A couple of weeks ago, I made my first ever visit to China and I wanted to share some sociological observations with you about what I saw and experienced while I was there. My trip was under the auspices of my university’s International Programs Office (IPO) that’s in charge of all the study abroad programs on campus. From time to time, the IPO visits various study abroad sites around the world to make sure that they are high-quality programs for our students. Normally, the different staff at the IPO conducts these visits, but this time around, they asked me if I wanted to go to Beijing to check out the Council on International Educational Exchange’s (CIEE) programs in Beijing. It was an offer I could not pass up, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Specifically, the CIEE programs that I visited were based at Minzu University and Peking University. As the CIEE staff described to me, Minzu University was established in 1951 to basically assimilate members of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups (such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, Zhuang, Manchus, Hui, Miao, Yi, Mongols, etc.) into the majority Han culture. However, through the years, its focus and curriculum have evolved to become more tolerant and now promotes the retention of many aspects of culture and tradition among such ethnic minorities. Peking University is frequently called the “Harvard of China” and is considered to be the crown jewel of China’s university system. In its 2011-2012 ranking of universities around the world, the Times Higher Education listed Peking University as number 49 overall and as the top university in China.

Although I do not have anything to which I can compare these study abroad programs since this was my first such site visit, overall I found the CIEE programs at both universities to be comprehensive and impressive. There was a wide variety of academic and field opportunities for U.S. students at both schools to learn about Chinese language and culture inside and outside of the classroom. I found the staff there to be very friendly, professional, well-skilled, and enthusiastic about their programs. I also talked to a number of U.S. students currently studying abroad in these two CIEE programs and they all raved about the positive experiences they’ve had there. From what I saw during my site visit, I would certainly recommend these programs to my students.

Below are a few pictures from my visit to China. You can view a more detailed photostream at my Flickr page.

Inside Manzu University
Street scene just outside of Manzu University
Inside the Temple of Heaven complex
'No Name' Lake and traditional pagoda inside Peking University
The front of Tiananmen Square just after sunrise

China at a Crossroads

While I was in China and in my conversations with the CIEE staff and with both Chinese and U.S. students, a recurring theme was that China seems to be at a crossroads in its history and that there are two important issues within which China is struggling to find its balance in terms of where it wants to position itself politically, economically, and culturally within the global community. Each of these issues that I’ll discuss in more detail below represent a paradox or set of interesting contradictions that are playing themselves out within modern Chinese society.

I am certainly not the first observer, analyst, or scholar to discuss these issues, nor can I claim to have comprehensive expertise on such issues. Nonetheless, I would like to share my observations as a sociologist who wants to apply my academic interest in how Asians (and China specifically) fit into the contemporary global community in the 21st century and how Asian Americans fit into these international dynamics as well.

The first paradoxical issue concerns the growing sense of nationalism in China. This nationalism was most recently manifested in angry and sometimes violent protests against Japan over some small islands that lie between China (Diaoyu in Chinese) and Japan (Senkaku in Japanese) and are claimed by both countries. More generally, nationalism directed against foreigners has been evident in China for a while and from time to time, flares up and can turn ugly.

In my conversations with different people in China, they mentioned that a famous Chinese philosopher named Lu Xun observed about a hundred years ago that China frequently see themselves as either superior or inferior in relation to foreign powers, but never equal to them — it’s either a feeling of superiority or inferiority. With this in mind, nationalist feelings of superiority or inferiority need points of comparison. In modern times, China has two main international points of comparison — in Asia, it’s Japan and in the western world, it’s the U.S.

My contacts also observed that in most cases, the average Chinese citizen will rarely express such nationalist feelings directly to a foreigner, there was one instance in which this nationalism was directly visible to me and other site visitors in this trip. Specifically, a group of us (all from the U.S. involved in the CIEE site visit) was walking through Peking University when a Chinese male in his mid-40s came up to us and started speaking Chinese to us. Unfortunately none of us spoke Chinese, but even after we said that to him in English, he still kept speaking. We then pulled a Chinese American study abroad student (let’s call him ‘Keith’) who was accompanying us while we were at Peking University into the conversation. The Chinese man then turned his attention to Keith and as Keith relayed to us later, went into a tirade against the presence of foreigners in China. Although this man was not shouting, he was obviously very assertive in expressing himself. Considering the recent protests against Japan, this was probably a relatively mild form of nationalism that we experienced.

The contradiction here is that China very much wants to attain a position of respect and status within the international community and wants to continue attracting international investment and promoting global trade. In other words, it needs to engage with the international community. But on the other hand, a large part of the national discourse within China emphasizes China’s superiority over foreign powers and in fact, advocates limiting or even eliminating the presence of foreigners inside China.

