Stories from China, spring 2008

Greg Saltzman’s China Diary: May – June 2008

In spring 2008, I used a sabbatical leave from Albion College and a Fulbright grant to teach in China for six weeks. I taught a labor relations course to undergraduate and graduate students in the Human Resource Management Department of the Jilin University College of Business, in Changchun (a city in northeastern China). Here are some stories from China.

 

(1) A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH A BUS IN HARBIN (Saturday, June 7)

The surging crowd almost pushed me, unintentionally, into the path of a moving bus. I was in Harbin, a city in northeastern China with a metropolitan population comparable to that of Los Angeles. I was walking on a Saturday night on a broad street that was closed to vehicular traffic. A cross street crowded with cars and buses blocked my path.

The most massive crowd of pedestrians that I have ever seen jammed the pedestrians-only street on which I was walking. The crowd extended for at least a mile and a half, filling the street and sidewalks that together were about 70 feet wide. People were out for an evening stroll, many buying trinkets like fake caveman clubs made of inflatable, beach-ball-like plastic. A few women wore garlands of real flowers on their heads. The weather was pleasant, and the atmosphere was festive. It seemed rather like being in Disney World at night, except that the souvenir peddlers sold fake devil’s horns or dog’s ears to wear on your head, rather than Mickey Mouse hats. And the pedestrians were packed together far more densely than the crowds at Disney World.

When I reached the cross street, I encountered the blare of honking horns.   Frustrated drivers crept forward in their vehicles while pedestrians swarmed in front, behind, to the left, and to the right of them. I had just cleared the path of a slow-moving but oncoming bus, reaching the center of the cross street, when a sudden crush of humanity pushed me backwards into the path of the bus.

I did not want to be rude, but I thought that I was in physical danger. I pushed hard into the crowd of people in front of me. I was able to avoid the bus, but by 12 inches at most.

 

(2) MORE ABOUT MY VISIT TO HARBIN (Saturday-Sunday, June 7-8)

The Human Resource Management Department at Jilin University (where I have been teaching on my Fulbright grant) has been very kind to me. One kindness is that they arranged for two Chinese master’s students, Kong Xin Yuan (who speaks fairly good English) and Feng Bin Shan (who is a native of Harbin), to serve as my guides and translators for my overnight visit to Harbin. Jilin University paid not only for the students’ travel expenses, but also for mine.

Bin Shan’s father greeted us at the Harbin railroad station. He said “Hello” to me in English as he extended his hand. He was the Communist Party leader at his workplace, meaning that he was second in command to the top manager. (In the past, the Communist Party leader at the workplace had been number one, and the professional manager had been number two.) Apparently because of his clout, Bin Shan’s father was able to get his workplace to provide a driver and SUV to pick us up at the train station and transport us around the Harbin area for a few hours.

At my request, our first stop was a museum on the outskirts of town: a museum about Japanese medical experiments conducted on Chinese and Korean prisoners at that site during World War II. It was a grim place. A display in the museum said that the U.S. had allowed the Japanese researchers who conducted the experiments to escape prosecution for war crimes in exchange for turning over all of their data to the U.S.

We next headed to the apartment of Bin Shan’s parents. I asked that we stop on the way at a flower shop so that I could buy some flowers as a gift. Bin Shan told me after I bought the flowers that her mother would be very pleased; her mother loved flowers, but her father rarely bought them. I don’t know if Bin Shan’s father understood English well enough to know what his daughter said to me.

Their apartment was very nice. It was about 800 square feet, with three bedrooms, one used as an office; a living room/dining room with a sofa and two very large fish tanks (for pet fish, not fish for eating); a narrow kitchen not unlike that in the apartment in the Bronx where my grandparents lived years ago; nice balconies, one of which overlooked an adjacent park; and pretty wood flooring. In the office, there was a plastic model airplane: a jet fighter with “F16” prominently adorning the tail (not what I expected in the home of a local Communist Party leader). Bin Shan’s father told me in English that this was a “typical working class” apartment, but I assume that a workplace Communist Party leader has a decidedly nicer than average apartment. Near the end of the visit, he told me in Chinese (translated by Xie Yuan) that he hoped that America and China would continue to have peaceful and friendly relations for many years. Bin Shan’s mother gave me a box of Chinese tea as a gift.

