Zhou Wenzhong, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, stood before a full-capacity crowd at Rackham Amphitheatre on Nov. 12 and, with an almost casual air about him, explained China’s plans to drastically improve the lives of its nearly 1.3 billion citizens by quadrupling per capita income by the year 2020. Zhou, speaking perfect English, went on to say that China was committed to preventing future health scares stemming from Chinese products – alluding to the recall of tens of millions of Chinese-made products from American toy manufacturers last fall. And responding to criticisms about the environmental consequences of China’s emerging industrial sector, Zhou said his country sought to build “a resource-conserving and environment-friendly society” in conjunction with its booming economy.

Phillip Kurdunowicz
(CHANEL VON HABSBURG-LOTHRINGEN/Daily)

A week after Zhou’s visit, hundreds of people streamed into a Law School auditorium across campus from Rackham to hear Wang Dan, one of the leaders in the Chinese democracy movement of the late 1980s. Wang, who had spent years in Chinese prisons and lost many friends and fellow activists in the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, embodied a spirit of Chinese patriotism starkly different from the views of Zhou. Passionately speaking in broken English, Wang criticized the policies championed by the ambassador, and assailed the Chinese government for the treatment of its people. Wang said the economic reforms proposed by the Chinese government – the ones Zhou said would increase the per capita income of the country’s citizens – were, in fact, not for the benefit of the people, but were “a license to openly steal the people’s property.” He said the success of the government’s current economic reforms “has become the best excuse for the Communist Party of China to reject freedom and democracy.”

While Zhou’s and Wang’s ideologies differed drastically, the two lectures put together made it perfectly clear: China is a divisive, tumultuous nation that garners worldwide attention for both its unparalleled economic growth rate and the stagnation or decline of human rights standards for its people. The dichotomy between positive and negative interpretations of China’s modern development makes the nation a dynamic subject for the University’s theme year series. This year’s program, titled ChinaNow and coordinated by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and the Center of Chinese Studies, offers an array of events, activities and special courses meant to enlighten students on the budding world power.

But while ChinaNow promotes a stronger link between the University and China, the question remains what China that is, and whether the University has a moral responsibility to take a public stand against human rights atrocities – which include, but are not limited to: state-sponsored censorship of media, suppression of religious freedom and repression of dissidents and protesters – occurring in a country with which it has a close relationship.

The University’s association with China, though likely stronger now than ever, extends back to the late 19th century, when then-University president James Angell served as the United States’s minister to China. Since then, the University has continued to maintain and expand its relationship with China by establishing the Center for Chinese Studies in 1961, sending a University delegation to China in 1971 and opening an official office – the University of Michigan Office in China – in the Chinese capital of Beijing in 2003. More recently, current University president Mary Sue Coleman led a University delegation to China where she helped establish the Joint Institute with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, an engineering exchange program that allows for shared degree programs and research collaboration between the universities.

What makes the University’s ties with the China of the past so different from its present relations is the global power that today’s China now wields. For one thing, the desire to foster bonds between the University and China has undoubtedly taken on more steam since the latter became an economic powerhouse. In 2006, both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund ranked China’s gross domestic product – used to measure the size of a country’s economy – at second in the world behind the United States. And last year, the IMF’s World Economic Outlook projected that China’s global economic growth would surpass that of the United States in 2008 – something no country has done since the 1930s.

Accompanying rapid economic growth, though, has been increased environmental destruction across China, as well as marked deterioration in the protection of basic human rights and fair labor practices for Chinese citizens. Last year, China surpassed the U.S. as the leading producer of carbon dioxide. And according to the Worldwatch Institute, an international environmental monitoring group, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are located in China. Many, including China Labor Watch, a New York-based labor rights group, think China’s government-controlled “union” is a farce and doesn’t aim to improve the working conditions of Chinese laborers.

But despite the questions surrounding China’s destructive environmental policy and human rights issues – all byproducts of an economic growth the likes of which the world has never seen – University President Mary Sue Coleman thinks China is much too influential of a country not to connect with.

“China is going to be a major force in the 21st century and so I think it’s very important for our students to be exposed and to understand the culture and the politics and the current issues in China,” Coleman said in an October interview. “It doesn’t mean that we endorse everything that happens there, but I’ve found that ignoring a certain part of the world isn’t going to help us understand it.”

Political Science Prof. Kenneth Lieberthal, one of the nation’s leading experts on Chinese foreign policy and political economy, said the goal of University initiatives directly engaging China, like the theme year and Chinese educational exchange programs, is to gain a deeper understanding of China’s culture, economy and global impact.