An interesting component to this emerging nationalism in China is that much of it was initiated and encouraged by the Chinese government, at least in the beginning. As other analysts have pointed out, when it comes to particular issues such as the disputes with Japan, Chinese government officials have tried to maintain a sense of diplomacy in public while behind the scenes, frequently allowed or even facilitated nationalist rhetoric and citizen protests to serve their political interests. The problem however, is that the Chinese government may be losing control over this nationalist monster that they’ve created. As one of my contacts noted, when you keep feeding the citizens ‘wolves’ milk,’ eventually they’ll grow up to be wolves.

I have written about this kind of “cultural schizophrenia” in China before. On the institutional and national level, this sense of fluctuating between two extremes while trying to find your identity is actually similar to what many Asian Americans face on the individual level as they try to balance the ‘Asian’ and ‘American’ sides of their identity. In China’s case, as it tries to solidify its position in the international community, it’s likely that such internal struggles will continue to take place and it remains to be seen how the emerging contradictions between the government’s ‘Dr. Jekyll’ and the nationalists’ ‘Mr. Hyde’ will play themselves out.

Where Do Chinese Americans Fit Into China?

The second sociological dynamic that I observed while in China relates to where Chinese Americans fit into modern Chinese society. Like a number of other Asian American scholars, I have a growing interest in looking at how Asian Americans fit into Asian societies and how they use both their Asian and American identities to potentially bridge the political and cultural gaps between the U.S. and Asian countries. As such, I was very interested in hearing from Chinese American students and their experiences studying abroad in China.

In addition to ‘Keith’ (mentioned above), I also spoke at length to another Chinese American student; let’s call her ‘Kathy.’ They both described similar experiences of feeling caught in a “cultural limbo” while in China. That is, on the one hand, their physical appearance is Asian and more specifically, Chinese. But on the other hand, their nationality is American. This frequently means that upon first contact, most Chinese nationals assume that they are Chinese. But once they start talking, they are quickly seen as American, even though they speak Chinese pretty well.

Interesting times ahead

Both Keith and Kathy noted to me that once this happens, more often than not, Chinese nationals lose interest in speaking to them. I asked them why and they said that Chinese tend to be more interested in talking to ‘regular’ Americans — i.e., White Americans. In other words, even within China, while they are treated generally as Americans (rather than as Chinese), Chinese Americans are generally not seen as representing the ‘normal’ image or perception of what Chinese think of as ‘American’ — i.e. they are not White.

Nonetheless, Kathy and Keith told me that once they got used to this cultural dynamic, they were eventually able to create and embrace their own “Chinese American” identity that is neither completely Chinese nor completely American, but a fluid combination of both. Upon doing this, they said that they felt more comfortable using this identity to begin bridging the cultural gaps between China and the U.S. in small ways during their stay in China.

This process of creating an ‘Asian American’ identity that combines and bridges two sets of cultures is what Americans of Asian ancestry have been doing for centuries. It is with this understanding in mind that I think Asian Americans are positioned to take make tangible contributions toward applying their globalized and transnational characteristics and experiences to bridging the political and cultural gaps between the U.S. and Asian countries. In fact, scholars are beginning to examine and describe examples of Asian Americans in different social settings acting as ‘cultural ambassadors‘ in Asian societies.

Therefore, if countries such as China continue to pursue a position of respect within the wider international community while still retaining elements of their national identity, they can learn from Chinese Americans who have have years of experience and expertise in doing exactly that — integrating themselves into mainstream U.S. society while keeping elements their Chinese culture intact. This is not to say that it has been a seamless or smooth process and in fact, Chinese- and Asian Americans have been and continue to face suspicions and challenges regarding their ‘real’ identity.

Nonetheless, institutional changes taking place, such as the ongoing effects of globalization, greater transnationalism, and increased multiculturalism, have transformed the racial, ethnic, and cultural landscape of both U.S. society and the world in general. Within this new social environment, there are new opportunities for minority groups such as Asian Americans to assert an identity that legitimately incorporates elements of, and for the benefit of, different societies and cultures.

There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” From a sociological point of view, this is indeed a very interesting time for China and there are a number of interesting ways that Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans as a whole) can participate in forging a more inclusive path forward into the 21st century.

This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

I presume that by now, all of you have heard about the debate and controversy over Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, her accompanying article in the Wall Street Journal provocatively titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” and the resultant backlash throughout American society and on the internet from Asian Americans and non-Asians alike.

Although I have not yet read her book, from her various public appearances lately and based on other people’s summaries of her points, I understand that her main arguments are that American parents tend to be too lax in their parenting styles, particularly when it comes to not emphasizing hard work, persistence, and total commitment to education and other tasks necessary for your child to be a high achiever in contemporary American and global societies. In her own words on the Wall Street Journal article, she writes:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it’s like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I’ve done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

Tiger mother © Michael K. Nichols/National Geographic Society
  • attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin . . .

To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America.

