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China: The explosive new mixes with the old, historian says

STANFORD -- China is changing rapidly but Westerners should not expect the state to whither away as capitalism takes hold, historian Jonathan Spence of Yale told a standing-room-only audience at Tresidder Union on Tuesday, Nov. 29.

The author of nine books on Chinese history drew generalizations from the long sweep of China's history to suggest some "constants" to expect as China undergoes rapid economic growth. His talk was the second of six lectures planned this year on China by the Institute for International Studies and its Asia/Pacific Research Center. Other speakers who have been confirmed for the Walter H. Shorenstein Distinguished Lecture Series are Harry Harding, dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, on Jan. 23 and Ying-shih Yu, professor of Chinese and East Asian studies at Princeton, on Feb. 13.

Spence, who was co-chair of the first Yale faculty group to travel to China in 1974, said China's history suggests that it is "traditional for the state to have power over culture" but that "idealist dissent" also has deep roots in Confucian philosophy. He expects tension to continue indefinitely between the "urge to order" and "pressure to expand individual freedoms."

During questioning, Stanford Professor Lawrence Lau, an expert on China's economy, asked Spence if an "urge to order" was not universal to cultures. Americans, Lau noted, had demonstrated their "urge to order" recently by demanding a stiffer law-and-order stance against crime.

Spence said he felt there was a difference between the Chinese and U.S. situations in "the means one is willing to use to maintain [order]." China has shown its willingness to use state force: in 1989 against dissenters at Tiananmen Square and more recently, to forgo a likely medal in the Special Olympics by refusing to let a discus thrower compete because he lost his legs at Tiananmen Square. On the same week as his visit to Stanford, Spence said an exiled poet was turned back at the Beijing airport even though the San Francisco consulate had issued him a visa to visit his family.

Spence also suggested that "China's neighbors are wary" of China today, as they have been historically because of China's preference to have "peripheral states in awe of China's power” as buffers. Two recent examples in the news, he said, were the Vietnam government's decision to open negotiations with the United States concerning the potential American military facilities at Cam Ranh Bay and Kazakhstan's decision to give up its enriched uranium. China's oil exploration in the South China Sea, he said, makes Vietnam nervous while fear of China gaining access to its enriched uranium is one reason for Kazakhstan's decision.

"While not expansionist, China has been interventionist," Spence said, getting involved in Vietnam in the 1760s and 1979 and in Korea three times since the 16th century.

China has not launched an invasion from the sea, however, since its capture of Taiwan in 1683, and its armies have "not been used recklessly," Spence said, although they have been willing to "drive people off their land [within what is known as China] in the interest of the ethnic majority."

"On the whole, China has sought to buy peace as a cheaper strategy than making war."

Democracy in China's future is a question mark, he said.

"There is a constant argument about whether the Chinese people are ready" for democracy, but the country has had only one "moderately successful election" in 1913. "The warlords destroyed the republic, but it was riddled with graft," Spence said.

Some people say an election trend may start at the local level and work its way up to the national level, he said. "I wouldn't think you'll get a change until the [central] government decides on it because they think it is organizationally efficient."

The Western idea that individual liberty is necessary for large-scale economic success is challenged by China past and present, Spence said. Bright entrepreneurs, he said, are creating successful companies by understanding both capitalism and how to work around aspects of the governmental control.

In response to a question, Spence said he could not say how much foreign investment and capital have unraveled Beijing's control of the Chinese economy. Historically, foreign business has been successfully "controlled by state rules and rituals," he said, and confined mostly to the coast, and some of the so-called foreign capital flowing into the country is really new Chinese wealth routed back into the country through Hong Kong.

Historically, he said, "most foreign firms have found, after extensive experiments, that they really need Chinese intervenors of some kind or another" to be successful at business inside China. “The Chinese trust Chinese, overseas and indigenous, to manipulate trade patterns. I think also Chinese familial bonds have remained very strong.” Familial trade is not in conflict with modern managerial theories," Spence said. "These sorts of patterns are exploding, but they haven't exploded altogether. Historians would say these are powerful factors."

China's population and environmental problems also go back a long way, Spence said.

"China's population has been the largest in relation to other world populations since we began any moderately accurate calculation," he said, and historians can trace serious environmental degradation in China back at least to the 14th or 15th century.

Deforestation of upland areas first led to erosion and floods, which led to great hydraulic public works projects and sometimes social rebellions, Spence said. The flow of new wealth into housing and roads will exacerbate China's shortage of arable land, add to urban sprawl and lead to water rationing, he said. More air pollution can be expected as the government pursues its new goal of one car per family.

China's population, approaching 1.2 billion, is a source of worry for the world, Spence said, but he added, "Maybe we in the West have lectured China too much about this. China is now responding but it's responding in a way we really hadn't anticipated."

China's policy of coercing couples into having no more than one child led first to abortions and infanticide of females so that today, the ratio of men to women at younger ages is three to two, he said. Recently, the government announced it was banning fetal scans and sex-selective abortions but said it would allow scans for families concerned about genetic defects. At least one government official has been quoted suggesting people with genetic defects should not have children.

"We are in a kind of nerve-wracking world of genetic control," Spence said, which he called a "complicating development" in the problem of curbing world population.



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