A few recent articles about China caught my attention. After taking them all in, one common theme became clear to me: China has made a lot of economic and cultural progress in recent years as it strives to become the next global superpower. At the same, as my previous blog posts have mentioned, China still lags other countries and societies when it comes to certain issues such as human rights, consumer protection, etc.

With this dichotomy in mind and as these most recent articles will highlight, China seems to be at a crossroads: is China willing to and capable of taking the next step and becoming a truly respected global superpower, or is it fated to just have economic power without real global acceptance as a legitimate ‘developed’ nation?

Specifically, in a recent column in Time magazine, Fareed Zakaria argues that despite the ongoing controversy over whether China’s government deliberately devalues its currency to artificially keep its goods cheap in overseas markets, China’s real problem is that, for it to continue to stay globally competitive, it needs to invest in improving the human capital (education, postindustrial job skills, etc.) of its citizens:

The real challenge we face from China is not that it will keep flooding us with cheap goods. It’s actually the opposite: China is moving up the value chain, and this could constitute the most significant new competition to the U.S. economy in the future. For much of the past three decades, China focused its efforts on building up its physical infrastructure. It didn’t need to invest in its people; the country was aiming to produce mainly low-wage, low-margin goods. As long as its workers were cheap and worked hard, that was good enough. . . .

Now China wants to get into higher-quality goods and services. That means the next phase of its economic development, clearly identified by government officials, requires it to invest in human capital with the same determination it used to build highways. Since 1998, Beijing has undertaken a massive expansion of education, nearly tripling the share of GDP devoted to it. In the decade since, the number of colleges in China has doubled and the number of students quintupled, going from 1 million in 1997 to 5.5 million in 2007. China has identified its nine top universities and singled them out as its version of the Ivy League.

That rationale makes perfect sense to me — as the world economy becomes more globalized, postindustrial, and information- and data-intensive, workers with these advanced educational and job skills are poised to have an advantage in the labor market. This is basically what the rest of the world believes as well. But as a New York Times article points out, the problem in China however, is that this rush and pressure to improve one’s education seems to be increasingly associated with academic fraud:

The exposure of Mr. Zhang’s faked credentials provoked a fresh round of hand-wringing over what many scholars and Chinese complain are the dishonest practices that permeate society, including students who cheat on college entrance exams, scholars who promote fake or unoriginal research, and dairy companies that sell poisoned milk to infants. . . .

[A] lack of integrity among researchers is hindering China’s potential and harming collaboration between Chinese scholars and their international counterparts, scholars in China and abroad say. . . . Pressure on scholars by administrators of state-run universities to earn journal citations — a measure of innovation — has produced a deluge of plagiarized or fabricated research. . . . [E]arlier this year, The Lancet, the British medical journal, warned that faked or plagiarized research posed a threat to President Hu Jintao’s vow to make China a “research superpower” by 2020. . . .

[P]lagiarizers often go unpunished, which only encourages more of it. . . . The Chinese government has vowed to address the problem. Editorials in the state-run press frequently condemn plagiarism and last month, Liu Yandong, a powerful Politburo member who oversees Chinese publications, vowed to close some of the 5,000 academic journals whose sole existence, many scholars say, is to provide an outlet for doctoral students and professors eager to inflate their publishing credentials.

Fang Shimin and another crusading journalist, Fang Xuanchang, have heard the vows and threats before. In 2004 and again in 2006, the Ministry of Education announced antifraud campaigns but the two bodies they established to tackle the problem have yet to mete out any punishments.

We do need to keep in mind that in many Asian countries, there is a greater sense of collective harmony and group cooperation that differs from the ethos of individualism and “every-man-for-himself” that is more prominent in western countries. Also considering the rash of American corporate greed and deceit that contributed to the onset of the current recession, fraud is certainly not exclusive to China.

At the same time, and as Chinese authorities seem to recognize at least verbally, it is clear that this mentality of malfeasance is a problem that needs to be addressed for China to move closer toward full acceptance and respect as a true global superpower.