I’ve been meaning to comment on her points for a while and I also know that there are plenty of other writers and bloggers who have already weighed in on this subject. However, I’ve been occupied with preparing for the start of the new semester and have not been able to read many of their responses yet. Therefore, I apologize if I am restating points that others have already brought up.

As I describe in more detail below about the specific arguments Chua makes that I agree and disagree with, the main point that I want to emphasize is that parenting does not have to be an “either-or” proposition — there does not have to be a rigid line drawn between “rigorous” and “permissive” styles, nor does there have to be a complete separation of “Chinese” and “American” styles. As I have consistently emphasized throughout this blog, frequently there is an artificial division between these two identities that inevitably creates unnecessary barriers, misunderstandings, and tensions between all those involved.

Instead, I want to emphasize that it is possible to achieve a balance between these two identities. This is what Asian Americans have been doing for a while now — taking different elements of each culture to meld and synthesize them into their own style that includes the best of each. As I discuss below, I believe this applies to parenting styles and the drive for achievement and success as well.

In Defense of Chua

One of her points with which I agree is that for whatever reasons, it is very common and indeed beneficial for many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Asian, Asian American, and immigrant parents to place a very strong and heavy emphasis on educational achievement and success. Many native-born American parents do so as well, but I am reminded of an article that I used for a previous course on racial/ethnic demography, “Test-Score Trends Along Racial Lines, 1971 to 1996: Popular Culture and Community Academic Standards,” written by Ronald F. Ferguson (a chapter in America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, 2001). The article described data to show that when it comes to parental expectations of their children’s academic performance, Asian parents who were high school dropouts still had higher expectations of their children than White, Black, and Latino parents who had a college degree.

My point is, it is not necessarily a bad thing to expect your children to not just perform well, but to excel, academically or otherwise. Particularly in this age of globalization, the need for advanced educational and professional skills in order to stay competitive in the global marketplace is readily apparent and increasingly stressed by almost everyone from all backgrounds. We also know that, as it currently stands, the American educational system needs much improvement in terms of preparing our young people to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In other words, as a society, we as Americans should not and cannot settle for mediocrity if we expect to retain our standard of living.

As other sociological research as also shown, many Asian and Asian American parents also understand that as a racial minority in American society, almost by necessity, they need to push their children a little further to make sure that they are able to overcome some of the hurdles and barriers that stand in our way when it comes to socioeconomic success and full institutional integration into American society, especially in tough economic times when competition for jobs and other resources is even more intense and potentially filled with racial tension and hostility.

With this in mind, I also find it quite unfortunate that some of the criticism directed at Chua includes elements of racism that link her to China’s recent emergence to become the new “yellow peril” threat to the U.S. and even death threats against her personally. Time magazine’s recent article on this debate summed up the global context of this debate nicely:

The tiger mother’s cubs are being raised to rule the world, the book clearly implies, while the offspring of “weak-willed,” “indulgent” Westerners are growing up ill equipped to compete in a fierce global marketplace. . . .

These national identity crises are nothing new. . . . In the 1980s, we fretted that Japan was besting us with its technological wizardry and clever product design — the iPod of the ’80s was the Sony Walkman — and its investors’ acquisitions of American name-brand companies and prime parcels of real estate. . . . [Now] our rivalry with the Japanese has faded as another one has taken its place: last year, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy.

The U.S. is still No. 1 — but for how long? We’re rapidly reaching the limit on how much money the federal government can borrow — and our single biggest creditor is China. How long, for that matter, can the beleaguered U.S. education system keep pace with a rapidly evolving and increasingly demanding global marketplace?

Such fears about the U.S. losing its position as the unquestioned political, economic, and cultural superpower are real and valid. At the same time, it is one thing to criticize Chua for her parenting style, but it’s a different matter altogether to reinforce and perpetuate anti-Asian stereotypes and advocate committing violence towards her and others who are perceived to be threats to the “American” way of life. In fact, for many Asians and Asian Americans, such racism only confirms the ongoing challenges we face and the need to overachieve as a reaction to such racial hostility.

Criticisms for Chua

On the other hand, Chua’s style of parenting is certainly not for everybody and in many respects, has the danger of creating some very negative consequences. When it comes to Asian Americans and the model minority image, I’ve written many times before in this blog about the need to balance the drive for success with caution against excessive parental and societal pressure. As a community, unfortunately Asian Americans have experienced too many incidents in which too much parental pressure on their children has led to incidents of suicide and violence. In fact, it is well worth repeating that Asian American women between 15-24 years old have the highest suicide rates of any racial, ethnic, age, and gender group in the U.S.

More generally, I also feel that Chua unnecessarily and unfortunately reinforces this artificial distinction between “Chinese/Asian” and “American.” Beyond the inherent overgeneralizing that Chinese mothers do this while American mothers do that, Chua does not seem to give much credence to the possibility that many Chinese Americans and Asian American parents do both — that we combined the best elements of the different cultures with which we’re familiar. In fact, this is just another example of the kind of “transcultural” assimilation that Asian Americans have done ever since we first arrived in the U.S.