The driver then dropped off Bin Shan, Xie Yuan, and me at a downtown hotel where we were staying Saturday night. (Bin Shan would serve as a local guide for Xie Yuan and me on Saturday night and Sunday before heading back to her parents’ apartment Sunday afternoon.) I asked Bin Shan later that evening whether I was the first American whom her parents had met. She said that I probably was.

After dinner, we walked on the very crowded pedestrian street where I had the close encounter with a bus. The stores lining the street were all open. A women’s clothing store named “Venus” had manikins in the windows displaying fancy dresses. Then, Bin Shan noted that some of the manikins were live women standing very still. If you looked carefully, you could see them moving slightly.

We took a dragon boat (a small ferry decorated with a dragon at the front and rear to please the tourists) across the river to a large island. Xie Yuan asked me when we were on the boat if I could swim. I said that I could. She then said that she could not.

The island was somewhat crowded, but not nearly to the extent of the pedestrian street downtown. Bin Shan told me that the pedestrian street was packed EVERY Saturday night during the summer, if the weather was good.

When we were on the island, Xie Yuan suggested that we rent a bicycle for three. I had ridden before on bicycles for two, but never a bicycle for three. Xie Yuan and Bin Shan asked me to sit in front, which meant that I did the steering and had the only set of brakes. Keeping our balance was pretty easy when we were moving; but when the crowd became dense, we often had to come to a complete stop to avoid falling as we slowed down. We bicycled for about 40 minutes. It was the only really good aerobic workout I have had in China. (My hotel has a bleak looking exercise room in the basement, but it has only strength machines, not aerobic machines). Xie Yuan and Bin Shan were pleased when I sang them the old American song about a bicycle built for two (“Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer, do. . .”).

We came back from the island on a cable car. Xin Yuan said that this was the first time she had ever ridden on a cable car. Bin Shan said she had ridden on a cable car once before.

On Sunday morning, June 8, we spent a few hours in the former main synagogue of Harbin, which is now a museum. Harbin and Shanghai were the two Chinese cities with substantial Jewish populations in the first half of the twentieth century. I learned that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s grandfather is buried in Harbin and that his parents emigrated from Harbin in 1930, moving to what is now Israel. I suggested to the museum guide that they add a small display on my favorite professor at MIT, Evsey Domar. He was a Russian Jew who was raised mostly in Harbin, leaving in 1936 to attend undergraduate school at UCLA. He is not as famous as Ehud Olmert, but he actually lived in Harbin (as opposed to being the son of people who lived in Harbin).

I was very glad that Xie Yuan and Bin Shan accompanied me on the trip to Harbin. I have traveled extensively in foreign countries where I do not speak the language, but the situation is more challenging for me in China because I am illiterate – at least when the signs or restaurant menus are written exclusively in Chinese characters. It was also interesting to see the apartment of Bin Shan’s parents. And having companions made the trip more fun.

 

(3) COMMUNIST PARTY MEMBERS IN THE JILIN BUSINESS SCHOOL (May 22)

One thing about the human resource management department at Jilin University that makes it quite distinctive from human resource management departments at American universities is that 6 of the 12 faculty members in the department here are members of the Communist party.  Of course, the social significance of being a member of the Communist party is drastically different in China and in America.  In China, it means that you are part of the establishment—well connected to people in power.  In America, in contrast, it signifies being a radical extremist opposed the established order.

 

(4) THE GREAT FIREWALL OF CHINA (May 20 to June 9)

About a week after my first Wikipedia test of Chinese government control of Internet access (when I found that I could access the English-language Wikipedia article on the Dalai Lama from my Chinese hotel room), I found that I was NOT able to access the English-language Wikipedia article on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. I tried accessing Wikipedia’s article on Albert Einstein (a politically neutral topic) and immediately reached the article. The Wikipedia site was working fine; the problem was the Great Firewall of China.