Another aspect of China’s “cultural schizophrenia” that caught my attention concerns the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a former literature professor who has been variously persecuted by the Chinese government the past 20 years for championing democratic reform. The vast majority of the world is applauding the choice of Liu for the prize, with the obvious exception being the Chinese government. However, as a different New York Times article notes, another notable group of critics against Liu are other Chinese pro-democracy dissidents:

In recent days, a group of 14 overseas Chinese dissidents, many of them hard-boiled exiles dedicated to overthrowing the Communist Party, have been calling on the Nobel committee to deny the prize to Mr. Liu, whom they say would make an “unsuitable” laureate. In a letter, the signatories accused Mr. Liu of maligning fellow activists, abandoning persecuted members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and going soft on China’s leaders. “His open praise in the last 20 years for the Chinese Communist Party, which has never stopped trampling on human rights, has been extremely misleading and influential,” they wrote. . . .

The letter and calls from other detractors have infuriated many rights advocates, inside and outside of China, who say the attack distorts Mr. Liu’s record as a longtime proponent of peaceful [and pragmatic] change. . . . More recently, Mr. Liu was given an 11-year prison sentence last Christmas for his role in shaping a manifesto, known as Charter ’08, that called for popular elections and an end to the Communist Party’s unchallenged grip on power. . . .

Whatever the merits of the anti-Liu Xiaobo camp, their very public sentiments provide a window into the state of the overseas Chinese dissidents, a fractured group beset by squabbling and competing claims of anti-authoritarian righteousness. . . . Even if they have differences over strategy, many intellectuals and activists inside China describe Mr. Liu as a dynamic thinker who appealed both to members of the party and many of its die-hard opponents.

Despite — or perhaps because of — Mr. Liu’s compassionate and forgiving nature, he seems to be caught in the “key to failure” conundrum as articulated once by Bill Cosby: “I don’t know what’s the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” In other words, his opposition to authoritarian rule has made him an enemy of the state to the Chinese government, but apparently he is not considered “radical” enough for other pro-democracy Chinese dissidents. It’s the classic no-win scenario.

It also reminds me of similar intra-ethnic tensions within the Vietnamese American community in which hard-line anti-communist refugees often accuse others within their community of being a communist when there is a disagreement on some issue. Another example is when some Asian Americans dismiss or criticize other Asian Americans for not being “Asian” enough, particularly those who are adopted or mixed-race.

On the one hand, it’s obviously unrealistic to expect that all Chinese — both inside and outside the country — to agree on all issues and aspects of their society and government policies. On the other hand, when members of your own community reject one of their own, particularly when it comes to a highly prestigious award such as the Nobel Peace Prize, it makes me wonder about whether such a fractured group can effectively act as a respected counterbalance to China’s authoritarian rule and its continuing less-than-stellar record on human rights.

Every country has its own problems and its contradictions when it comes to establishing a united identity and collective path forward so in that regard, China is no different from, say, the U.S. Also, I am not suggesting that China should blindly conform to all social aspects and policies that are characteristic of western societies. But what is unique in China’s case is that it wants very, very badly to ascend to the position and status of being a globally respected political, economic, and cultural superpower.

In many ways, China already has enormous global influence. But that is not necessarily the same as global respect and authority.

Firstly, thanks for your patience these past few weeks — between the end of the semester, grading, traveling to visit relatives over the holidays, and most recently, switching web hosts, I was not able to post as often as I wanted. But a new year brings a new start!

As many of you already know, since I am a sociology professor and a person of color, issues related to the intersection of those two areas of my life are particularly significant for me. With that in mind, as Inside Higher Education reports, a new report examines levels of job satisfaction among college faculty and finds some interesting differences by racial group:

Compared to white faculty members, African American, Asian and Native American faculty were less satisfied on a series of questions on climate, culture and collegiality at their institutions. Of the 10 climate measures in the survey, Asians were less satisfied on 6; Native Americans on 5; and African Americans on 4, all by statistically significant margins.

These gaps may be particularly important to colleges seeking to diversify their faculties, as a key theme of COACHE reports has been the idea that today’s younger generation of professors — far more than previous generations — will judge colleges as employers on issues of campus culture and supportive employment policies, not just on prestige or compensation.

At the same time, the new data show that the issues are not identical for all minority groups and that colleges that “lump everyone together” may not be reaching the topics crucial to different populations. . .