As this CBS News video shows, even parents in China are increasingly rethinking their “success at any cost” approach to parenting that Chua insists is “superior”:

As it relates to parenting, I also do not believe it is not a contradiction to instill a drive for achievement and excellence while also nurturing a sense of independence and an understanding that there is more to life than just material success. Toward that end, I personally do not feel that, in order to stress the importance of personal achievement, parents need to berate, criticize, or shame their child. Chua’s “tough as nails” methods may eventually instill a sense of confidence and achievement in her daughters but I am pretty sure there are less harsh and extreme ways to accomplish the same thing. They might include letting our children work out herself many of the interpersonal difficulties that they encounter everyday and explaining to the child the various individual and institutional challenges that lie ahead of her them and that if they expect to have a comfortable standard of living, they will need to accomplish and at times, master certain tasks toward that goal.

Perhaps I am being too idealistic to think that my daughter has the ability to truly understand these multi-level and long-term issues about what she needs to do now in order to have certain things later. But then again, isn’t that what Chua is basically telling her daughters as well?

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.

As all the major media organizations are reporting, President Obama is in the middle of a high-profile trip to Asia, visiting many of our major allies and trading partners, particularly China. Rather than focus specifically on the political and economic policies about which he and his Asian counterparts will speak, haggle, and disagree, I’d like to take his visit as an opportunity to focus on the love-hate relationship that the U.S. seems to have with China these days.

It is undeniable that globalization has made the economies of the U.S. and China much more intertwined and dependent on each other. One result of this trend is that when the U.S. economy is struggling (like it is these days), China has resources in terms of investing in U.S. businesses and opening up markets in China for U.S. businesses to sell to, both of which help alleviate some of those struggles. For example, and as a nice “Globalization 101″ lesson, the Washington Post has an article that uses a few examples to describe U.S. companies vying for Chinese investment:

On visits to Shanghai and Beijing, Obama will encounter not simply a rising global power but a nation that is transforming and challenging the way Americans live overseas and at home, from college classrooms to real estate offices to the ginseng farms of central Wisconsin. . . .

“Years ago, it didn’t matter what we grew. They bought everything we had,” said Randy Ross, a 54-year-old former dairy farmer who has been growing ginseng since 1978. “Now we’ve got to learn how to satisfy them. They are changing us.” . . . Hate it or love it, China is a major player in American life. . . .

Meanwhile, in a state that has lost more than 160,000 (or one-third) of its manufacturing jobs in a decade, local newspapers have been running editorials praising the People’s Republic and blasting those who oppose closer trade ties or Chinese investment. “China is a friend to Wisconsin and its businesses, not an enemy in a trade war,” the Wisconsin State Journal said in an editorial.

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Chinese undergraduates now account for more than half of the 1,109 Chinese students there. That increase is another sign that China is coming because Wisconsin, like many state schools, doesn’t provide scholarships for international undergrads. Last year, Chinese students paid out $2 billion in tuition nationwide. “That money is keeping some American colleges alive,” said Laurie Cox, who runs the international student center at the Madison campus.

The Washington Post article lists several other ways, many just using businesses in Wisconsin as examples, that Americans and American companies have become dependent on China. In reading over these accounts, one might conclude that to a certain extent, many Americans see China as an “economic savior,” without whom they would be much worse off.

On the other hand, we can contrast those positive sentiments with other, more negative assessments and suspicions about China’s impact on the U.S. I’ve already written Americans being upset towards China for unsafe consumer products, human rights abuses, and allegations of spying and espionage.

More specifically, within this same process of China investing in U.S. companies, many Americans allege that the main reason China is doing so is to take them over and use them to eventually dominate and “take over” the U.S. economy. These suspicions were illustrated loud and clear in a CBS 60 Minutes segment from April of 2008 (entire episode is below, about 12 minutes long):

As I mentioned, these suspicions about China’s “real” intentions are opposite sides of the same coin and are great illustrations of the love-hate relationship that we Americans have with the Chinese. We love their money and their 1.3 billion consumer market, but we hate that their money might lead to them having a say in how our business is run or may eventually lead to them taking over the business completely (this is sometimes referred to as the “New Yellow Peril.”)

In fact, this kind of love-hate relationship that the American society has with Asians, Asian Americans, and Chinese Americans is not new. Starting with when the first large-scale immigration of Chinese to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, reinforced through subsequent decades, and continuing these days, these kinds of contradictory sentiments have manifested themselves in different ways.

For example, mainstream American society loved our cheap labor, how hard we work, and that (at least in the past), we were relatively powerless in asserting our rights for equal treatment. But they hated that we wanted to settle here, raise families here, and that our hard work frequently resulted in us making more money.