I then tested the limits of Chinese Internet censorship: the Wikipedia article on Tiananmen Square (which briefly mentioned the 1989 protests) was accessible; but when I clicked on the hyperlink to the separate Wikipedia article focusing on the 1989 protests (essentially, trying a second time to reach the article that I could not reach before), I could not connect. I then tried to access Wikipedia’s Dalai Lama article again, and this time, I could NOT access it.  The Chinese government continues to censor the Internet, but their censorship efforts are imperfect.

On Monday, June 9, I tried to gain access through the Internet to a Chinese translation of a report published by the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center that criticizes labor conditions in China as exploitive. Success! Documents in Chinese are potentially more of a political threat to the Chinese government than are documents in English because reading English is a challenge for many Chinese. On the other hand, criticism of Chinese labor unions as providing inadequate representation of worker interests is perceived as less of a political threat to the government than is criticism of the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration.

 

(5) SECOND LANGUAGE SKILLS

The Chinese students at Jilin University are eager to improve their spoken English. They are happy to have the opportunity to have lunch or dinner with me, chatting in English. They have all studied English, but their teachers have not been native speakers of English.

I have come to realize during this visit what an extraordinary privilege it has been for my sons to have studied second languages from native speakers. All three of them had Israelis teaching them Hebrew in third through seventh grade. David had natives of France teaching him French in ninth through twelfth grade and a native of China teaching him Chinese in twelfth grade. Jonathan had a native of Japan teaching him Japanese in sixth and seventh grade and will have the same Japanese teacher next year in eighth grade. (I have no complaints about Daniel not having any native speakers teaching him Latin; native speakers have not been an option for Latin teachers for a very long time.)

When I stopped overnight in Seoul on May 18 (resting en route during my long journey from Michigan to Changchun), I briefly watched South Korean TV. They had an English language instruction program on TV, jointly hosted by a Korean and by a Korean-speaking American. The American explained that one almost never would say “staffs” with a final “s”, explaining a fine point of English to help Koreans become fluent. The U.S. Department of Education ought to be funding similar programs on American TV that enable Americans to become fluent in other languages. The South Koreans and the Chinese recognize that fluency in English is valuable to their economic competitiveness; it seems odd that Americans do not have a similar recognition that Americans need to learn foreign languages.

Admittedly, I have totally squandered the opportunity of my visit to learn some Chinese. My wife, Audrey, told me that I should hire a Jilin University student to give me 30 minutes a day of Chinese language instruction, but I did not follow Audrey’s recommendation. Learning foreign languages is a challenge for me. Although I received consistently good grades in French and Hebrew classes I took as a youth, I never felt that I had mastered either subject. I found my other academic subjects in junior high school and high school, especially science and social studies, much better suited to my natural talents. Do as I say, not as I do! I am happy that my sons (who fortunately inherited genes for second language acquisition not only from me, but also from Audrey, especially in Jonathan’s case) have had excellent educational opportunities in foreign language beginning in first grade.

 

(6) FROM TOTALITARIANISM TO GARDEN-VARIETY DICTATORSHIP

In 1974-75, when I was a student at the London School of Economics, I encountered about two dozen students from the People’s Republic of China. All wore drab blue-grey Mao suits. More strikingly, all but one spoke in a very artificial way, answering questions with what seemed to be recitations from memory of official Chinese Communist Party doctrine. (One Chinese student answered questions in a natural way, using what seemed to be his own words.) In retrospect, I believe that they were afraid of getting in trouble for saying the wrong thing, even though they were in London having a private conversation with an American student. Their fear was the result of totalitarianism in China during the Cultural Revolution.