For black faculty members, for example, job satisfaction levels with regard to work-life balance were similar to those for white faculty members. But they reported lower levels of satisfaction on interactions with tenured and pre-tenure colleagues, with sense of “fit” at their institutions, and with their sense of fair treatment in their departments. African American faculty members are also less likely than their white counterparts to believe that tenure decisions are made primarily on job performance. . . .

Asian faculty members indicated a different set of issues. Compared to their white counterparts, Asian faculty reported greater clarity about tenure expectations and higher levels of satisfaction on many questions about job satisfaction. But when it comes to questions related to teaching, they were less happy on most questions.

The actual report provides more detailed descriptions of the findings by racial group. Since I have a particular interest in the findings regarding Asian American faculty, some of the findings that struck me was as noteworthy are (as stated in the text of the report):

  • Asian faculty responded that expectations for performance as scholars were significantly more reasonable than did white faculty; however, they felt that expectations for performance as campus citizens were significantly less reasonable than did white faculty.
  • Asian faculty reported significantly more satisfaction than did white faculty with how they spend their time, the number of hours they work as a faculty member in an average week, the amount of time they have to conduct research, the quality of the facilities, the amount of access they have to [graduate assistants]. . . . However, they reported significantly less satisfaction than did white faculty with all but one item in the teaching composite (number of students they teach).
  • Asian faculty reported significantly less agreement than white faculty that their institutions do what they can to make raising children and the tenure-track compatible
  • Asian faculty reported significantly less satisfaction than their white colleagues with regard to the fairness with which their immediate supervisors evaluate their work . . . and their sense of ‘fit’ in their departments.

To summarize, the report data shows that, compared to their White counterparts, Asian tenure-track faculty generally felt that expectations for scholarly performance were reasonable, that they were satisfied with how they spent their professional time and the quality of the academic resources available to them.

However, also compared to their White colleagues, Asian tenure-track faculty were more dissatisfied with their teaching demands, the demands of them as “campus citizens,” with the resources available to them to balance work and family responsibilities, with how their immediate supervisors evaluated their work, and their overall “fit” within their departments.

How should we make sense of these results regarding Asian faculty? At first, these results may actually seem contradictory but for those like me who work in academic settings, they do make sense. The results basically show the Asian faculty know what’s expected of them research-wise and are fine with such expectations, but generally don’t like the teaching demands.

But perhaps most troubling is that Asian faculty generally feel that they aren’t fully integrated or aren’t given fair opportunities to integrate into the more informal “collegial” social environment around them. If this is true, what are the reasons behind such frustrations?

To try to answer that question, I refer back to my earlier post about the effects of racial diversity on college students in which the results of a different study showed that, among other things, increased racial/ethnic diversity among student populations resulted in more racial tolerance, with the notable exception of when White and Black students had an Asian roommate.

I pointed out that perhaps there is a qualitative difference between having an Asian immigrant roommate and having an Asian American (U.S.-born or raised) roommate and that such a distinction would account for this particular negative finding. I think the same idea can be applied to these results regarding Asian faculty.

That is, perhaps Asian immigrant faculty have a qualitatively harder time integrating into the “mainstream’ collegial social environment than do U.S.-born or raised Asian American faculty. This difficulty may be due to cultural and language barriers.

Or perhaps more interestingly (and again alluding to what I wrote in my earlier post), perhaps it may also involve an unconscious bias or hostility against Asians as ‘foreigners’ and as Asian faculty being perceived as representatives of the economic and cultural threat posed by the rise of countries such as China and India.

I think there is a lot of circumstantial evidence emerging that suggests that as the world in general and American society in particular become increasingly diverse, racial/ethnic tensions seem to be gradually and unfortunately rising as “mainstream” Americans feel economically and culturally unstable and even threatened.

Nonetheless, that does not mean everything is doom and gloom. With the example of Obama’s election as our next President, I think there are some very strong rays of optimism, tolerance, and cooperation.

Inevitably, there will be an adjustment period for a new sense of “normalcy” to get established, but ultimately, I am hopeful and confident that as a society, we are on the right track and that racial/ethnic disparities, whether they relate to college faculty of color or some other set of issues, will become less of a problem as we move forward.