In the past, mainstream American society and the White majority also did not want us to freely intermingle with them — that’s why they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and various other local and state laws that restricted where we could live, what jobs we could work in, and who we could marry. Such rampant hostility forced many of us to live in segregated ghettos as a matter of survival. But at the same time, they also criticized us for congregating in our own ethnic communities and accused us of not wanting to assimilate and to be American.

Fast forward to today and the same kind of cultural schizophrenia still exist in regard to the relationship between Asians/Asian Americans and the rest of American society and the White majority. The most visible example seems to be simultaneous hopes and fears over China’s investment in the U.S. economy. Such contradictions are also seen when Asian Americans are both praised and criticized for supposedly being the “model minority.”

Alas, this seems to be the consistent pattern in terms of the relationship between Asians/Asian Americans and the rest of American society — two steps forward, one step back.

Most people know the Hummer line of sport utility vehicles as embodying a very “in-your-face” image of conspicuous materialism and conservative, anti-environmentalist values. Hummers have been the bane of environmentalists for a while, with many being vandalized through the years by radical environmentalists. Nonetheless Hummer owners are very defiant and a recent survey of Hummer owners confirms that in buying their Hummers, most of them made a very conscious choice that their vehicles directly reflected their morals about American individualism, “patriotism,” and consumption.

Hummer H2 customized by Geiger Cars

This social image of Hummer and their owners is what makes this most recent development so ironic — as news organizations have begun reporting, Hummer’s current owner (General Motors) has just sold the brand to the Chinese heavy industry company Sichuan Tengzhong:

It marks the first time that Chinese investors have stepped in as buyers into the distressed U.S. auto industry. The sale also comes at a time when China has emerged as the world’s largest auto market and GM remains majority-owned by the U.S. government after being driven into bankruptcy. . . . A person familiar with the deal said earlier on Friday that the Hummer business would be sold for about $150 million, far less than GM’s early estimate that Hummer could fetch more than $500 million. . . .

Hummer’s sales peaked in 2006 but have been hit hard since by a slumping U.S. economy, higher gasoline prices and a shift in U.S. consumer tastes away from Hummer’s heavy-duty SUVs and its military-derived styling. Through September, Hummer’s U.S. sales were down 64 percent this year. Analysts said the new Hummer faces a difficult task of revamping a macho brand associated with the excess of the past economic boom in the United States.

From a sociological point of view, the question now becomes, what will these individualist, flag-waving, American-valuing fans of Hummer do, now that their beloved company is owned by [gasp] a Chinese company?!?

Will they still embrace the brand and its macho, John Wayne-worshiping image? Will they continue to buy Hummers in the future, even though it means that their money will go to a Chinese, rather than an American, company?

I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but I will definitely enjoy sitting back and watching how these Hummer owners and fans grapple with this perplexing and ironic dilemma.

As news organizations are reporting, the Senate has confirmed Gary Locke as the new Secretary of Commerce. Below is an Associated Press news clip of President Obama introducing Secretary Locke:

If you’re keeping track, Sec. Locke is the third Asian American in President Obama’s cabinet, following Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Three Asian American cabinet secretaries is unprecedented in American history and needless to say, I join many others in expressing my elation and gratitude at President Obama’s picks for his cabinet.

For those who haven’t heard of Sec. Locke before, as Governor of Washington between 1997-2005, he was the first Chinese American governor in American history and the first Asian American governor of a mainland state. He was seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party and a possible Vice Presidential candidate. However, he declined to run for Governor after his second term and returned to private life thereafter.

As illustrated in PBS’s excellent 2005 documentary Searching for Asian America, Sec. Locke is known for being very intelligent and detail-oriented and as such, in many ways personifies some common cultural assumptions about Asian Americans. That’s not to say it’s good or bad, just to say that he represents a “safe choice” for President Obama in that way and was an attractive option since Obama’s first two nominees for the position both dropped out.

But I think another reason that President Obama chose Gary Locke is because, as also pointed out in the PBS documentary, Sec. Locke has many ties to the land of his ancestors, China. Therefore, it’s probably safe to assume that President Obama felt those personal and professional ties to China would come in handy as our nation and its economy tries to navigate through this recession and the 21st century global economy in general, one in which China will play a major role.

As such, Sec. Locke is the latest example of a theme that I’ve been writing about for some time — how Asian Americans are forging a new identity for themselves, one in which our “foreignness” or more specifically our transnational cultural ties and networks back to Asia, are seen as assets, rather than liabilities as we assert our identities as legitimate Americans in the 21st century.

In other words, in this era where American society is inevitably becoming more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse and where economic issues are likely to be a paramount concern for Americans individually and American society institutionally, we as Asian Americans now have the opportunity to make a significant contribution to American society. In the process of doing so, we can also help to reshape the image and definition of what it means to be an “American.”