Now, in 2008, Chinese university students and faculty members are willing to speak to me critically of the Chinese government while they and I are in China—even in a public place such as a restaurant where they might easily be overheard by a Chinese person who speaks English. This willingness to speak out is a sign of tremendous progress in China. Today, China is no longer a totalitarian state. Rather, China is a garden-variety dictatorship where ordinary people can say what they want, though television and newspapers are still tightly controlled, and public demonstrations are generally banned. (I stopped reading the English-language paper that the Chinese government publishes, China Daily, because I was disgusted by a propaganda piece alleging that President Hu personally ordered a helicopter to rescue a group of 8 people who were stranded as a result of the terrible earthquake in Sichuan. The editors don’t seem to realize that Western readers would not find credible this alleged level of micro-management by China’s President of a major national disaster.)

Most of the criticisms of the government that I have heard from Chinese students and faculty are about corruption. Corruption is a terrible problem in China.  If you want a marriage license, you have to give the government clerk a “tip” to get the paperwork processed.  Because of the traditional respect for Mandarins (high government officials who passed very demanding civil service exams), even rich business people would like to have PhD’s in business.  Rich business people therefore come to the Jilin University business school and offer a lot of money if the University will waive their normal admissions standards (not just letting them in with lower test scores, but letting them in without even taking the admissions test) and presumably awarding PhDs to them without meeting the normal standards.  The associate dean of the Jilin University business school told me that his dean refuses such offers. A Chinese student who went to Hong Kong thought that the system was the same there and offered a bribe; the Hong Kong university immediately expelled her.

Many of the faculty here seem to have traveled abroad to countries such as Japan, Britain, Italy, or New Zealand. They have been exposed to viewpoints other than the official party line.

 

(7) MORE ON THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION (May 27)

The Cultural Revolution (1967-76) drastically disrupted Chinese education, and this has had lingering bad effects. People with excellent high school preparation who would have been able to go to university in 1965 were unable to attend university during the Cultural Revolution. Not only was their own education disrupted, but they were less able to educate their own children some years later.

Nevertheless, even faculty whose own families suffered during the Cultural Revolution (e.g., job discrimination because of a false allegation that a relative supported the Kuomintang, the Nationalist party that lost the Chinese civil war in 1949) defend Mao as having been good for China or say that the Communist party needs to maintain a one-party state to keep China from descending into chaos.

 

(8) CHINESE RESTAURANTS (May 27)

Chinese restaurants in China are different from Chinese restaurants I have been to in the U.S. The restaurants in China do not serve fortune cookies. On the other hand, they might serve a whole chicken cut up, including the head and the feet. (I declined to eat either the head or the feet.)

Some Chinese restaurants have buttons you can press to summon a waiter.  Private rooms in very fancy Chinese restaurants often have TV’s.  One Chinese waiter had an electronic device like a PDA to take the order, rather than writing the order on a piece of paper.  As in my tourist visit to China in 2007, it seems customary to order more food than you plan to eat and leave some of the food on the table.

 

(9) DINNER WITH A LABOR UNION LEADER (Monday, June 9)

I had dinner and a long discussion, lasting over 4 hours, with a Chinese labor union official. He is the number 2 or number 3 leader for Jilin Province (an area with over 25 million people) of the All China Federation of Trade Unions. Yu Nan, an assistant professor at Jilin University who speaks English well, served as translator.

The union leader impressed me as being smart and well informed. He clearly accepted the Communist Party position that there is no conflict of interests between managers and employees in state-owned enterprises, so that the labor union did not need to serve as an employee advocate in state-owned enterprises. But he saw a need for the labor union to serve as an employee advocate in privately owned enterprises, especially those owned by foreign corporations.

The Chinese union leader wanted to improve labor standards in China, but he was even more eager to ensure that foreign firms continued to invest in China. He seemed concerned that some foreign firms might choose to divert their investments from China to Vietnam. He took notes on a number of my comments about labor relations in the U.S.

 

(10) AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE IN CHINA (May 27)

American popular culture has made some inroads here. The six-year-old daughter of one of the professors here likes Minnie Mouse. They have Wal-Mart and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Changchun. I didn’t go inside either. Yesterday, a faculty member took me to lunch at a restaurant that had both Chinese and American food. The front of the menu said “USDA Prime.” I explained that this referred to a grade of meat as rated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The faculty member said that she had not realized that this was an allusion either to an American government agency or to a grade of meat. There is a lot of English language on T shirts here—far more than the amount of Chinese I have seen on American T shirts.

