popular karaoke parlors. USC’s Stanley Rosen, in a recent L.A. Times op-ed, “Hollywood and China: Lost in Translation,” documented how Chinese film officials inexplicably yanked The Da Vinci Code after the American import had been playing nationwide in 400 movie theaters for more than three weeks.

Although the number of public universities in China nearly doubled in the last decade (up from 1,080 in 1994 to about 2,000 now), the big picture is disturbing. The New York Times described last year’s commencement at newly created Shengda College as turning into a riot when new graduates ransacked classrooms, shattered car windows and scuffled with police, all because their diplomas did not (as advertised) read “Zhengzhou University” � Shengda’s more prestigious parent institution. In May, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported how student Wang Yin walked away in disgust nine months shy of his doctoral degree in computer science, complaining in an open letter to the administration that his professors at the elite Tsinghua University had nothing of value to teach him.

Just as China’s re-emergence as the world economic leader is no cause for American grief, the grave difficulties it faces along the way are no cause for glee. Both China’s economic rise and its staggering social problems should � and do � suggest to American academicians a wellspring of new ideas and areas of scholarship. Researchers unfamiliar with China are starting to realize that central questions in their disciplines can best be understood by focusing on trends and conditions in that fast-developing nation. Howard Gillman, a constitutional scholar by training, points to his own research interests: the relationship between economic development and independent judiciaries. “These questions are of great interest for how China will develop,” he says.

Those grieving for the now-departed American Century should take heart. China’s ascension doesn’t necessarily portend our decline. “America’s future lies in its imagination,” predicts Provost Max Nikias. So what if China out-produces America five-fold in the training of engineers? “American infrastructure is already so well-developed that lower-level technicians [non-engineers] can service it,” Nikias wrote in a June 25, 2006 San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece, leaving American-based engineers and scientists free to take on more creative, right-brain problems � like the nuances of nanoscience or the conundrums of quantum computing.

“What might American global leadership look like in this century?” Nikias asks, and answers his own question. Historically, he writes, “Americans have innovated while others have imitated.” The trick is to keep doing just that, maintaining “our creative edge, even as our other edges grow blunt.”

The answer “begins with imagination.” And American imagination begins at American universities.

If you have questions or comments on this article, please send them to <>.

Illustration by Nancy Stahl

USC Global Initiatives director James Ellis, USC trustee Ronnie C. Chan and USC President Steven B. Sample visited the Forbidden City in May 2006.

Photo by Jon Weiner

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