This expanded definition of being an American includes not just emotional attachment and patriotic loyalty to an American identity, but also involves helping to achieve greater economic prosperity for American society. As we’re seeing right now, economic issues have emerged as significant factors and challenges to American society and its overall sense of national identity.

Within this contexts, Asian American are poised to make significant contributions to rebuilding the American economy and helping it become more competitive in the 21st century. These opportunities can involve many different examples. First, we know that at the aggregate level, Asian American households have the highest median income of all the major racial/ethnic groups.

Even when it comes to personal/per capita level, as data is beginning to show, US-born Asian American have matched or even exceeded the income level of Whites. Of course, we have to be careful and recognize that not all Asian Americans are economically successful, but overall, I think our community is doing well.

In fact, a recent article at New America Media noted that said communities of color have an estimated $282 billion in purchasing power, with Asian Americans possessing about $90 billion of that.

There was also the recent commentary in the NY Times which suggested, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that one way to stimulate the economy is to let in more Asian immigrants, who would buy up all he sub-prime homes, work 14 hour days to do it, improve the national savings rate, and start up businesses that will employ American workers.

More realistically, we’ve already seen examples of Asian enclaves proliferating around the country — in both urban and increasingly suburban areas — that have resulted in these areas becoming revitalized, with new businesses, jobs, homes, and other amenities being created.

The point is, the economic contributions of Asian Americans to the American economy is undeniable.

The second way that Asian American can contribute to a new and stronger American society relates more to the cultural level. As I mentioned earlier, it is clear that the world in general and American society in particular is becoming more diverse, globalized, and transnational. With that in mind, Asian Americans occupy a very central role in this evolving process.

As the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence around the world, it has no other choice but to embrace these global trends and to build more mutually-respectful connections with countries around the world, particular in Asia. In fact, Hillary Clinton has been doing just that as Secretary of State — in February she made high-profile visits to Japan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia.

So with this mind, Asian Americans can serve as a valuable facilitators in these connections because on the individual, community, and institutional levels, we still have strong ties and networks to Asian countries. This can take many different forms — maintaining relationships with friends and family and sending remittances back there, or using our bicultural skills and resources to do business back in Asia, or bringing our educational expertise to work on issues and projects focused on environmental sustainability, social equality, or human rights.

In the case of Secretary Locke, I think he represents this new form of Asian American identity — a “real” American of Asian ancestry but whose Asian ancestry can be a significant asset and advantage in terms of making significant contributions to strengthening our country, our economy, and our society.

Many Asian Americans (and for that matter, Americans from all kinds of backgrounds) are in a similar situation and as such, also have the same opportunity to become leaders in their community and in our society in the 21st century.

For some time now, I’ve written about how, on the international stage, countries such as China and India are emerging as economic, political, and cultural superpowers in the 21st century and domestically, how American society is becoming more and more diverse and globalized as a result. So what does the future hold for the U.S. as these trends become more institutionalized?

That’s the question that CBS News asks in a very interesting article entitled “Coming Soon: A Post-American World:
With The Rise Of China And Other Economies, The ‘Golden Age’ Of American Influence May Be Coming To An End.” Some excerpts:

“We can model the economy and show that by 2035, it will be as big, if not bigger than the United States’ economy will be at that time, and by the middle of the century it will be twice the size of the U.S. economy at that time,” [China expert Albert] Keidel said. . . .

In case you missed that – within the next 50 years China’s economy will double the size of the United States’ economy. Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, said, “What’s happening right now is, the world is moving beyond America. The future is, in many ways, being shaped in distant places by foreign people.” . . .

“That’s a big shift from a world in which America was at the center economically, financially, culturally, militarily, politically, to a world in which there are more centers and many forces, from India to China to Brazil to South Africa that have to be taken into account,” Zakaria said. . . .

“This is not happening because America is failing or declining,” Zakaria said. “It’s happening because the rest are rising, and it’s happening because the natives have gotten good at capitalism.”

The article goes on to discuss what the U.S. can do to retain its economic and political superiority in the face of these momentous changes:

[Alan Wolff, former U.S. trade negotiator:] “We need to change our tax policies, change our immigration policy. We made the U.S. a magnet, an attractive place for the best and the brightest in the world, and we frustrate that by saying, ‘You get a Ph.D. here and that doesn’t matter. Right now, we’re throwing you out.’ That’s very self-destructive behavior.”

“We save too little, we consume too much, we borrow too much from the rest of the world, we use energy in a profligate and wasteful fashion,” said Zakaria.

So is the decline of the American economic empire inevitable? That’s a very complicated question and one that I will continue to explore in this blog, but for now, I would love to hear from you, my readers, on what you think the future holds for the U.S. in terms of keeping its status as the most powerful nation in the world.

Feel free to add your comments and let me know what you think.