 

(10) ONE-CHILD-PER-FAMILY POLICY (May 27)

Current Chinese college students who grew up in the one-child-per-family policy report that they feel lonely as a result of this policy and wish that they had had a sibling.

 

(12) LAST LABOR RELATIONS LECTURE (Friday, June 13)

Today, I gave my last labor relations lecture at Jilin University. At the request of Yu Guilan (the Human Resource Management Department chair), I gave a presentation on American views of labor conditions in China. I warned her that American labor unions were very critical of labor conditions in China, and she said that they wanted to hear what Americans said.

At my first labor relations lecture at Jilin University on May 21, I brought a box of gifts. I gave the Human Resource Management Department about $150 in books (mostly paperbacks) on labor relations, which I selected to give them a good sampling of the contemporary U.S. labor relations literature. I gave the undergrads, master’s students, and faculty a treasure trove of items with University of Michigan logos on them that Audrey bought the day before I left for China – spiral notebooks, pens, folders, and stickers. The faculty members were happy to get the books; foreign books are difficult for them to afford (though the Chinese government could reasonably use some of their vast trade surplus with the U.S. to finance purchases of American books by Chinese universities). Everyone was happy to get the items with University of Michigan logos.

Just in time for today’s final labor relations lecture, a FedEx package from Audrey arrived. The package contained some pencils, pens, bookmarks, and key chains with Albion College logos on them. The President of Albion College, Donna Randall, had these mailed to Audrey, and Audrey sent them by FedEx to me in China. The Jilin students were pleased to get a second batch of goodies with logos from an American institution of higher education.

 

(13) PRESENTATION ON THE PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI CONFLICT (Friday, June 20)

On my last day at Jilin University (Friday, June 20), I gave a talk on why the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is difficult to resolve. I spoke to an audience of about 30 non-Chinese students in Jilin University’s master’s or doctoral program in International Relations. Most of them are seeking careers as practitioners in international affairs, exactly the kind of audience that I would like to influence. Many of them come from political or rich families in Africa or Asia, and some are Muslim. In addition, the audience included a visiting professor from Iceland and an elderly American man who was a Christian missionary at Jilin University. My talk was probably the first time that many of the people in the audience had ever heard a pro-Israeli viewpoint.

The talk went very well. It was scheduled for 2-4 PM, but it actually ran from 2-5:30 PM. The willingness of most of the audience to stay 90 minutes past the scheduled ending time was an indicator of their intense interest in the topic. The last two hours were questions from the audience and my answers.

The audience had been given a 14-page handout that I prepared in advance of my talk.  I managed to get through about a third of my PowerPoint presentation during the first 90 minutes, but I addressed a few of the key points in the remaining two-thirds in my answers to the questions.

Some of the questions were neutral, but most were unfriendly to Israel.  Two of the people in the audience who asked the most questions, and who were unfriendly to Israel, seemed to be at least somewhat swayed by me.  One of these two (the older American man who was a Christian missionary in China) acknowledged in a question that I seemed “reasonable,” while the other told me at the end that she really enjoyed my talk and asked to have her picture taken standing next to me.

Another audience member, who initially compared the actions of the Israelis to the actions of the Nazis during the Holocaust, eventually backed down, saying that the Israelis were “fascistic” rather than like the Nazis, then backing down further and saying that the Israelis were “somewhat fascistic.”  I’m not satisfied with where he ended up, but I may have made a little bit of progress in reducing his hatred of Israel.

In early May, two other members of the Ann Arbor Jewish community and I met with a group of perhaps 10 left-wing American Christians in Ann Arbor who were part of a pro-Palestinian “peace” group.  I was steaming mad the evening after that meeting; I had difficulty getting asleep because I was outraged by some of the things the members of this “peace” group said that I believed were false.

