Retired University of Montana professor Harry Fritz and I recently returned after delivering a series of lectures on the U.S. political system at Nankai University in Tianjin, a city of 12 million people near the Chinese capitol of Beijing. This was my fourth trip to China.
Americans who have been there know that Chinese cities are forests of building cranes on the tops of countless high rise buildings. While one would think the construction boom that is powering China’s domestic economy will reach a saturation point, the Chinese expect their population will support it.
Projections show China’s population of 1.4 billion falling to 1.125 billion over the next 50 years. That is why the government has modified its one child mandate and now allows two children per family. According to the Chinese model, population sustains growth. Labor-intensive projects provide millions of jobs. Vast amounts of electrical power must be generated to keep China’s manufacturing and employment colossus surging forward. China is a nation of builders, both for its domestic use, and for products exported abroad.
The rapid rise of China has been likened to a rhino climbing into the canoe of world nations. It is greatly destabilizing. While China’s economy will likely overtake ours, the huge population required to sustain it also has to be sustained. Per capita income in China is improving, but it is only about $14,100 compared to more than $55,800 in the U.S. China’s push for productivity is primary. Environmental fallout from total economic emphasis is shocking. Montanans would say you could cut the air there with a knife
While working at the University of Montana in 2006, I spent several weeks at Nankai University. On this recent visit, Fritz and I lectured to the senior-level international relations class of professor Han Zhaoying. I had explained American politics and culture to that same class when I was there 10 years ago. All have had a minimum of 12 years of English. While few American college kids have any knowledge of Mandarin, no interpreter is necessary in communicating with many upper division college students in China. Though bright and motivated as ever, these students were also noticeably more reticent to express themselves than those I encountered a decade ago.
The reason is probably because the new regime of Xi Jianping is returning to a tougher and more authoritarian form of Maoism. Xi’s “fire wall” of blocking information into China from the outside world has been surprisingly effective. The Communist Party has a greater hands-on presence in Chinese society now than when I was there previously.
Students seemed clearly more uncomfortable about sharing their thoughts in class discussions. They were very aware of Chinese military expansion into the South China Sea. They accepted Xi’s construct that since China was once the world’s greatest civilization, and because of its new rise to economic greatness, China should expand its sphere of military influence to match the glory of its past. Essentially, Xi is sounding a theme that we have heard in our country. He’s going to make China great again.
A highlight of our trip was attending the annual American Independence Day Celebration sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. It was festive and patriotic. Montana’s former Senator Max Baucus, now U.S. Ambassador, spoke well and effectively as our country’s representative in China. Harry and I felt deeply grateful for our freedoms symbolized there in China by Independence Day. Baucus made us proud to be Americans and Montanans in this challenging time in world history.
former Montana secretary of state
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