“You don’t get those understandings sitting in the Rackham library and reading,” said Lieberthal, who is a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director for Asia Affairs for the National Security Council.

What’s more, Lieberthal said, the University views the China theme year not as a one-off occurrence but rather as a catalyst for continually increasing the study of China on campus. Throughout this academic year, a University taskforce, commissioned by Coleman, has been meeting to discuss how to best apply the University’s resources to understanding China beyond this year. In addition to continuing to offer Chinese-themed courses and bringing in influential speakers, said Lieberthal, a member of the task force, the group has been studying how other universities both American and international study China on their campuses. Although Lieberthal said the group, expected to report back to Coleman at the end of the semester, hadn’t reached any definite conclusions yet, he said he hopes the group will be able to recommend ways that the University can track China’s developments and worldwide impact.

Apart from exposing its students to Chinese culture, history and language, the University has more immediate goals for expanding its relationship with China. The University plans to emphasize its China programs in 2010 when it undergoes review for re-accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, a Chicago-based independent corporation that oversees the accreditation process for degree-granting universities. On the University’s website, one of the focal points of its accreditation preparations is the “internationalization” of the University, including China-related initiatives like the theme year and President Coleman’s plan to double the amount of University students studying abroad by 2017.

Still, as the University’s relationship with China becomes more complex, China’s dismal human rights record and disregard for fair labor laws beg to be acknowledged. As recently as last semester, the University was implicated in an egregious instance of labor violations in China. A December report by the National Labor Committee cited an order for University logo souvenir medallions taken by a factory that allegedly violated Chinese labor laws by forcing employees to work seven days a week for 15.5 hours a day while paying them less than half of the region’s mandated minimum wage. Meanwhile, a report issued in November by China Labor Watch said that Chinese factories producing apparel for Adidas, the University’s new exclusive athletics apparel provider, refused employees even basic living conditions. On top of working excessive hours and receiving unconscionably low wages, the report said employees lived in “primitive” and “filthy” company dormitories with only old sheets or plastic dividing the buildings’ mold ridden interiors into private spaces.

But many at the University say these human rights issues are not unique to China and therefore not worth risking severed ties.

“Now there is the concern that (China’s) human rights are lacking, but that’s true of a lot of places that we’re friends with, and indeed it’s actually a lot worse in many other places,” said Alan Deardorff, an economics and public policy professor.

And although the rate of change for China’s economy vastly outpaces its political change, Deardorff said, that doesn’t mean political change isn’t occurring at all. With a new Chinese government in place, the plans to boost per capita income and improve air quality in preparation for the 2008 Olympics are just two examples of political reforms taking place in China.

“Very slowly, politically, they’re moving in the right direction,” Deardorff said. “And I don’t think there’s any reason to try to be removed from them.”

University professors don’t turn a blind eye to China’s pitfalls in the classroom, though.

More than ever, critical studies of past and present-day China are available on campus. Lieberthal’s undergraduate seminar, “Understanding China’s International Impact,” not only presents students with a picture of how China’s growing globalized economy reverberates throughout the world, but also shows the consequences of that growth.

In several of her courses, Political Science Asst. Prof. Mary Gallagher said she examines, among other topics, the political ramifications of China’s rapid growth in the last 30 years. Her courses, Gallagher said, “give students a sense of what certain things China’s political system doesn’t do so well, like monitor the environment or protect labor rights.”

Aside from concerns about environmental and human rights issues in China, another perspective puts into question the ethics – or at least the advisability – of the University’s growing relationship with China. With the affects of a globalizing economy felt throughout United States job fields, some people feel the University’s increased efforts to educate exchange students from China equates to American academia shooting itself in the foot.

As part of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute summer program, the University also offers graduate degrees in engineering to Chinese students in Shanghai. It is one of the first non-Chinese academic institutions to do so. But many people ask whether a University of Michigan education should be provided to people from a country that has lured jobs and companies from the United States. To Gallagher, though, the question borders on xenophobia.

“To deny Chinese students the chance to study here would be so self-defeating,” she said. “Students who spend time in the U.S., if anything, are more likely to favor the American system, simply because education is one of our biggest assets.”

Building on the success of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute program and the growing popularity of several other less-official exchange programs in the social sciences and chemistry, the University plans to expand its exchange programs with China to other disciplines like medicine, pharmacy and business.

But if the University continues to develop exchange programs, research collaborations and shared degree opportunities with Chinese institutions, it will not be able to claim complete removal from the ethical implications surrounding a country where so little attention is given to upholding human rights and labor laws.

Like China, which has sacrificed so much for the sake of economic development, the University will have to make a choice.

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