My affective state tonight, immediately after my talk at Jilin University, is much more positive, and it is not just because I am pleased that I will see my wife and children in a few days (though that is undoubtedly part of it).  Rather, these international relations students, a number of them Muslim, generally seemed more open to reason than the Christian left “peace” group in Ann Arbor.  My guess is that the audience I had today had never heard most of the arguments I presented today, and my arguments swayed some of them.  In contrast, the members of the Christian left “peace” group in Ann Arbor had seen the New York Times repeatedly, getting exposed to much of the information that I presented, but had rejected the New York Times articles as lies because they were inconsistent with their ferocious bias against Israel.

My hope is that, several years from now, one of the people in my audience today will have some assignment in his or her country’s foreign ministry related to Israel and, because of having been exposed to my viewpoint, will be just a little more open to giving Israel a chance.

 

(14) DISCUSSIONS ABOUT POLITICS AND HISTORY

I am very interested in politics and history, and I have had many discussions about these topics with the faculty and students at Jilin University, especially during lunch or dinner. (The Human Resource Management Department has kindly arranged for me to have one or more Jilin University faculty members or students join me for lunch or dinner EVERY DAY that I have been here, including weekends.) I have repeatedly engaged in subversive, counter-revolutionary activity, exposing my Chinese companions to viewpoints and information that they had not encountered before. So far, absolutely no sign that I will be hauled off to jail.

One very intelligent Jilin University grad student told me that she was aware that Chinese had died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward from 1959 to 1962, but she was surprised to hear from me that the number of Chinese who died was 30 to 40 million people. She had not realized the extent of the disaster, and she also had not heard previously that moronic policies by the Chinese government greatly aggravated the famine.

People here seem persuaded by the Chinese government line that the Dalai Lama is evil, that he encouraged the Tibetans to use violence against Han Chinese in March 2008, and that he is currently pressing for Tibet to become an independent country. One of them seemed to have second thoughts about the government line after hearing from me that the Dalai Lama accepted in 1974 that Tibet could not gain independence from China and that he had been seeking only cultural autonomy in Tibet for the past 34 years. Another, however, continued to adhere to the government line. She told me that powerful people in Tibet used to chop off the arm of a Tibetan serf and, as part of a birthday celebration, remove the skin of a Tibetan girl who was a serf. She added that a person from Taiwan e-mailed her that Tibetans who used to be serfs have photos of Mao Zedong in their homes to show their gratitude for being liberated by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950.

A number of the Chinese were shocked that I did not think that Mao Zedong had been an excellent leader for China. My sense, though, is that the students like Mao better than the faculty do. A lot of the faculty members are old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution from 1967 to 1976, or at least to have heard accounts of the Cultural Revolution from their parents rather than from their grandparents.

Some Chinese students saw American criticism about human rights in Tibet as an effort by America to keep China from becoming a powerful nation. Generally, though, there is a friendly attitude towards Americans here.

 

(15) SKYPE VIDEOCONFERENCING SOFTWARE

An unexpected delight of my visit has been my ability to have videoconferences with Audrey, David, and Jonathan over the Internet, with them in Michigan and me in China. (Daniel is now in Israel, volunteering as an ambulance worker for Magen David Adom, and he does not have regular computer access.) Seeing video images of my wife and children has a lot more emotional impact than just hearing their voices on the telephone. We use free software called Skype. If both parties already have computers with webcams and high-speed Internet connections, the videoconference is completely free.

David will go off to college in September, and he is going a long way from home (Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia). I want to make sure that he has a webcam so that we can have videoconferences and not just phone calls.

 

(16) A GOOD EXPERIENCE AT JILIN UNIVERSITY

I have missed my family, especially when we have not coordinated out schedules sufficiently to have Skype videoconferences for a few days. Still, overall, I have had a very good experience during my stay in China. The Chinese have been very friendly, and the Human Resource Management Department at Jilin University has been quite supportive. Finally, it is nice to experience a situation where my professional field (labor relations) is perceived as a subject of growing importance, rather than something mainly of interest to 1930’s dinosaurs.

Blog of my experience as a Fulbright Senior Specialist, Jilin University School of Business, Changchun, China, Spring 2008