Now that the 2008 Summer Olympics have ended, we all know that China has received plenty of criticism and accolades before and during the Olympic games. Rather than rehashing that chronology, I want to focus on the question of where does China go from here? The Christian Science Monitor offers some interesting observations:

The striking success of the Olympics – burnishing China’s prestige as the world admired its sporting prowess, organizational skills, and dramatically modern urban landscapes – could encourage profound changes in the country, say a range of Chinese and foreign analysts. . . .

One profound change that a number of China-watchers predict, in light of the international respect China has earned: that its leaders and people will trust the rest of the world more readily, and tone down an often aggrieved nationalism. . . .

For more than a hundred years, China’s leaders have set themselves the goal of recovering international respect after humiliation at the hands of Europe and the United States in the 19th century. For more than half a century the ruling Communist party has made “standing up to the world” a key plank in its platform. . . .

If China’s leaders decide that their management of the Olympics has earned the country respect, that “offers an opportunity for the Chinese state and the Chinese people to ditch the nationalist narrative of their identity based on shame and humiliation,” says Professor Shambaugh. “Hopefully they can throw all their aggrieved nationalist baggage away and move on like a normal country.”

It is certainly true that ever since the communists came to power, China has had a “chip on its shoulder+ in terms of proving to the rest of the world that they could overcome their “sick man of Asia” image and instead, use their own brand of communism to once again propel China into the rank of international superpower.

Along the way, one of the tactics used by the Chinese has been an intense and often fierce sense of nationalism — reacting defensively to any perceived slight against their country’s image or policies.

As I’ve written about before, perhaps the most recent and prominent example of this nationalism inside the U.S. was the backlash of Chinese students against “anti-Chinese” media portrayals regarding the Olympic torch relay and pro-Tibet demonstrations.

But now that many people from around the world have seen a brighter and more positive side of China, does it mean that the Chinese can let their defenses down somewhat and capitalize on their “softer” image? We’ll have to wait to see how China handles the issues and criticisms that still exist against it, such as human rights and individual freedoms, environmental conservation, and consumer product safety.

Despite their Olympics success, these criticisms will continue to come China’s way, so the ultimate test will be whether China reverts to reacting defensively and nationalistically — or whether they can build on their newfound confidence and status and react in a more gracious and balanced way.

I sincerely hope that it will be the latter — China has many positives going for it now, and it would be a shame if it squanders this newly-earned goodwill by going back to the same authoritarian ways.

One of the stated goals of the Chinese Olympic team for these summer games was to surpass the U.S. and capture the most total medals of the games. Barring that, China wanted to at least win the most gold medals. As many have described, this strategy involved focusing on relatively unknown sports that offered many medals, such as canoeing, kayaking, and shooting.

The thinking is that accomplishing this feat would supposedly elevate China above the U.S. in terms of sporting image and status. And we already know how important image is to China. So far, it looks like China’s strategy is working, since they have a sizable lead over the U.S. in gold medals with just two days remaining in the games.

But is this “gold rush” ultimately the best strategy for China? As Time magazine reports, more Chinese are now questioning this rationale and rethinking China’s obsession with the image of winning:

By midweek—even as Chinese athletes drew nearer to their golden goal—domestic media appeared to be counseling modesty. . . . The article argued that gold medals aren’t everything—but that it was OK to expect athletes to win gold so long as they aren’t unduly pressured.

The Global Times added a further cautionary note by quoting Beijing University of Physical Education professor Ren Hai: “Although China’s got a lot of medals, it cannot be counted as a sports power yet.” . . .

Another message from propaganda-meisters is that Chinese athletes aren’t automatons. The Oriental Morning Post, based in Liu’s hometown of Shanghai, compared Liu to the not-quite-invincible Greek hero Achilles and counseled Chinese fans to be more tolerant—and mindful that sports stars are human beings, too. . . .

[Says Chen Gang, Communist secretary in Beijing,] “Gold medals aren’t the most important thing for us in Chaoyang. The most important thing is how much people enjoy the Games—and I mean all people, including our many foreign visitors.” . . .

If China’s gauge of success shifts more toward the enjoyment of the people–and away from the diktat of the state—that would be a welcome new gold standard indeed.

The article focuses more on Chinese authorities wanting its citizens to treat its athletes more like human beings than disposable robots whose only purpose is to bring more medals to China. But the undercurrent here is how China’s obsession with winning the most gold medals affects its larger international image.

On the one hand, it would be easy for Americans to say to China, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” The U.S. is still the recognized “alpha dog” in terms of international athletics so our position at the top is not likely to change any time soon, even if China ends up with more gold medals, or even more total medals.

It would sort of be like for Whites (Americans, European, or otherwise) to say to Asians/Asian Americans, “Hey, don’t take things too seriously — our slanted-eye gesture was meant as a sign of affection. We didn’t mean to reinforce and perpetuate a long-standing racist gesture.”

But for a country like China that is still politically, economically, and culturally developing and still coming to grips with its newly developed status and power, it means a lot to say that they’ve surpassed the most dominant country in the world in such a public way. In the larger “sports” of international superpower games, it is just one battle to win, but image-wise, it would be significant for China.

Having said that, the reality is that there are differences in status when it comes to international athletics — a gold medal in kayaking or shooting does not carry the same cachet as one in swimming, basketball, or track. And many will privately and publicly smirk at China for their strategy of focusing on relatively obscure sports that offer many medals instead of competing with the “big dogs” in “real” sports.

Where do I stand in this debate? Again, at the risk of satisfying no one, I say, let China focus on getting the most gold medals in these games for now. For a nation on the rise, it would be a much-needed psychological boost and would be well worth the smirks that it may get from other countries.

But four years later when we all meet again in London for the next Summer Olympics, if China still wants to be considered a legitimate sports power like the U.S., it needs to “step up its game” and compete head-to-head with the U.S. in sports that have more reward in terms of status and prestige.

In other words, if China wants to proclaim that it has “arrived,” it needs to show up dressed for the part.

Much has been written and said about China hosting the Summer Olympics and much controversy has been associated with the games based on China’s record on many issues. But little has been said or written about how Chinese Americans see China and its hosting of the Olympics.

With that in mind, the New York Times reports that many Chinese Americans have mixed feelings about China and the communist government’s policies, but that almost universally, they are very proud of, and even overwhelmed, by the Chinese people, how they have put the games together, and what the Olympics mean in general for the country:

Joe Lam . . . who moved to New York 35 years ago from Hong Kong, said he watched the opening ceremony for the Olympics twice on Friday night, the second time with his daughters — ages 18 and 22 — who he said had little overt connection to Asia.

But watching the spectacle, with its blend of China’s ancient grandeur and dazzling modern technology, “was like a religious experience for them,” he said.

Mr. Lam said he was not a fan of the Communist Party, but, like many others, he noted the history that makes these Olympics resonate so deeply: 150 years of invasions and turmoil, from the Opium Wars to the Japanese invasion, civil war and the disastrous policies of Mao, which left China far behind the West.

“Our joy is not for Communists,” Mr. Lam said. “It’s for what hosting the Olympics means to the history of the Chinese people.” . . .

Several Chinese-American leaders also said they thought that the respect China gained from the Olympics would improve the status of Chinese here. Helen Zia, a human rights advocate, author and former executive editor of Ms. magazine, said she surprised herself and many friends when she agreed to carry the Olympic torch in what turned out to be a contentious leg in San Francisco.

She did so in part, she said, because she believes that engagement with the West is helping to liberalize China. But she added: “All those years of China’s humiliation carried over to America, where Chinese kids grew up being taunted and bullied on the playground. Now when we see the home country shown in a positive light, we hope Americans will understand better where Chinese-Americans come from.”

Regardless of where people stand in terms of supporting or criticizing China on various issues, I think there are very few people out there who can honestly dispute that, as one example, the opening ceremonies were one of the most lavish and spectacular displays of human art, choreography, and pageantry in recent history. The work of director Zhang Yimou and his team of 15,000 performers has to go down in the record books as simply, absolutely awesome.

But even more important, beyond the political issues that are inevitably present, China’s hosting of the Olympics does have some very real significance, although I do not see it as China’s “coming out party” as many have described it. Instead, we should remember that prior to the late 1800s, in many ways China was already a superpower and as the NBC commentators even noted during the opening ceremonies, for nine of the past ten centuries, China had the largest economy in the entire world.

It was only after Britain’s colonization in the late 1800s and Japan’s invasion in the 1930s did China acquire the unfortunate nickname of the “sick man” of Asia. But even after the turmoil associated with Mao’s policies, China has rebuilt itself and in a very short amount of time, has become the third-largest economy in the world and in many ways, the most important political, economic, and cultural player on the international stage in the 21st century.

With that in mind, as the NY Times article described, China’s (re)emergence is likely to have some effect on how Chinese Americans are perceived. I certainly hope that as Helen Zia noted, it will improve the image and acceptance of Chinese Americans into mainstream American society.

On the other hand, I can also see how it might hurt Chinese Americans if other Americans see China’s emergence as a threat (along with the effects of globalization in general) and become defensive and as a result, take their frustrations out on Chinese Americans (and by implication, all Asian Americans).

Nonetheless, regardless of what other Americans may think, Chinese Americans and all Asian Americans have a right to feel proud of what China has accomplished. Yes, there are still many issues on which China should be criticized. But everything has a time and a place.

Right now, China is showing the world just how glorious, spectacular, and powerful it can be when it focuses its efforts in a constructive way. I, for one, am very impressed.